Fuck Fine Dining

Words by Lewis Bassett; Illustration by Josh Harrison

Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 3! I hope absence has made the heart grow fonder. For those who don’t know yet, the new season is called ‘You and I Eat Differently’ and the thinking behind it is all set out in the, now unlocked, newsletter here.

The tl;dr of it is that newsletters will now be once a week, but also writers and illustrators will be paid at a much higher rate. The new rate for this season is £350 for writers and £100 for illustrators. This is all made possible through user donations through Patreon, although soon this will extend to all subscriptions made through Substack as well. I can’t thank you enough for your support ─ an alternative media must offer a real alternative to writers, and this starts with adequate payment.

When Achilles was told of the death of his friend Patroclus at the spear of the Trojan general Hector, his wrath was awesome to behold. According to reports, Achilles went on a rampage around the walls of Troy, first splitting Iphition’s head in two, then Demoleon, with a spear shattering his brain in his helmet, then Hector’s brother Polydorus, who died with his entrails in his hands. We know this because we are told so by Homer, who records it in one of the most astonishing passages of the Iliad, a passage in which ultraviolence is turned into high art. Centuries later, the Macedonian general Alexander would go beserk on learning of the death of his own Patroclus, modelling his grief on his hero Achilles, and massacring the Cossaeans. He lamented he had no Homer of his own to record his deeds, yet we know this because we are told so by Arrian and Plutarch. Centuries after Alexander, how many generals have modelled their behaviour on him? How many poets have been complicit in their violence?

There has always been a symbiosis between the perpetrators of violence and those who record it. Life often imitates art which imitates life. We know about the abuse of our famous culinary generals, Gordon Ramsay for instance, not because of whistleblowers, but because we were told so by TV. Watching Boiling Point today is still highly entertaining, seeing Ramsay and Marco Pierre White duel like two Sith Lords, but it’s difficult to watch the abuse of his powerless staff, where Michelin-induced rage makes Ramsay demote two chefs to a lower pay grade in front of the whole kitchen. AA Gill pops up to tell us possibly the least correct thing that anyone has ever said, that Ramsay will never be a great celebrity chef because he can’t control his rage. Not only did Ramsay build a career on that rage, but how many chefs saw Boiling Point, read White Heat, and reproduced those standards in their kitchen?

Today, the relationship between chef and media is slightly different. After years of the elite turning a blind eye to abuse, today food media says: “you need to be better”. David Chang has been (rightly) castigated not because his abuse was worse than Ramsay but because food media built him up into something he wasn’t. Acclaim today doesn’t just come from Michelin stars (which will be released in the UK this afternoon), but from a carefully curated image built up through aesthetically obsessed visual media (Chef’s Table, Ugly Delicious) and social media, where, as chef Lewis Bassett tells us in today’s newsletter, the war metaphors of books and TV have been replaced by cuddly ethics and the idea of the kitchen as a happy family.

The result, 20 years after Beyond Boiling Point, is exactly the same. Until we decide, as consumers, as writers and as chefs, to truly change our priorities and break the cycle, then we will forever be Achilles and Homer, repelled by the violence, yet reproducing it for those to come.

Fuck Fine Dining, by Lewis Bassett

The night Gordon Ramsay opened his first solo venture, named simply ‘Restaurant Gordon Ramsay’, the kitchen extraction fans stopped working. The temperature in Ramsay’s kitchen soared above fifty degrees Celsius. Feeling the heat of opening night – literally and figuratively – a waiter dared to take a swig of water directly from a glass bottle while in view of the customers. Ramsay sacked him on the spot. In spite of this, the newly jobless waiter left the restaurant singing Ramsay’s praises, calling him ‘a great chef’.      

The opening of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is chronicled in the fly-on-the-wall documentary Boiling Point. Watching it now, some twenty-two years since it was first broadcast, it’s clear that this early version of Ramsay (and his famous temper) shares none of the self-parodying qualities with the tyrannical star we’ve come to know through Hell’s Kitchen. And rather than mocking largely hapless contestants on the food equivalent of The X Factor, the young Ramsay of Boiling Point terrorises a talented and experienced workforce in his aggressive pursuit of trois étoiles – an accolade provided by a French tyre company that continues to serve as a universal marker of superior taste. 

Cooking at this elite level is, as one junior chef explains in Boiling Point, much like being in the army. Military metaphors are standard in chefs’ depictions of their working lives, when service is not simply the time during which cooks serve their food to customers. Rather, it’s a duty and, above all, a period of intense combat, one that occurs once or twice each day. For elite chefs, the kitchen is not only about these brutal elements (long hours, discipline, hard work and danger), but also the camaraderie that comes with it. A depiction of life in the kitchen ‘trenches’ was famously captured in Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s memoir: a life in which chefs are constantly ‘under fire’ and kitchens are getting ‘hit’ in between receiving their ‘supplies’. ‘This is still the army’, Bourdain wrote. ‘If I want an opinion from my line cooks, I'll provide one.’ 

