Kitchen Confidential: From George Orwell to Saru Jayaraman

09/25/2017 03:12 pm ET

Kitchen Confidential: From George Orwell to Saru Jayaraman

By Jonah Raskin

George Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, probably would not know what to make of Saru Jayaraman, the daughter of Indian immigrants who proudly embraces her American identity even as she aims to organize some of its most exploited workers. In his first book, Down and Out in London and Paris (1933), Orwell, the curmudgeon and the cynic, argued that while restaurant workers were abused and exploited, they just could not be organized into a union. He reached his conclusions based on his own horrendous experience.

A dishwasher in Paris, France, Orwell thought of restaurants as vile, unsanitary places that practiced a form of modern slavery that divided cooks from dishwashers and from waiters and kept them at odds with one another. He didn’t like restaurant owners any more than he liked restaurant workers. The owners, he insisted, were out to fleece their customers, though he reserved his harshest remarks for the tribe of waiters.

“Never be sorry for a waiter,” he argued in Down and Out, which might be called the first “kitchen confidential.” Orwell added, “waiters are seldom Socialists and have no effective trade union.”

Jayaraman would surely object to Orwell’s remarks. Indeed, no one empathizes with restaurant workers more than she, and no one thinks that they’re more in need of organizing—and eminently organizable, too. While she doesn’t identify herself as a Socialist she’s certainly critical of the restaurant industry and would like nothing better than to overturn the way that it operates. Unlike Orwell, who was profoundly pessimistic, Jayaraman is an eternal optimist who has found allies even among famous restaurant owners in the foodie capitals of the U.S.

New York Times writer extraordinaire, Mark Bittman, calls her “one busy woman.” Indeed, she has irons in kitchens from California to New York, and while “Saru Jayaraman” isn’t a household name now, at the rate she’s going it might soon be. A legend among workers who belong to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, she’s also a force to be reckoned with at the University of California at Berkeley where she runs the Labor Research Center. Founded in 2012 the Center, which she founded, is a kind of radical think tank that explores the nexus between food—both fast and slow—and the vast pool of labor at the bottom of “the restaurant industrial complex.” That’s the phrase that Jayaraman herself used for the title of an essay that appeared online in 2013. That same year she published her first book, Behind the Kitchen Door, another “kitchen confidential,” that offers an exposé of the restaurant industry and that became a bestseller and rocked the foodie universe.

Her big breakthrough came in 2001 when she co-founded ROC in New York with Fekkak Mamdouh, a Moroccan immigrant with big dreams and a big heart who worked, until 9/11, at Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the World Trade Center. Orwell would definitely recognize him. He worked alongside immigrants like him in Paris. Mamdouh lost his job, as did 250 other workers at Windows on the World. An additional 13,000 other restaurant workers in New York lost their jobs as a result of 9/11. Naturally, they wanted new jobs. Jayaraman came to their rescue, though she persuaded them to help rescue themselves.

Today, ROC, which is part labor union and part consumer advocacy group, has ten centers, from Los Angeles to Chicago and Philadelphia, and a total of 30,300 members nationally. Orwell would be amazed. He might even join ROC. Jayaraman has done much of the heavy lifting herself, though she’s modest about her own efforts and sees herself as a figurehead who mainly inspires others. Not surprisingly, workers have also inspired her. She tells dozens of their inspirational stories in Behind the Kitchen Door.

Restaurant employees make up the overwhelming majority—25,000— of ROC’s membership. Eaters and foodies total another 5,000. Only 300 restaurant owners belong to ROC. There are notable exceptions, such as Alice Waters at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, though on the whole, Jayaraman insists, restaurateurs are not eager to improve the lot of their employees. Still, she points out that even some fast food restaurants, like In-N-Out Burger and Chipotle, are improving working conditions in kitchens. The big chains, however, are not Jayaraman’s biggest opponents.

“The real challenge is from the National Restaurant Association which we call ‘the other NRA,’” she told me one morning at Hudson Bay Café on College Avenue in Oakland, California where she lives. She added, “The NRA wants to keep wages low. They’ve tried to shut down ROC and they’ve attacked me personally.”

Along with her husband, Zachary Norris, the Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Jayaraman has launched a campaign to “Restore Oakland” which is more modest, but also more doable than the Oakland Black Panther Party’s goal, in the 1960s, of bringing revolution to the city’s streets and neighborhoods. Jayaraman and Norris recently purchased a building in need of restoration near the Fruitvale Bart Stop in Oakland that will house Norris’ human rights center that emphasizes “restorative justice”—a concept borrowed from post-apartheid South Africa.

The building will also house the Oakland branch of ROC, as well as COLORS, the restaurant that does double duty as a training facility for wanna-be professional waiters, cooks, busboys and dishwashers. Orwell might see COLORS as a sop to workers who want upper mobility. It’s definitely reformist and not revolutionary, but it could help to “restore” a sense of dignity to Oakland, a place that struggles for its rightful place in the sun, along side Berkeley and San Francisco.

Jayaraman hopes it will do that. Meanwhile, she’s at work on her third book that will focus, she said, on “tip theft” and “wage theft,” the widespread practice whereby restaurant owners and managers appropriate money meant for employees. Orwell wrote about that practice in Down and Out. He also claimed that he was swindled in a Parisian kitchen where he washed dishes.

“Wage and tip theft is outrageous,” Jayaraman told me. “And it runs throughout the whole industry.” To combat that practice she has launched a campaign that calls for “One Fair Wage,” and that aims to build alliances between consumers and workers. At the heart of her campaign is the assumption that if those who eat restaurant food come together with those who make and serve restaurant food, the restaurant as am institution will be a better place.

