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‘The Bear’ is not trending here

A young generation of chefs is crafting a new work ethos in the spaces they manage, based on empathy and communication

(left) Chef Anushka Malkani; and Vedant Shah.
(left) Chef Anushka Malkani; and Vedant Shah.

Earlier this week, American comedy-drama The Bear won big at the 81st Golden Globe Awards, clinching the Best Television Comedy, with lead stars Jeremy Allen White and Ayo Edebiri also winning in the acting categories. Created by Christopher Storer, the television series highlighted the “yes chef” culture. While dramatised, it depicts the often chaotic, high intensity, and relentless atmosphere in a restaurant, made worse by poor and inflexible work hours, low pay structures and questionable work-life balance. But as wining and dining makes way for “Girl Dinner” (a TikTok trend of eating snack boards) and nitro coffee swaps out the cold brew, the culture in restaurants, too, is shifting: slowly, subliminally, but surely. This is being brought about by a younger crop of hospitality professionals, keen on setting a new standard.

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At this point, it’s important to ask: what renders the work environment at F&B establishments so?

Chef Thomas Zacharias, founder of the multi-format culinary outfit, The Locavore who has worked with The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai and pan-India restaurant-chain Olive Group, says that the problematic aspects of the hospitality industry can range from gruelling work hours to a “sense of servitude” in the chain of command.

“Calling in sick is seen as a sign of weakness. There’s poor pay. In a lot of the restaurants, the service charge, for example, which is supposed to go entirely to staff, is not shared with them. There’s a rigid hierarchy—so, in the kitchen, even a Commis 3, which is the lowest rank in the permanent hires, will still exert a certain degree of authority over a trainee. The same is true in the bar and in the front-of-house, as well,” says Zacharias.

Vedant Shah, 27, owner of Plural Restaurant in Mumbai, echoes this when he says, “There used to be this machismo around ungodly and unearthly hours in hospitality,” he opines, explaining how practices have been carried on, almost as if by default. He gives the example of staffers being made to stay till 2am, simply because they started at 5pm, even when the restaurant has emptied out by 11pm. “That entire mindset is shifting—people now understand that without a happy workforce, the restaurant is going to suffer, guests are going to suffer, and there’s going to be a lot of attrition,” says Shah, who started his all-vegetarian, South-East Asian diner three years ago.

Shah is part of a growing community of hospitality professionals who seem keen on creating a new ethos, built on the tenets of inclusivity, work-life balance, empathy, equal opportunity and open channels of communication.

Zacharias says he is starting to notice resistance to the culture of conflating productivity with time spent at the restaurant from young hoteliers and cooks who know that they have multiple options and are quicker to quit. “I know chef friends who have had hires saying that they didn’t want to continue working at their previous jobs because of the culture,” he says.

Communication has been an integral tool at the ingredient-focused bakery, Masa, in Mumbai, owned and helmed by pastry chef Anushka Malkani, 28.

“The older generation felt that there’s no need for work-life balance. Toxic work culture is very prominent in the kitchen, so I speak to my employees regularly regarding the work environment,” she says. Another example is menstrual leave, which a lot of people don’t agree with. “It can be painful when you are standing, working in the kitchen for 12, 13, or 14 hours. So, I give my female employees one menstrual leave per month, which is over and above their weekly leave,” she adds.

A similar practice of communication is prevalent at the Pune-based Japanese eatery, Gingko. Its co-founder, Siddhi Gokhale, 26, conducts monthly catch-ups with her employees, designed to address grievances at the workplace, but also to talk about their personal goals.

Chef Siddhi Gokhale
Chef Siddhi Gokhale

“It’s more of a talk session, really, where they can come to me and my partner (chef Brehadeesh Kumar) and talk about anything—whether they want to do a master’s, or if they are thinking of moving jobs. It’s an open space, where they won’t be judged. A lot of them are young graduates, looking for someone to guide them,” she says.

This is a welcome departure—there’s no denying that F&B is a highly competitive trade, which makes poaching a known grievance among managers and owners. Having said that, it’s also entirely natural for an individual to seek new opportunities, and to that end, open discussions could go a long way.

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In general, too, openness and flexibility seem to be the need of the hour, be it in terms of work hours, chain of command or hiring.

Rishan Keer, 26, a third-generation restaurateur and founder of Nikkei restaurant, Tango Tamari, Mumbai, says, “Our work culture is flexible and collaborative. We love bouncing ideas off each other, regardless of job titles. When it comes to hiring, it’s not just about culinary chops anymore. We look for a mix of skills and adaptability. Sure, experience matters, but so does creativity. It’s a bit of a departure from the more traditional focus on years in the kitchen.”

A shift in approach in hiring also brings up the question of inclusivity. And this seems crucial for the new generation, especially as employees.

“It’s not just about women. It’s about being open to everyone, be it somebody with a different sexual orientation or different views, or younger professionals. It’s about building a culture that makes everybody feel at home. And that’s a change I would definitely want to see in the community,” says Apoorva Kohli, 21, winner of the prestigious 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship and a mixologist with famed Delhi bar Sidecar, summing up the new perspectives of a generation of F&B warriors on the precipice of what hopefully is a new dawn.

What matters to GenZ chefs
• Sustainability: “When I did my packaging, I curated the experience—where is the paper from? Is it food safe and biodegradable? These things should matter,” says Malkani.

• Digital-first: “GenZ is all about digital platforms. Whether it’s for marketing or just keeping the buzz alive, being tech-savvy is part of the game now,” says Keer.

• A growth mindset: “I want to see more successful and long-lasting restaurants that stay open through the years, and not just for six months,” says Gokhale

Suman Mahfuz Quazi is a food writer and the creator of The Soundboard, a community dedicated to gourmands in India.

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