Chefs and waiters pose a puzzle for social historians, having apparently sat out on the momentous struggle for rights – to autonomy, and a limit to the working day – that other workers have fought for; struggles that defined much of life in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain. Yet this culture of discipline and sacrifice can be traced back to elite kitchens’ military origins. When not serving the nobility at home in their grand estates, medieval cooks were required to serve their masters’ armies in their (actual) battles with other feudal lords. Just as soldiers in Britain still swear allegiance to the Queen to this day, a similar deference has persisted among chefs of working-class origin – like Ramsay, and Marco Pierre White before him – in traditional elite kitchens. Here it is seen as an honour, not a misery, to break one’s back in order to serve an aristocratic clientele – a social group that has long persisted in Britain (despite it being the cradle of capitalism) as in France (despite the introduction of the guillotine).  

Highly profitable restaurants in the classical tradition, which employ chefs to meet near-impossible standards while working near-impossible hours (and all for miserable wages), have functioned in no small part through the close proximity of workers to the arcane rituals of the antique upper classes. Michelin stars shine like medals awarded for honourable combative service, pinned to men’s uniforms for campaigns fought in wars where – to persist with the metaphor – the exact purpose of the battle is unclear. Elites give their orders; chefs, like soldiers, are not in the business of asking why. For chefs of a lower rank than Ramsay, the lure of hierarchy has its own attraction: junior chefs may hope to rise to the top so that, one day, they too can lord their power over the ‘little people’.

But times have changed. In the twenty years since Ramsay won his three stars, the world has witnessed a kind of democratisation of fine dining, and of ‘foodie’ culture more generally. In the UK, the popularity of eating out has increased year on year, while the sites of contemporary culinary fashion are no longer shrines to a stuffy French tradition. At the centre of our current food enlightenment is the semi-amateur craftsperson, a humble yet heroic figure who has stolen fire from the gods of fine dining and bypassed the industrial corporatisation of eating out, bringing nourishing and pleasurable food experiences closer to everyday life.

The renaissance of the artisan follows the fashion for ethical and green consumption that has exploded in the past two decades, as consumers turn to fair trade bananas and coffee in place of crops from not-so-post-colonial plantations. The motto of the movement is not only that smaller is better, but that local and artisanal is best. The shift is visible in the rise of craft beer, craft pottery, jewellery and clothes – measuring the distance between farm and table becomes a contemporary marker of both ethics and taste. This transformation accompanies a partial democratisation of fine dining, as restaurants embrace a more middle-class and metropolitan clientele. The effect has been to blur the traditions of elite kitchens, but not to displace them completely. 

Several years ago, I worked for a month as a stagiaire (unpaid work experience) at a restaurant with two Michelin stars. The restaurant’s kitchen is open plan, meaning that no one shouts at you during service; chefs simply whisper their profanities instead. The menu places emphasis on locally farmed and locally foraged; the plates are made by local potters. Oysters are served on polished stones from a nearby beach, where the accompanying herbs are also foraged. The beef, duck and lamb are reared within walking distance of where they are killed, cooked and consumed. Heading home after a fifteen-hour shift one night, I calculated that chefs on a basic salary at the two-star were paid less than £5 per hour. In addition, most of the junior chefs also rented a house from the restaurant’s owner who, by supplying the majority of work and lodging in the area, has (like Ramsay) been transformed from a council-estate kid to a sort of neo-feudal lord. But an “ethical” one.

The taste for all things ethical is not limited to restaurants in pursuit of Michelin stars. Last year, between lockdown one and lockdown two, I saw a young head chef advertise a role in an exciting and increasingly popular restaurant. The venue is big and unconventional. The menu is also big, or rather, long – innovative, and, even by fine dining standards, somewhat edgy. It’s packed full of ethical and craft food: vegetables made by a ‘new generation’ of growers; biodynamic, natural wine. The job advert, posted on Instagram, was informal, as was the uniform. When I responded I was told to come in the next day for a trial, to bring my knives and wear jeans. The advert invited me to become part of the chef’s family: this was meant to be ethical, green, and passionate, but also warm and welcoming, inside and out.

Halfway through my trial shift, I sat down briefly with the up-and-coming head chef. He asked me what I thought of the food. What did I do outside of the kitchen? Why did I want to work here? To the latter question, my short answers were ‘I like to cook’ and ‘money’, but I think I managed to garble something about the chef’s daring use of seaweed. My attempt to discuss wages was avoided: ‘We’ll see’. ‘The truth is, I don’t know much about that side of the business,’ the chef went on to explain – but the trial, a full day’s work, wasn’t going to be paid, he clarified.

