Academic Minute Podcast

Best-Of 2023 Week: Ellen Meiser, University of Hawaii at Hilo – Enduring the Heat of the Kitchen

It gets hot in the kitchen for many reasons.

Ellen Meiser, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, explores how abusive behavior has become the norm in restaurants.

Ellen is an Alaska-grown sociologist interested in qualitative research, social psychology, emotions, and the culinary industry. She is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, and a co-creator and co-host of The Social Breakdown, the sociology podcast nobody wants, but everybody needs.

Eli R. Wilson is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico. He received his PhD from University of California, Los Angeles. His research broadly examines how social inequality is both reproduced and contested in urban labor markets. Dr. Wilson’s first book, “Front of the House, Back of the House: Race and Inequality in the Lives of Restaurant Workers” (NYU Press) was published in the fall of 2020. It was based on six years of ethnographic research within high-end restaurants in Los Angeles.

Enduring the Heat of the Kitchen

This spring, two separate but damning allegations of violent chefs hit national headlines: those regarding Boston chef Barbara Lynch and Birmingham chef Timothy Hontzas.

While upsetting, these stories are unsurprising to those familiar with the restaurant industry. So, while Lynch and Hontzas may be in the spotlight today, their behaviors are, unfortunately, closer to business-as-usual.

Yet stories like these lead some to ask, why do cooks put up with abusive chefs?

Well, there are obvious financial pressures that prevent many from leaving violent jobs. Quitting is also hard in light of how creative and rewarding cooking can be.

But a recent study Eli Wilson and I conducted, found that many workers view mistreatment as a mundane reality of life as a cook. In fact, workers saw violence as a core aspect of hard-scrabble kitchen culture, one glorified in media portrayals of chefs. This combination led many to expect abuse.

Because of this, most responded to it by sticking it out rather than evading or resisting it. Enduring violence became just another item to add to their daily to-do list. Rationalization of both the perpetrator and targeted employees was a key aspect of this endurance, as it recast abuse as something either inevitable or justified.

The ramifications of endurance are serious. Along with personal suffering, endurance unintentionally aids the process of making violence feel and seem normal in a workplace.

Addressing this issue starts with how we view those at the top, and realizing that culinary brilliance need not be pre-seasoned with violence; violent kitchens and chefs should not be venerated; and enduring mistreatment ought not be the norm.

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