Monday, October 26, 2009

Bullying In Kitchens

"It's not so much the assaults and hurled pans, it's the bullying I can't stand," a tearful chef once told me. And it's true - it happens a lot in professional kitchens. It's the continuing circle of revenge. Cooks get bullied, then they get their own back on those below them.

One commis was called in on his day off by an irate sous chef, travelled across London on a succession of buses and tubes, and when he got into the kitchen was bollocked for not cling-filming something in his fridge properly. They made him recover it and sent him home. All that way for something that would have taken them a few seconds to put right. He left when they set fire to his pony-tail.

It was the same at the Gull. Ironically, Jules' sister, who ran a bistro nearby, had sent Jim the potwash to our kitchen because she was worried he would get bullied anywhere else. But after a couple of months, the protection wore off, and the other chefs got irritated by his slowness...

Jules had given me a set of keys to the kitchen. He told me he was sick of seeing my veg supplies piled up outside the door, and it was my job to open up. That meant getting up half an hour earlier. Jim was usually already there. He’d be standing at the top of the stairs, sucking on a cigarette, and in no hurry to get out of his biker gear. He only drove a moped but from the bright yellow and black leathers he wore you’d think it was a Hornet.

“Hello there!” he would say each morning. He could never remember my name, but was always pleased to see me.

Jim lived with his sister a few miles up the road, and was probably the worst plongeur in Cornwall. If you asked him to peel some spuds, you'd be lucky to get 40 by lunchtime. I never said anything - I always felt sorry for him - but sometimes Graham would pick up a potato and mock him, and challenge him to a race. Graham could peel a spud in under four seconds.

Jim's pace didn't quicken during the heat and stress of service either. He'd lumber past like a zombie with outstretched pans, chanting his favourite catchphrase, “Coming through! Mind your arses!”

"Coming OUT, mind your arses, more like," someone would shout.

Jim wore the same T-shirt every day - with 'It’s not a bald patch – it’s a solar sex panel' emblazoned across it. He couldn't read or write, and had no idea what it said. We even had to fill in his timesheets for him.

He joined on the same day I did, and after a few weeks had come out of his shell, and that’s when the bullying started. It seemed fairly mild to start with, nothing like I was getting anyway, but I felt sorry for him all the same, and guilty about not doing more to stop it. I still feel guilty about it now; sometimes I lie in bed and think about it, and wish I'd made a stand.

It was Jim's job to make the tea, but he never remembered, and this was a favourite for those dreadful fuckers Graham and Jules.

“Jim,” Jules would begin. “Jim! Jim!”

Eventually he’d look round, blinking through steamed-up glasses. “Hello there,” he’d say, drying a plate in slow motion.

“Do you play golf, Jim?”

“I have done, yeah.”

“You know when you start a game, Jim, what are those plastic things you use?”

He thought for a minute and dried half a plate. Then Graham would join in. “You know those plastic things you stick in the ground at the start of each hole.”

“Haven’t got a clue. Do you know Jules?”

Stewie would wander over and whisper something in his ear, and he'd shout “tee!” and then there'd be a chorus of “thanks very much Jim, I’ll have two sugars!”

Most times, Graham would start it off.

“What rhymes with toffee, Jim?”

“Don’t know…”

At some stage, a plastic yellow duck appeared in the kitchen. It squeaked when you squeezed it, which terrified Jim for some reason. When no-one was looking, he’d throw it in the bins at the top of the car park, but the duck always found its way back. Some days it hung from the hose by his sink, and he’d have to spend the day with its angry, cartoon face boring into his bottle-end glasses.

One morning, Jim was reaching for the huge tub of Nescafe above the sink when he shrieked. A yellow face was peering out of the coffee powder.

“That fucking duck,” he squealed. “He gets everywhere!”

It returned a few days later, frozen in a bucket of water that Jim was asked to retrieve from the freezer in the haunted dry store across the road. Its angry eyes looked up at him through the ice...

Graham switched the lights off and locked the door. He made terrible quacking noises, and threatened to throw him in the pond, and Jim wept like a child. His sister had to come and get him. I know the hairy-arsed pros among you will think this fairly mild compared to some of the stories you hear in kitchens, but I'll never forget the sound of that noise Jim made. It was the sound of a pig in a barn fire.

:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow. You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...


thedrb said...

You've highlighted an often overlooked and sensitive situation that nearly every chef must have dealt with in thier careers. I always politely refer to them as 'crazy KPs' but if I want to be all PC i'll stick my neck out and call them 'mentally challenged'.
Kitchens can be tough, your insightful posts have educated many on this very subject. They require a level of dedication and mental strength/stubborness that not all are equipped for.
Chefs, rightly or wrongly, can be horrible bastards, whether by nature or nurture. KPs on the other hand tend to be less destructive in their daily habits, less barbaric...Is this the only industry that insists the Hunter and the Prey work side by side for up to 15 hrs a day?
'KPs I Have Known and Loved, now that's a bestseller right there.

Kristina said...

We actually had a guy named Louis (LEWIE).

He was a blatant alcoholic who was addicted to strip clubs, however he made it into work every day.

He's maybe 50 years old, hair-lipped, mentally challenged etc.

They would put staples in his punch card so it would get stuck; Put an egg in his shirt pocket and give him a hug.

I look back on him fondly, but boy did they abuse him.

Michael said...

Devil triumphs when good men do nowt!

Gordon said...

My son is an apprentice chef and gets severely bullied, sworn at and not told when his next shift is until he is just finishing his last one.

Strange thing is that that sort of treatment means he does the bare minimum. They get less out of him than they would if they got him enthusiastic about his work.

I have run a successful business and I have never said something to a staff member I would not be comfortable saying in front of a customer.

Sadly my son is unlikely to finish his apprenticeship due to the treatment. And its a luxury hotel chain with HR dept et al who seem quite happy with whats going on.