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How do we make our kitchens kinder?

Restaurant kitchens are harsh, brutal spaces. While the pandemic has put even more pressure on employees, could it also be an opportunity to reset the culture and create kinder kitchens? 

In India, no one has surveyed how restaurant and hotel workers fare in terms of mental and physical health. (iStockphoto)

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"I found that there was no place to sit down, even for a few minutes,” says Sadaf Hussain, a consulting chef and 2016 MasterChef India participant, who has given a vivid account of his journey from a home cook to a reality show contestant to a professional food consultant, on Fiftytwo.in. We are talking to him on the phone about conditions in the food and beverage (F&B) industry, and Hussain tells Lounge about his first impression of a professional kitchen—he was startled to find that chefs and line cooks are literally made to stay on their feet for hours by the simple expedient of not having anything to sit on: no chairs, no stools, no benches.

“When someone really needs to sit for a few moments, they perch themselves on food crates and boxes. Or, at best, the back door of the establishment will have a few steps leading to it, and that is where the kitchen staff will take their mini breaks. If you walk around to the back of a restaurant, you will see them hanging out, taking a break, maybe having a quick smoke,” says Hussain.

It may seem like a small thing—after all, haven’t we all heard the saying, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”?—but if you stop to think about it, the lack of something as basic as a place to take a break is indicative of the kind of conditions that prevail behind the “Entry For Staff Only” signs in restaurants. Almost two years into the pandemic, starting with the nationwide lockdown in March 2020, conditions in the industry have never been worse, posing huge challenges for owners, restaurateurs and staff. It seems to have precipitated a mental health crisis and fuelled a sharp increase in substance abuse and addiction. These are matters that are rarely spoken about openly in India but while working on this article, we heard stories of mounting depression, breakdowns, addictions, and a heightened sense of despair from people in the industry.

Food is often portrayed as inspiring, glamorous and entertaining. Netflix’s Chef’s Table paints it as the ultimate art. The MasterChef series portrays it as competitive sport. Hell’s Kitchen—with a self-explanatory name—presents how chefs excel despite Gordon Ramsay breathing down their necks. The reality is much less glamorous. The hospitality industry is one of the toughest, most brutal workplaces imaginable—and yet, even in the West, conversations around the mental health and well-being of employees in this sector are only just picking up.

In India, no one has surveyed how restaurant and hotel workers fare in terms of mental and physical health; there don’t seem to be any reports or industry guidelines—in many cases, except when it comes to the big hotel chains and high-profile F&B brands, employees don’t even have written job contracts, leave policies or access to Human Resources teams. Not surprisingly then, when you speak to those in the hospitality industry, the picture that builds up is of an exploitative, hierarchical and unorganised industry. Only a few of the more corporatised companies and groups are attempting to make the industry more professional.

Certainly, the pandemic has taken a terrible toll on the industry, exacerbating problems that already existed—from low wages and long work hours to harsh conditions and sexism. In a report released in October, the National Restaurant Association of India (Nrai) stated that the Indian food services industry had contracted severely in the financial year 2020-21, leading to the permanent closure of over 25% of food business operators and leaving nearly 2.4 million people without a job. The industry, which employs 7.3 million people, is one of the largest employment generators, it stated.

In the West too, says chef Ritu Dalmia, who has restaurants in Italy, one-third of hospitality workers have changed jobs in the last two years. Last July, The Burnt Chef Project, a UK-based non-profit, conducted a survey among 2,311 hospitality professionals and found almost 40% had faced mental health issues in the previous 12 months, with one in six revealing that the phase had not “been good”. There may not be a similar organisation in India but the mental health costs of the pandemic are unlikely to be different. The uncertainty about the future isn’t helping, though some restaurateurs are trying to offer support to their teams.

Will things change for the better?

Chef Ritu Dalmia (Photo: Priyanka Parashar)
Chef Ritu Dalmia (Photo: Priyanka Parashar)

Toxic culture

Picture this: The high-pressure kitchen produces a light-as-air lemon soufflé. It’s served to the diner. They eat a spoonful and wince, it is too sweet for their liking. The guest signals the server to come to the table, screams at him and threatens to leave a poor review on Zomato—a threat that is always hanging over the heads of restaurant managers and owners. They can’t explain, let alone talk back—the only acceptable response is to say “sorry” and keep saying it till the irate guest backs off.

Within, in the staff-only areas, it’s no better. “The kitchen culture is designed by default to be abusive to some degree, and that stems from the immense pressure on leadership and every rung of the hierarchy to deliver and excel,” says chef Thomas Zacharias, former executive chef at The Bombay Canteen. “There is an intense energy in the kitchen. It is a hot space and combined with work pressure, tempers rise, fights occur, chefs shout—orders and abuses—which puts people on the edge. It’s a vicious cycle, of being trained in abusive kitchens and carrying forward this culture,” says Zacharias. “One tends to feel it’s the only way to run a kitchen. Unless a chef actively breaks this loop, it’s not going to change.”

