#FairKitchens founder Einav Gefen. / Unilever #FairKitchens founder Einav Gefen. / Unilever

Inside One Initiative to Improve Kitchen Workers’ Health and Well-Being

Fifty-three percent of chefs feel pushed to a breaking point; 63 percent report suffering from depression; and 1 out of 4 reported physical abuse, a worldwide survey from Unilever Food Services reported.

Statistics like this barely shock us anymore. Media has a tendency to surface underlying issues in a specific environment by jumping on the bandwagon of a major scandal or after a particularly relevant tragedy occurs: the mainstream audiences caught on to the toxic environments in the kitchens only upon a #metoo exposé and again following Anthony Bourdain’s death.

Though historically far too little attention has been paid to these issues, the current news cycle has also thrust more initiatives into the spotlight. One example: the #FairKitchens initiative, which launched in May 2018; with the support of Unilever, writer Kat Kinsman’s Chefs with Issues, and Chef’s Roll. It strives to foster a positive, sustainable workplace for the back-of-the-house staffers.

Serving a Need

As a chef, Einav Gefen considers herself one of the lucky ones.  “I was lucky to work with chefs that never yelled at me for no reason, if they did, they had a reason, especially if I didn’t do what I was supposed to do,” she told Skift Table, though noted that this doesn’t exactly mean she never witnessed toxic behavior in the kitchen.

The Israeli-born chef is now executive chef at Unilever Food Service after a past spent in both restaurant kitchens and the classroom, where she held several teaching positions at culinary schools. She found the discrepancy between how personal well-being is treated in a corporate environment and the way restaurants deal with it appalling.

When you teach, you tell your students keep your head down, keep your mouth shut, do your work, the kitchen is not a democracy,” she said, calling this practice an open secret. “The fact is that people come to the industry expecting a harsh treatment. It’s just the way it is. Why? it doesn’t have to be that way.”

She then commissioned a survey from Unilever’s communications team; the respondents were cooks and chefs from the U.S., the U.K., China, Brazil, and Indonesia who had at least four years’ experience cooking in restaurant kitchens and are not yet a head chef, though aspire to become one in the future. Upon reading the results, Gefen realized that while there are many outlets in the industry like listservs and private groups, few provide tangible solutions. With #FairKitchens, she aims to foster a space where participants can voice concern but are also given tools for deal with them. “No chef has the bandwidth or the tools to connect the dots, and inflict change, and given the magnitude of a company like Unilever, we see ourselves as enablers, giving the tools and the stage for the chefs who want to run a progressive kitchen and educating other establishment,” she said, with a nod to others working in the space.

It had been years since Gefen worked inside of a restaurant, and she did not feel comfortable leading a social mission for chefs without being on the frontline in kitchen environment. “If we want to be an enabler, we don’t want to be perceived as a marketing campaign. Unilever elicits dicey responses, and I don’t want to be perceived as someone who’s promoting a product”. Hence, the crucial partnership with Chefs with Issues, a well-respected initiative started nearly three years ago by writer Kat Kinsman, comprised of both a website and a vibrant kitchen workers-only Facebook community tailor-made for personal support.

The main gateway to new audiences, for now, is the website which includes video tutorials and operates under a code of conduct: Talk openly, Excite passion, Act as one, Make time, Say good job.  “It sounds like common sense, but common sense is ‘common’ only to people who realize it,” said Gefen, “Asking a staffer how they are, for example, might be common sense indeed, but in an extremely fast-paced environment nobody has time to think about it.”

The movement, which is actively endorsed by 300 chefs worldwide including Michael Gulotta, Ludo Lefebvre, Kelly Fields, Naama Tamir, and Markus Glocker, is still getting off the ground. Much of the initial work is a grassroots effort to further understand what is going on in the industry. The team is currently working on a panel which will integrate legal, human-resources and counseling staff, which you can’t always find in an average kitchen environment.

Return on Investment

While all these initiatives are indeed commendable, though, less idealistic people are likely to ask themselves where the profit in all of that lies. Well, Gefen has an answer. “Turnover in this industry is crucial: two major issues for operators are recruiting and retaining,” she said.”If you create an environment that is sustainable, you would have people that would not look to leave.”

Sustainable, in this case, might mean offering eight-hour shifts and a five-days-a-week workweek, which would in turn mean hiring more staff, and that, coupled by the rising minimum wage, might make restaurant owners balk at such reform.  But consider the profit lost in re-training, recruiting, and onboarding new staff.

Up next: educating diners. “People care more about how the food is being treated than how the back of house is being treated,” said Gefen. “If you care about sustainable food, you should also care about a sustainable kitchen environment.”

Learn more at fairkitchens.com.

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