The hours of work were 8am–close, which was typically 11pm – at least while the 10pm Covid curfew was enforced. But the chefs, owing to the workload, often stayed till midnight. When they finished they had a smoke out back, aware that each cigarette and bottle of beer ate into the time for sleep before the next shift began. During the day, the only time to take anything resembling a break was the ‘family meal’ – a chance for staff to bond, just like a family. In truth, this ‘chance to bond’ meant ten minutes to stuff your face – the only opportunity in a fifteen-hour working day to eat – with the meal creating yet another burden on the kitchen. And eating, never mind sitting, was a rarity at weekends.

The culture of the chef and the restaurant – at least as it appeared on Instagram – was crafty and metropolitan. The chef was supposedly ‘woke’; earlier in the year, he had posted a black square on Instagram for BLM. This was a place that focused on food and ‘good vibes’, seemingly without the elitism and ‘macho bullshit’ often found in the industry. Frantically busting a gut at my section, wearing jeans, I quickly realised this image was just for show. No one shouted at me. No one called me a cunt. Nothing like that. But the hours were equivalent to those of a worker in a Victorian cotton mill, the workload immense, and the pay poor: less than the legal minimum, had I taken a salary. 

I saw through a week of this and quit. The day after I emailed to turn down the job, the chef posted a heartfelt story on Instagram about how much he loved his kitchen family (that word again!) and the struggles that they faced, and overcame, together. This was followed by an advert: Chef wanted, please DM.

On the very same night that Ramsay opened his first solo restaurant, the chef appeared in another fly-on-the-wall documentary called ‘Britain’s Unbearable Bosses’. Ramsay, like his clientele, laughed it off. People already knew that Ramsay was a bully. And with PR advice from his father-in-law, plus the help of the media, he’s made a very successful career out of it. 

A similar aura surrounds the American chef David Chang, with one of his former employees recently describing the realities of working with a controlling and aggressive boss. Chang, like Ramsay, was crowned a bad boy of the kitchen by the media, much to the food crowd’s excitement. But, in his recently published memoir, Eat a Peach, Chang strikes a reflective note: he has changed, he tells us, in part because he noticed that guests at his restaurants – all of them pillars of America’s recent food revolution – came to dislike his bad-boy behaviour. ‘Nobody wants to eat dinner with a dick’, Chang meditates.

Food journalists and customers alike know that, to some extent, they have been complicit in this older generation of head chefs’ behaviour. They knew what went on behind the scenes, but chose not to care. When customers spend the equivalent of an average chef’s weekly wages for one meal at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, it is not the same as a person buying caged-hen eggs or unethical coffee because they can’t afford to buy better. When someone spends that kind of money at one of Ramsay’s restaurants, they know full well (it’s on prime-time television, after all) that they’re paying to indulge in a world of hierarchy, machismo and elite deference: essentially, for the right price, you can have a seat at the master’s table. 

While the more recent taste for ethical and craft culture has obscured the persistence of antiquated working relations in the kitchen, the outrage of discovering that these workplaces are not as ethical as they appear shows us that what looked like improvement was in fact progress in the name of conservatism. But how much do we really want life in the kitchen to change? For many, the underbelly nature of the kitchen offers a refuge when there is little else. Personally, I still enjoy life behind a stove, and find that working long hours for two or three days is the best way to free up time for other things. 

What needs to change is all the bullshit: both the classical army brigade and its fake ethical replacement. Chefs don’t need elite benevolence in the form of stars, or gushing prose on Instagram. Most chefs love food and love working with food but, like everyone else, they have a right to decent pay and a life outside of work. Obsessive personalities, frustrated egos and competitive masculinity – hard, like Ramsay, or soft, like the young chef I met last year – are alright for some, but not for me. I’d rather work hard, collect a reasonable wage and try, like everyone else, to make the most of my one shot at life. 

Over the last few years, restaurants in Britain have gone bust at a rate almost equivalent to the one at which they opened, and the pandemic has undoubtedly turned a difficult pursuit into an impossible one. But, to the owners of restaurants, and to head chefs: if you can’t look after your staff – that is, pay them well, give them clear working contracts, breaks and time off – then don’t embark on the enterprise in the first place. That, to me, is an important ethical standard. If as restaurants you want to signal your humanistic credentials to the world then don’t do it via Instagram. Declare yourself a living wage employer, seek endorsement from a trade union and encourage your staff to join one. That at least would allow consumers to make an actual ethical decision. And if you still choose to spend a fortune at a restaurant that you know pays its staff miserable wages. Well, at least you’re being honest.

Lewis Bassett is a chef and researcher. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.

The illustration is by Josh Harrison, a full-time waiter and part-time illustrator from Yorkshire. Get in touch at joshuajsharrison@gmail.com or @kingvold on Instagram.