How to stop the hot soup flying - keeping our kitchen culture positive

 With yet another lurid tale of kitchen abuse hitting the press, we wanted to talk about the steps we take to keep our working environment healthy

positive kitchen culture takes real commitment

We in no way just asked Pastry Chef Marius to smile for the camera so we had a photo for this blogpost...

Not long ago the Irish Times published a piece by chef Robin Gill about the brutal working conditions of one of the kitchens he began his career in. From having hot soup thrown at him, to being laughed at after suffering burns at works, to constant swearing and verbal abuse, the article describes the worst stereotypes of kitchen culture - except in this case, they're real.

This seems a hundred miles away from the atmosphere of the kitchens at Just Hospitality, where as I write I can see a chef through the office window dancing to Freddie Mercury, and where it's not uncommon to take an "ice cream break" when the van comes by, so I passed the article onto our HR officer Felicity and Director of Food Matt Byne to ask what they thought and what we do to keep our kitchen culture healthy and supportive.

Both said they found the article hard to read. "I'm appalled that kind of behaviour goes on in a kitchen", said Felicity. "If any of that behaviour was exhibited at Just Hospitality there would be an immediate investigation and a hearing where the outcome would be disciplinary sanctions."

As an experienced chef, Matt was less surprised but still found this an especially extreme example. "While I did witness bullying in my early days it was never as bad as that. Obviously our kitchen is not like that and embraces all skill levels. We're even taking on an apprentice soon who will be mentored by Dushaine, who himself advanced to sous chef after joining the company as a driver."

dushaine preparing

Dushaine prepares canapés at his first solo run event

So why are we different?

The march of history

Some of this is just time - the whole attitude around what a professional kitchen should feel like has changed. Influential chefs like Tom Kerridge and Sat Bains believe kitchens run better when the management style is positive and encouraging, and businesses are becoming more aware that macho attitudes in kitchens can put off many applicants, and give them a much smaller talent pool to choose from.

Restaurants vs contract caterers

As a contract caterer, we can give our chefs more room to breathe. Unlike a restaurant, all of our food goes out at the same time and we can plan our service well in advance. There isn't that mad scramble when ten orders come in at once. When things go wrong it's still all hands on deck, but we can schedule in breaks and clear start and finish times for shifts. For work life balance in the hospitality world, you can't beat contract catering.

Doing the paperwork

People huff about things like health and safety rules, but to look after your staff, you have to have someone whose job it is to do that. As Felicity explained, "a lot of restaurants and hotels don’t have an HR department, and if they do it tends to be a shared services model, which doesn’t lend any support or coaching to management." Shared services means HR managed by one team across a large company or large number of sites, for a huge range of roles. Felicity's point is that in a company of our size, around 60, HR knows everyone individually and is able to tailor training and management to their specific needs.

Proactive support

It's not enough to try and promote a positive culture - we know we need to be ready if things aren't working. That's why we recently introduced an Employee Assistance Programme that allows staff to access confidential support and a whistleblowing hotline if they're concerned about anything.

Actually caring

This is what it really comes down to. It's not enough to tick boxes. Positive cultures in the kitchen can only exist with the commitment and belief of the senior and administrative team. From Felicity again, "our kitchens are a reflection of (Managing Director) Dean and Matt’s principles to have no egos and everyone working together as a team. Which is evident when walking through them and talking to the teams."

Since joining the team a year ago Felicity has been working hard to create concrete policies and initiatives around those principles, and will continue to do so. "No one should be made to feel like that at work, it’s where we spend the majority of our time and it’s something I’m quite passionate about - the working environment."

Do you think kitchen cultures need to change? What positive steps can workplaces take to support their team? Let us know in the comments or join the conversation on Facebook.