The End of Chefs: Moving Beyond Toxic Kitchen Culture

White male chefs who already fit neatly into the stereotype of the auteur are overrepresented, praised for a highly specific approach to fine dining, then rewarded with more investment and opportunities to replicate that same approach.

So many alternative kinds of food businesses are never considered for awards or investments. They don’t fit into the chef-auteur framework, and in some cases have no desire to do so — community farms with food stalls, roving trucks, collaborative projects, temporary projects, or family restaurants where three different cooks take turns in the kitchen, depending on their child care schedules.

But for so many, it’s already too late. They’ve been excluded from the narrative, over and over again, to serve the idea of the auteur. They’ve been subject to abuse. They’ve been paid unfairly. Many have dropped out of the business altogether.

The pandemic has exposed the fragility and inequity of the restaurant industry, disproportionately affecting Black people, people of color, restaurant workers and those who keep the food chain running in the nation’s factories and farms. Bolstered by the power of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, workers are speaking up. The model for the industry, as it exists now, has to change.

In a recent newsletter, Alicia Kennedy, a writer based in Puerto Rico, declared that the chef, as an ego, had become irrelevant. “What’s next?” she asked. And as reports of moldy food and allegations of poor conditions for cooks at Sqirl surfaced this summer, the Los Angeles writer Tien Nguyen asked another urgent question: What would food journalism look like if it centered on rank-and-file workers instead of chefs?

It’s hard but necessary to imagine these answers. And as workers unionize at places like Tartine in San Francisco and Voodoo Doughnut in Portland, Ore., they’re claiming power, demanding better conditions and pushing toward newer, fairer models.

Other workers are pointing to the gap between how restaurants are perceived and how they’re run, as in Chicago, where more than 20 employees of Fat Rice challenged their employer’s social-media claim that it supported racial justice.