Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Can 17-Hour Days Ever Be An Excuse For Violence In The Kitchen?
You probably read the story in the papers this week about head chef Charlie McCubbin (arrowed above) punching a kitchen worker and throwing him down the stairs after food critic AA Gill described his meal as “disgusting”.
McCubbin, 51, chef-owner of the River Café in Glasbury, on the banks of the River Wye, in Wales, escaped with a conditional discharge – the lowest possible sentence – after the court heard he had worked 17-hour days during this year’s Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival and had “snapped” under extraordinary pressure.
Adrian Gill - who was at the festival plugging his new book Blasting Baboons With An Uzi - had apparently made the remark to a waiter in jest, and went on to give the 40-seater establishment four stars out of five for his £25 meal of antipasti, crab tart and lasagne.
But it was too late. The court heard that after the waiter told McCubbin about the drubbing, he kept storming into the kitchen and told cook Keith McVaigh, who was repairing a window: “When you’ve finished that you can f*** off and not come back.”
He then swung a punch at McVaigh, 52, which missed, and pushed him down a short flight of stairs, and then swore at another man, threatening him and saying he would take his "head off", Brecon magistrates were told.
His defence lawyer Bruce Gray pleaded in mitigation that McCubbin had worked himself to the point of exhaustion, and that somehow excused the violence.
But it doesn’t.
I’ve written a lot in the past about chefs working 17 or 18 hours a day, and how these ridiculous working hours should be stopped – if not by the Government, then by the restaurants themselves. And I’m pretty sure if they were, there would be a lot less abuse in the kitchen.
But however hard you work, and however much pressure you’re under to keep up standards, and however bad a review you get (or don’t in the end), it doesn’t justify physical violence and threats to kitchen staff.
Urging magistrates to give the chef the most lenient sentence possible, Gray said: "I say this to give you some idea of the stress of working in an environment where reputation is everything. Mr McCubbin feels he has to check and double check everything.
"The incident that led to this was that a cellar door had been left unsecured all that night and that was the straw that broke the camel's back."
A cellar door being left unsecured! To be fair, I’ve seen and heard of many incidents of chefs flipping over far less – dastardly crimes like clingfilm coming free from the corner of a container, or cooks forgetting to switch off their mobile phones during service.
But as for feeling like he has to check everything that goes out is ludicrous - that’s his job, standing at the pass, scrutinising plates, unless you’re Heston Blumenthal, in which case you’ll have your eye on other dishes.
It’s ridiculous that McCubbin escaped without even a fine or a few hours of community service for taking a swing at an employee and pushing him down the stairs, when a stand-up comic (however bad) gets four weeks in jail for throwing a foam pie at Rupert Murdoch.
I mean, where’s the justice in that? And what sort of message does it send out? There must be hundreds of sadistic chefs rubbing their hands with glee up and down the country, knowing they can mistreat their long-suffering underlings and get off scot free by blaming it on the stresses of work.
“I caught him spying in the oven at his soufflé, your honour...”
Oh well, case closed.
As for Gill pretending he thought the food was awful, and knowing full well the sort of tsunami that would cause in the kitchen, it’s a shame McCubbin didn’t direct his anger at him. Or at least throw him out of the restaurant as Gordon Ramsay, the man he says he’s often compared to for his foul-mouthed histrionics, once did.