Although the media can bring awareness to new talent in the food industry, and propel chefs to stardom, it can just as easily warp the public’s vision of what it truly is to be a chef and work in the industry. The most identifiable example is Gordon Ramsey. The multi-Michelin starred chef and restaurateur owns restaurants across the world, and also has made a name for himself through various television engagements. Where reality begins to blur, however, is the disconnect between his personality on screen versus in real life. Hell’s Kitchen, amongst other shows, portrays Ramsey as a violent, aggressive bully – to say the least. As such, the back of the house workers he manages are not only subject to constant verbal and mental abuse, but are portrayed as understanding that it is just another part of the job.
This is exactly what Dr. Ellen Meiser and Dr. Penn Pantumsinchai are exploring in their recently published academic article titled “The Normalization of Violence in Commercial Kitchens Through Food Media.”
What started out as a study on how employees of creative industries perceive the success-failure spectrum naturally turned into a study on violence – a common theme that emerged. Unsurprisingly, Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey’s names were the most cited in relation to violence in the restaurant world.
With a medley of personal interviews, over 120 hours of kitchen observation, and a survey of over 250 kitchen workers, Meiser and Pantumsinchai were able to pinpoint how media has affected the way in which the public perceives the kitchen workplace environment.
In the study, Meiser and Pantumsinchai specifically cite how Hell’s Kitchen can be a first introduction to the restaurant industry for many people – which unsurprisingly leads them to believe that abuse, to the same degree, is to be expected. But it’s not relegated to this one show; the large majority of kitchen media representations include violent chefs, irregardless of genre, culture, or release – such as the movies Burnt and Ratatouille for example.
What their study is trying to highlight is that celebrity power, which makes figures true “influencers” (in a non-social-media-tainted way), completely fabricates and sets the expectations of industry hopefuls. These individuals do not cause violent behavior, but rather inform the context and normalize that kind of behavior. In the words of Meiser and Pantumsinchai, “an individual enters the industry and sees something, and thinks, I saw that on TV and nobody else is reacting so I guess it’s okay, even if, in any other workplace, something would result in an HR complaint.” This is why the media can be, at once, so rewarding but so dangerous. The authors caution not to completely place the blame on the media, however; they cite numerous other reasons why kitchens have a high propensity for violence such as: the need for high efficiency, customer expectations, the role of immediate gratification, the correlation between heat and the propensity for violence, and the use of war imagery and language when referring to kitchens – amongst others.
According to the study, what still remains to be answered is akin to the “chicken or the egg” story: were chefs violent first, or did the media create it? Answering this question was not Meiser and Pantumsinchai’s goal, as they only focus on the environment and how behavior is being normalized rather than identifying causation, but it is an important question to keep in mind nonetheless.
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