Jayaraman would rather build alliances than barricades, though she goes into the streets to protest and insists that picket lines are as essential as negotiations. First, you shout them down and then you talk with them from a position of strength.

In Jayaraman’s view, time is running out for restaurant workers, though, as she points out, their numbers are growing rapidly. They now total 11,000,000 nationally and there’s no end in sight to the surge in membership. Moreover, while Americans are eating in restaurants in record numbers, working conditions are as bad as they’ve been in decades. In Jayaraman’s view that makes the restaurant a paradise for the kind of organizers and activists who would have descended, in Orwell’s day, on factories with leaflets and picket signs.

“People who work in the fast food industry as well as in the world of fine dining are now worse off than they have been in recent history, and it’s going to get even worse,” Jayaraman told me. “The new administration, including the Department of Labor, and the National Restaurant Association, are working together on legislation that will legalize ‘tip theft.’ President Trump himself is a restaurant owner who stands with the NRA.”

Jayaraman states her case with figures—like the $2.13 federal minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers—and the fact that as a group they’re among the lowest paid workers in America.

“Many workers are afraid to protest,” she told me. “And many consumers care more about free range chickens than they do about free range people.”

She added, “The San Francisco Bay Area takes pride in being progressive, but there are a great many restaurants here that are abusive, exploitative and discriminatory. Gentrification hasn’t helped restaurant workers find housing, and with lousy public transportation it’s often a big challenge just to get to a job.”

Jayaraman is a natural as an organizer of restaurant workers, though she comes from a family of restaurant owners in Karur, India that paid low wages to their workers. Born in 1975 to immigrant parents, Jayaraman attended UCLA, then Yale Law School and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Briefly employed at the Workplace Project, an advocacy group for Latino laborers, she started her own non-profit, Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (WYSE) in 1992. She passed bar exams in New York and California and then found herself too engaged in political protest to practice law.

Then came 9/11 and with it the birth of ROC. Jayaraman tells that story in Behind the Restaurant Door, her 191-page book that comes with a Foreword by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser who explains that corporations like Coca Cola and McDonald’s pay lip service to sustainability and not much more than that. Schlosser can sound like a chip off the old Orwell block, though he adds real pizzazz to the Orwell perspective and a timely sense of moral outrage, too.

In Behind the Restaurant Door, Jayaraman says that she was once a “bad tipper” and that she resented the very idea of tipping. A self-described vegetarian, she insists that she “loves restaurants,” though she also depicts restaurants as breeding grounds for the kinds of racism and sexism that she wants to abolish.

“Picket with your wallet,” she tells readers. Indeed, as she knows, the spending habits of consumers, along with boycotts have been a powerful weapon in social movements today.

In her second book, Forked: A New Standard for American Dining (2016) Jayaraman honors restaurant workers and skewers fast food restaurants—McDonalds, Subway, Taco Bell and more—for their discriminatory labor practices.

Take out the letters “o” and “r” in “forked” and substitute the letters “u” and “c” and you get a good idea of how Jayaraman views the condition of restaurant workers in America today. Lest anyone think that she has four-letter words on her mind, she explains that the “fork” she’s thinking of is the fork in the road that the nation now faces: whether to take the high road or the low road for restaurant workers and their potential allies in dining rooms.

Forked is more reader-friendly than Behind the Kitchen Door. Indeed, Jayaraman invites her audience to evaluate restaurants, not on the quality of the food, the ambiance and the service, but on how well or how poorly workers are paid, and whether or not they’re treated fairly or unfairly. Her rating restaurant rating system is miles away from the criteria that The New York Times restaurant critic, Pete Wells, uses to award stars to places like Made Nice, No Mad and Momofuku.

Forked belongs on the bookshelf with Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel, The Jungle, which alerted readers to unsanitary and unhealthy conditions in the meat packing industry and that spurred passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. A new act that would protect the rights of workers in the food industry seems necessary today.

ROC doesn’t have a center north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where I live and work, though there’s a need for one. According to local labor organizer, Marty Bennett, “most restaurant workers in the region are part of the working poor and even with tips, make less than a living wage.” The co-chair of North Bay Jobs with Justice, and an instructor emeritus of history at Santa Rosa Junior College as well as a consultant for Unite Here, Local 2850, Bennett added that, “there’s relatively little trickle down in the tourism and hospitality industry in Sonoma county, though some local restaurants, and not the chains, are finally paying decent wages to retain their best workers.”

Jayaraman knows that story very well, indeed. An activist on the go, she rarely has time to prepare food at home for herself and her family.

“I’m a bad cook,” she said. “I eat out a lot at Indian and Ethiopian restaurants.”

She teaches her kids about good restaurants that take the high road and bad restaurants that take the low road.

“At ROC, we don’t expect perfection,” she said. “Membership is growing and we have support from some of the biggest names in food writing, including Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. There’s room for a lot more people like them and for eaters all across America.”

George Orwell might join them. After all, he went to Spain to fight against fascism in the 1930s. Perhaps with Jayaraman’s encouragement, he might see the need to go into kitchens and to persuade competitive workers to become allies in solidarity with one another.

“In solidarity,” Jayaraman wrote in my copy of Behind the Restaurant Door and signed her name. Solidarity was a concept Orwell understood, though he saw far too little of it wherever he looked, from Burma and Spain to the down and out in Paris and London.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.

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