Imagine going to work every day feeling safe and valued, operating from a kitchen where management champions employees and their contributions. For a long time this kind of workplace wasn’t the norm, but the exception. A lot has changed and a lot will change, thanks to leadership from chefs everywhere who are committed to a legacy of respect.
Earlier this year, OpenTable launched the Open Kitchen campaign, teaming up with chefs and restaurateurs to foster an inclusive culture in the front and back of the house. In that short time, the culinary community has responded with enthusiasm and support. The campaign encourages chefs to lead by example and display their commitment to gender equality in restaurants with a badge on their OpenTable profile page. Many have gone much further and are stepping forward to share more about what they plan to do to make sure things continue in the right direction. Here’s what they had to say.
Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson have always practiced this kind of culinary revolution. They have three food trucks and two restaurants, one fast casual in Minneapolis and the finer dining Chef Shack Bay City restaurant in Wisconsin, a charming country French property that sits above the water on the Mississippi River. For Summer and Carlson, offering a safe kitchen isn’t just a good habit. They say it’s their legacy.
“When we heard about OpenTable’s campaign, we thought it was really big because they have an international presence and we feel it is really monumental they took that stance, so we wrote them to say we are the change up here and would love to be part of this campaign,” says Summer. “There is a very different culture in our brand in regards to inclusivity and it’s diverse in several ways.”
Summer and Carlson also advocate for change in the front and back of the house, saying discrimination can occur in both places. As women in the industry, they feel a standard for quality across the board for kitchens will attract different kinds of staff and result in equitable opportunities to excel for all employees. To have that balance, they emphasize receiving input from their staff in a collaborative way.
“We subscribe to Danny Meyer’s approach to the restaurant industry where he speaks about putting the employees first and creating a harmonious environment, so we see our employees as brand ambassadors,” says Summer. “We created our life and business to reflect that so we also love creating those opportunities for great people – there is a lot of joy there.”
Summer says communication is the cornerstone and as a leader, she tries to devote a lot of time getting to know employees and checking in with them. Most importantly, she and Carlson try to uncover any obstacles before they become insurmountable. “You have to tune in – because cooking is the easy part. In managing the team, we participate in team building and outings where we take everyone down to the country for kayaking or go on farm tours to check out the hog farmer and check in on the geese with the guys who raise those for us,” says Summer.
There is a degree of difficulty in talking about what is and is not insulting, what crosses the line from a joke to harassment. Summer and Carlson have identified a way to make those lines clear with their staff. “If you are not sure of anything you have said or are going to say, consider if it would it be appropriate to say to your sister or mother. If it’s something that would offend them, it is not appropriate for the kitchen,” says Summer. “Operate from respect. We don’t really subscribe to talking about sex while working, so keep the conversation professional, and if you’re not sure, it’s probably not appropriate.”
Carlson and Summer also have set policies at Chef Shack including an employee handbook they developed years ago in which they have included broad language outlining barriers. Following such rules are not restrictive but, rather, emancipating for all staff members, providing the assurance that working in a disrespectful kitchen is one less thing to worry about.
Summer and Carlson have another mission: to help young women find their voice in any workplace and draw the line when they feel uncomfortable. It is their intention to help the whole community with this problem, not just the food business. “One of the things we tell young women is to say something right away so it doesn’t go on and on, fester, and get worse – it’s okay to tell someone in front of you, male or female, ‘Stop. You are out of line,’ or to change the subject,” says Summer, who sits on the board for Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. “Not only does this require men to change but women, too, need to change and it starts with all of us.”
In Washington, D.C. at Espita Mezcaleria, all of the owners, chefs, and staff have strong opinions about the OpenTable Open Kitchen campaign, including executive chef Robert Aikens. “I have been a chef for more than thirty years, working in many restaurants over this time, and I have seen all sorts of practices in running a kitchen from extremely negative and to kitchens I really loved where we all felt truly valued as part of a team,” he says. “Camaraderie in a kitchen is unstoppable and no kitchen can work divided.”
Aikens does not tolerate poor morale, behavior or work ethic in his kitchen, remembering his days as a young chef when hostile kitchens were the norm. “Our business is not an easy one, being away from family and loved ones, working five to six days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day. I think it’s very important that the team sees the head chef working hard,” says Aikens, who says you can’t be afraid to let someone go for being inappropriate. “Any kind of hostile kitchen is counter-productive. I have had to let a dishwasher go when I found out that he was being overly forward and suggestive.”
Aikens says being in a secure workplace means more focus on the task at hand and feeling energized to learn what’s next around the corner rather than fear it.
“I’ve seen so much in my years as a chef and am so glad things have changed– even more so with some of the big restaurateurs being brought to light for harassing their employees,” says Aikens. “This business is stressful enough without staff members having to endure superiors abusing their power and position.”
Espita manager and co-owner Kelly Phillips lists accountability as a top priority in preventing negative work environments and create a culture that encourages people to speak up and trust that management will listen and act. “I have experienced harassment in the workplace and I went from being a victim in previous workplaces to taking on the role of an advocate pretty quickly,” she says. “We’re vocal on the topic of harassment and discrimination, and we talk about respect and how to treat each other.”
Phillips also addresses something that is rarely mentioned, but all too common: an abusive guest. “Guests can be inappropriate, and we have a policy on how to identify when someone has crossed a line,” says Phillips. “We have asked guests to leave before because they made a server or host upset, and, if this happens, staff members know to seek a manager immediately so when we see a situation that is tense, we step in and take over.”
The feedback and impact their stance on operating a safe kitchen has been very positive. Phillips has an employee who he saw take action on an issue and then confided in her about another incident on which she had remained silent previously. “It takes time to establish trust because many of our employees have worked in places where harassment was tolerated before coming to Espita. A lot of it is actively listening and inquiring when we suspect something is wrong, and the consistent message that it will not be tolerated,” says Phillips. “When we put up the Open Kitchen sign, I saw everyone stop to read it and I saw a lot of happy faces, so it encourages people to feel good about working here, to know they are supported and can feel safe here, and for everyone to be open to each other.”
While Phillips understands she can’t control what happens outside of the doors of Espita, she can provide them with a safe place to work. “There’s a lot of work to be done to repair the restaurant industry, so it is an uphill battle. But I am glad that we are fighting to be the kind of place that helps change that,” she says.
Ready to commit to an Open Kitchen? Lead by example by displaying your commitment to gender equality in your restaurant with a badge on your OpenTable profile page or posting a mission statement about your ethical work culture.
Photo credit: Isabel Subtil Photography (Chef Shack).