“This is a really, really sad reality,” Prateek Sadhu, co-founder of Mumbai’s Masque restaurant, tells us. “Therapy will not fix the mental health crisis in bars & restaurants,” he had posted on his Instagram stories recently. He was echoing the sentiments shared on 11 January by the US-based organisational consultant Laura Louise Green on her Instagram page @Healthy.Pour, making the point that while therapy is helpful, “if the workplace and industry culture is consistently harming and re-traumatising its members, therapy will only do so much. There has to be systemic change: it’s like taking a shower only to jump in the mud pit again and again”.

“In India, sadly, service means servitude,” says Yash Bhanage, co-founder of Hunger Inc., the parent company of The Bombay Canteen. He experienced it first-hand when he was waiting tables fresh out of college, 14 years ago. At a hotel of repute, he served a bowl of French fries. There was one overcooked brown fry atop the pile. The guest pointed it out. Bhanage apologised and offered to replace the order. But the guest stood up and told him, “What if I slap you hard right now?” Although the incident didn’t shatter his dream of becoming a restaurateur, he hasn’t forgotten it.

Misbehaviour isn’t limited to guests; managers can as bad. “In our industry there is this thing that you have to learn the hard way,” Bhanage says. The reporting manager would say they toiled for 16 hours a day when they started out, so everyone else should do the same. “It wasn’t a culture that encouraged growth and ownership. And then you have a manager who’s always berating you as the youngest team member,” he says, adding that within a year, 50% of his peers left the hospitality industry for good.

Yash Bhanage (left) and Sameer Seth, Hunger Inc. 
Yash Bhanage (left) and Sameer Seth, Hunger Inc. 

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The missing conversation

Yet, in the world of social media—filled with warm ramen bowls, glistening roast chicken and cocktails flecked with flowers—there is scarcely any post on mental health. It reflects a larger industry culture of staying silent, and more so in India, where such topics are stigmatised.

In July, Depression, Addiction, And The Restaurant Industry, a story on the US website McLeanHospital.org, noted: “For staff in these industries, it’s the nature of the job to look after everyone else and put themselves last. And, for many, the intensity of the roles can lead to burnout, which can make it feel like addressing their mental health is ‘too little, too late’.”

Mumbai-based psychologist Samriti Makkar Midha, who offers therapy in workplaces, summarises some of the stressors: work hours extending to 14-16 hours daily, difficulty in maintaining a routine, inability to take holidays to recuperate or spend time with family even during festivals, a busy time for the industry. For servers, the abuse includes the exhaustion of standing for hours “with a smile on their faces”, mistreatment by guests and management, high pressure, sexism and sexual harassment.

“The demands of each department are different: the women who work in restaurants could have to deal with guests or staff ogling at them, chefs might be under pressure to meet orders, servers could be dealing with an unruly guest while trying to remain calm, and so on,” Midha explains.

Salaries are another source of worry. Long hours don’t lead to higher pay. A newcomer’s salary after graduating from a prestigious culinary college is about 12,000 per month. At a stand-alone premium dining restaurant in India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, a senior chef can earn anywhere from 45,000-50,000 per month; a restaurant manager would earn nearly as much. Most establishments have their own policy of distributing service charge earnings among staff; in most cases, 30% is retained by the management and the rest is distributed among all the employees.

No helping hand

For restaurants, survival is possible if they manage 60-70% occupancy and make a profit of at least 5-10% on sales. In a state like Maharashtra, the current mandate of 50% occupancy, combined with a night curfew, is chipping away at revenue.

On 31 January, Pankil Shah, co-founder and director of Mumbai-based Neighbourhood Hospitality Pvt. Ltd and owner of the popular Woodside Inn bar, shared an Instagram post on his page (@Pankil81) lamenting the 15% rise in annual excise fees for bars. The fees have been revised from 6.93 lakh to 7.97 lakh. This comes at a time when restaurateurs have been seeking waivers to ride out the losses incurred during waves of covid-19.

Last month, the Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India sought at least a year’s waiver for charges like property tax, excise licence fee and electricity from Maharashtra’s chief minister, Uddhav Thackeray. Shah’s post read, “Forget about waiving fees, they have increased it by 15%.” Income from takeaway and delivery comprises “10-15% of overall sales”, he notes. The post is accompanied by the hashtag #SaveOurServices.

