Chef working in commercial kitchen

‘Fair Kitchens’ initiative works to remove the pressure-cooker atmosphere in a stressful food industry

3 mins read

Private-Public partnership creates movement seeking to change the food industry for culinary workers in-and-out of the kitchen.

“There’s a reason why many of us don’t work in kitchens,” says Dana Cohen, corporate marketing chef for Unilever Food Solutions.

With a culinary career that started at the age of 16, Cohen has witnessed her fair share of beleaguered culinarians – both men and women – who work in restaurants around the country.

However, leaving a hard-earned culinary career behind was not the answer to the question of hostile chefs and stress-related illnesses. So, Cohen and Chef Einav Gefen, formerly a culinary instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, pulled together a plan “to free chefs to do what we love.” The brainstorming brewed Fair Kitchens.

The Fair Kitchens initiative is a grassroots-corporate movement of chefs, chef-owners, and other kitchen staff from independently owned businesses and restaurant chains.

The focus of Fair Kitchens is layered with concerns, from labor retention issues to the evolution of the chef professions, including harder issues such as abuse or acute pressure.

The average work day of a chef ranges from 12 to 16 hours a day, usually six days a week.

Read Suck it Up: Black Women Culinary Professionals

Einav Gefen, now the research development chef at Unilever, explains, “Chefs love what they do, but too often, pursuing their passion for cooking comes at a cost to their well-being … We need to unite the industry by providing tangible solutions that will lead to a change for good.”

Operating for over a month, Cohen has seen massive interest in the food industry while carving out and building up “fair kitchens,“ culinary environments that are friendlier and forward thinking, while simultaneously  generating profits.

Chef Therese Nelson, founder and curator of Black Culinary History, believes that movements like Fair Kitchens are necessary in salvaging the dignity of the chef profession, especially for Black women. She reasons, “There are alternatives to kitchens, but if a woman wants to use her skills in a kitchen, then it’s time to create spaces that are safe for a sustainable career.”

The High Cost of Taxing Kitchens

Las Vegas, NV, 8 Jan, 2016. Chef Dana Cohen in attendance for 2016 International CES (Consumer Electronics Show) – FRI, The Sands Expo and Convention Center. Credit: James Atoa/Everett Collection/Alamy Live News

Cohen, a contestant in seasons 10 and 17 of the popular cooking competition show Hell’s Kitchen, points out that there are serious business considerations on the other side of an increasingly stressful work environment.

Two of the most glaring issues are high turnover rates and the loss of revenue due to poorly run operations. “We have partner relationships in the works to specifically address business,” says Cohen.

To tackle the knotty issues in the culinary professions, Fair Kitchens also partners with behaviorists (psychologists), clinicians, (therapists), chef experts and restaurateurs. These associations offer mentorship, advice in assisting executive chefs and restaurant owners in changing the way they run their kitchens.

In May, Fair Kitchens collaborated with Chefs with Issues, a platform created by Kat Kinsman.  A food writer and editor, Kinsman started Chefs with Issues to address the overwhelming mental health problems she uncovered in the food industry, over time.

Through her digital platform, Kinsman came up with a public forum, HEARD, with Unilever Food Solutions. The open forum, which took place in New York City on May 15, invited chefs to share their personal experiences in the industry.

Cohen pointed out that attendance was about a 50-50 split among women and men, with ten-percent being Black women. One of the most surprising populations was the male restaurant owners and executive chefs, who showed up to learn more about transforming the culture of their kitchens.

In this era of #metoo and the scores of well-known chefs losing their reputations over abuse and assault accusations, Cohen says, “It takes a special kind of chef to police their own behavior.”

Changing the Conversation

Restaurant team carries out meeting before opening.

At the end of May, Fair Kitchens created the #AnHourForUs campaign, in which chefs were encouraged to take an hour to openly discuss their current kitchen atmosphere with staff, potentially to come to viable solutions with their teams. Professionals were supposed to ask if their teams were okay; bringing up questions about participation and attempting to solicit ways to enable professional growth.

The next HEARD event takes place in culinary-rich New Orleans on July 24, 2018.

Chef Cohen says Fair Kitchens would like to see smaller events hosted across the nation, and even globally. “We encourage niche communities of chefs to lead culturally-relevant discussions about changing kitchen culture.”

She likens restaurant and hotel kitchen culture to dysfunctional households. “If you think the abuse is normal, then you will expect less.” Cohen continues, “Fair Kitchens wants to make kindness and respect normal.”

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Robin Caldwell is a food publicist who has a passion for black women chefs and the plate economy.

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