As we begin the New Year, I have taken some time to reflect on my past sixteen years working in one of the most demanding, and rigorous industries: the restaurant industry.
As a passionate and driven young man, I understood certain aspects of the restaurant industry were considered a rite of passage; and certain practices were not only accepted, but expected. The first time I had a plate thrown at my head, I spent the rest of the evening gritting my teeth, being the best possible cook I could be and working as close to perfection as I could come for the sole satisfaction of looking my Chef in the eyes at the end of service with an unspoken moment of "you cannot break me."
I did not choose this career for the $350.00 pretax check I received after 90 hours of work. This is an industry steeped in pride, accomplishment, camaraderie, and the adage iron sharpens iron, steel sharpens steel. The classic 'whites' of the kitchen reflect Napoleon's influence on his military cooks through Careme and Escoffier, codifying the "brigade" as it's called behind the line. Working in a kitchen is the closest thing to the military you will ever come across in the working world.
The problem which many people face when working in this industry is systematic abuse. The abused rise to positions of management and ownership and abuse the workers beneath them. But lately, the military has been forced to change. So it appears our time has come as well.
Three years ago, when I took on my first role as Executive Chef at One if by Land, Two if by Sea, I was honored and overwhelmed yet still an immature twenty-seven year old adhering to the methods I had experienced as a line cook. I thought that the way to show authority and command respect was through fear and intimidation. But the restaurant owners had a different philosophy which was drastically different from what I had seen since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. While I began my tenure as a tough, no-nonsense, no-excuses manager, the voice of my mentor, Chef Dominick Cerrone, gnawed at me: "Just remember when you raise your voice, and you're young, people look at you as an immature child. Learn to control yourself at all times."
As time passed, and I found my way, I embraced a new outlook. Being compassionate isn't the same as being weak. Sending a sick employee home and paying them for the day doesn't breed laziness. Finding people's potential and patiently teaching them engenders loyalty. Compensating people fairly for their work doesn't make a restaurant unprofitable.
Those of us that see the industry's problems are standing up for those whose voices go unheard. Just as today's restaurant industry jargon increasingly centers around organic, local, green and environmentally conscious food practices, we are also part of an exciting and emerging movement to fundamentally change the unfair and often illegal working conditions that prevail in the industry. While we fight for the rights of animals and the environment, why are we overlooking the basic human rights of respect within such a large sector of our economy?
I am excited to have joined my restaurant's owners in becoming a member of the NYC Restaurant Industry Roundtable, which is an initiative coordinated by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York. The Roundtable is a coalition of restaurants that implement "high road" employment practices, and it serves as a safe space in which we share our experiences and challenges as employers.
At the Roundtable we have agreed that abuses are no longer acceptable and it is important to create a comfortable work environment, acknowledge workers' lives outside the restaurant and provide decent wages and benefits. In return, we are able to build a loyal and talented team of employees who provide a better customer experience while reducing our turnover rates. Having healthy, happy and loyal employees helps us run a better and more successful restaurant.
All of the employees that make up this restaurant family put in long hours, and work hard out of a sense of pride they feel in their work. They make mistakes -- as we all do -- but the way of the iron fist has passed. This massive machine of the food service industry depends on every single one of its moving parts. We need to support all of our workers through patience and understanding, equality, and fair pay.
As restaurant chefs, managers, and owners, we have a responsibility to change the culture that breeds abuse. As we enter the New Year, let's do the right thing. Join me in committing to changing this industry. Together, we can make it a safe, respectful, and welcoming place for all.
Colt Taylor is the Executive Chef at One if by Land, Two if by Sea in the West Village. You can follow him on Twitter @ChefColtTaylor.