French chefs rise up against kitchen violence

French chefs rise up against kitchen violence
French chefs rise up against kitchen beatings. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP
Beat eggs, not your apprentice! This is the message from a group of top French chefs who have called for fellow cooks to rise up against violence and hazing in their kitchens.

Kicked, burned, hit with utensils and sexually harassed: the plight of apprentices in some of France's most gilded restaurants came under the spotlight on Monday at a conference organised by online restaurant guide and gastronomy news site Atabula.

Gerard Cagna, a retired two-Michelin-starred chef, also recently called for an end to "trivialisation of hazing-like violence" in a manifesto signed by five chefs awarded the prestigious title of "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" which celebrates outstanding craftsmen in the country.

"Today, the profession needs a real ethical code on the matter," he told AFP.

The caricature of the angry chef has been made famous by reality television shows, such as Hell's Kitchen with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, which have been remade in France.

But France's feted kitchens were urged in April by the Atabula site to "break the silence" over bullying which sometimes turns violent.

The call came after an apprentice at three-star Paris restaurant Pre Catalan was burned on the arm with a white-hot spoon by a member of the kitchen staff.

The person responsible was removed from the kitchen, the restaurant's press service confirmed.

However, Atabula editor-in-chief Franck Pinay-Rabaroust wrote on the website that charges were never pressed, citing a "veil of silence, fear of being black-listed and a lack of evidence."

"I received between 100 and 200 emails thanking me for raising the problem," he told AFP.

A 'very masculine' place

Pinay-Rabaroust pinned the violence on the kitchen being a "very young, very masculine" place.

"There is a fight to rise through the ranks, the top chefs are increasingly absent from their kitchens and so the seconds-in-command must make a place for themselves and show who is the strongest. There is testosterone involved," he said.

Many of the star chefs at the conference said that kitchen violence was a lot worse in the past, and Pinay-Rabaroust said changes such as a turn towards open kitchens were making it harder to hide such acts.

"We have all witnessed a dish rejected by the chef flying across the kitchen, massive screaming matches, but I have never seen fighting in the kitchen," said chef Thierry Marx, a specialist in molecular gastronomy.

Marx explains that chefs are "getting younger and younger and often don't have any managerial experience."

They also face greater pressure due to a surge in online reviewing of restaurants.

If you can't take the heat…

While incidents like the burning were roundly rejected, there remains a certain amount of tolerance for tough treatment which some chefs admit gives them the thick skin required for a gruelling job.

"I am 45 years old, I started at 15. Yes, I have received a few kicks in the ass, yes I have taken a rack of lamb to the head," said chef Christian Etchebest, often seen on French television.

"It was for my own good. We have a very tough job, you need mental strength."

Remi, a 24-year-old cook well-acquainted with bullying during his apprenticeship, also said his treatment helped toughen him up.

"The violence is more moral than physical," he said.

"I had been working for a month, I was making gazpacho but I didn't season it. The chef tasted it and poured it all over me in front of everyone," he told AFP.

In another incident, a higher-ranked member of the kitchen handed him a plate without warning him it was hot, or hit him on the shoulder while he was chopping vegetables.

"I would sometimes go home in tears," he said, adding that "without that, I wouldn't have learned as well."

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