In such a scenario, where owners are under pressure, their priority is to stay afloat. Benefits for employees, or care for their mental and physical health, generally take a back seat. The informal nature of the industry means it’s easy to hire and fire. Midha has clients whose salaries were halved during the lockdown and who had to find ways to meet expenses like EMIs, children’s school fees and house rent. “If you lose a job, it’s not like you can get a job in another restaurant because the entire industry was impacted,” she says.

Sexism and violence

Financial insecurity can lead to a dependence on alcohol and substances that can, in turn, lead to domestic violence. Job loss, says Midha, tends to be seen as a sign of failure in a man; the attempt to re-establish authority in a patriarchal society can lead to abuse. The United Nations, in fact, described the rise in domestic violence around the world as the “Shadow Pandemic”.

The male-dominated industry has always presented its own challenges for women who work in it. Most have learnt to deal with the sexism and the fact that unlike the men, they have to prove themselves. Chef Ritu Dalmia even had to deal with one incident of a staff member refusing to listen to her because of her gender. The person was laid off. Chef Niyati Rao, co-founder and chef at the ingredient-forward restaurant Ekaa in Mumbai, had to learn to deal with the aggressive environment in the kitchen. The 26-year-old shares: “The work in the kitchen is very fast-paced. You have to learn to jump, crouch, and develop a thick skin. I had to prove that I am not a man or a woman, I am a chef. I am the bloody pilot of the kitchen.” Chef Freny Fernandes, founder of the Mumbai-based Monèr bistro, spent weeks training her team to call her chef instead of ma’am.

Their message to the next generation of women is simple—toughen up.

 

Chef Niyati Rao (Photo: Sushant Nimbare)
Chef Niyati Rao (Photo: Sushant Nimbare)

A reset opportunity

Erratic routines, long hours and physical exhaustion will remain part of the business. But some restaurateurs are trying to offer support.

Midha has been part of sensitisation sessions with hospitality professionals on mental health, assertiveness and boundary setting. Some restaurateurs have empowered the staff to refuse service to unruly guests. Dalmia says the guest is not always right— anyone who misbehaves is shown the door. “You have to give dignity to your team,” says the 49-year-old chef. It is a sentiment echoed by Bhanage, who has introduced health insurance and provided a list of therapist numbers to his team.

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However, Dalmia sounds dejected. The pandemic has battered the restaurant industry. “In my entire life, I have gone through lots of ups and downs, but this has really taken a toll,” she shares. It has been two years of not knowing when things will get better. Restaurateurs continue to lament that there has been no support from the government. “This uncertainty,” Dalmia says, ‘‘is way too much for any normal person to handle.” She used the phrase “hitting rock bottom” thrice in the course of the interview. The chef continues to motivate her staff—and herself—by saying this will pass. “But sometimes you are also fooling yourself, aren’t you?”

Given her own experience, she brought in a therapist for monthly visits to chat with employees. “I have no shame in admitting that I sought therapy too. And I introduced the monthly sessions with the therapist because I had gone through it myself,” she says. Another team-building measure they tried was role-play amongst employees to foster respect and understanding between teams like utility staff, chefs and servers. The waiters were asked to be chefs, the utility workers were the guests and the chefs were servers.

A year and a half ago, Hunger Inc. sought the help of the Birla Group’s MPowerMinds, an organisation that provides resources, guidance and psychological intervention. It has a free helpline to connect to a therapist that was shared with the employees of Hunger Inc. “We made sure that our team understood what that meant, and encouraged people to speak to someone,” says Bhanage. When new employees are brought on board, the orientation process encourages them to speak to a favourite co-worker, friendly colleague or mentor about issues that bother them. The managers have been trained to handle these situations. The leadership team keeps an eye out for team members who may be putting pressure on already stressed employees. Bhanage notes, “We can’t alter work stress but we can create a healthy work environment.”

Apart from workshops with clinical psychologists, restaurateurs can also seek help from the department of applied psychology at the University of Mumbai. Research scholar Shrinkhla Pandey, who specialises in industrial and organisational psychology, says they have organisational psychologists who can assess the overall mental well-being of employees, identify stressors and offer aids.

A.D. Singh, managing director of Olive Hospitality, has personal experience of dealing with the anxiety attacks of a high-performing team member. “The first time it happened, we were about to board a flight and he couldn’t because he was unable to breathe. We sought immediate medical help. He had to be assured that his performance would not be affected if he took leave for his emotional well-being.” He outlines a step-by-step process for the future: recognising mental health issues as a valid medical concern, followed by creating a comprehensive programme for support that involves training and sensitisation of the leadership team and staff. “If you put processes in place to tackle mental health issues, the benefits in productivity can be huge.”

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