'There are lots of businesses out there that are doing the right thing, but they're not shouting about it'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Eleven years ago, chef owner of Fhior Scott Smith was at a crossroads in his career. He wanted to step things up, so applied for a job at award-winning Fife restaurant, The Peat Inn.

"It was tough, the standards were mentally high,” he explained, as the chief proprietor of the Michelin-starred restaurant, Geoff Smeddle, "is really strict on what he wants to achieve and how he wants to achieve that.”

But in contrast with kitchens where bullying is the norm, however, “it's a professional environment."

Train and nurture

"He wants his team to be smart and intelligent, he wants people that are professionals, know what job is required of them. But for that you get absolute respect, ongoing training," and, for the first time in Scott's career when he worked there, regular appraisals. 

Food wise, "what he was doing was the best in the country at the time in my opinion, but he would sit down and spend the time with you - didn't matter what level you were at," he added, and "instructively lay out the areas in which you needed to improve."

If a member of the team made a mistake in service, the chef would first rectify it with the customer, "but he wouldn't belittle you in front of the team, he would keep you back at the of the night and have a proper one on one conversation with you."

"That trained you and nurtured you, which is what you should do. I know from my experience there that it's not unique," he said, and after posting about his experience at The Peat Inn on social media received messages from many other chefs who could relate. 

"They said, 'I'm so pleased you mentioned Geoff because I worked for him fifteen years ago and it's been the most influential part of my career, it taught me how to run a kitchen and how to look after my team.'" 

"He's one of the unsung heroes of what this whole conversation is about."

'It's not beneficial to anyone'

Part of all professional chefs' training, in Scott's opinion, should be learning to handle the sorts of situations you encounter in the pressured environment that is a professional kitchen.

"It might just be a plate of food but it is someone's reputation that you are presenting everytime food leaves the kitchen, so of course the pressure is high," he said.

But there are ways of navigating this. One important piece of wisdom Scott drew from Geoff is that on the rare occasion when he does lose his temper, "what I'll do after that is openly apologise in front of the team to that person and say that my behaviour was unacceptable, be human and give them that apology.

"The loss of temper isn't about that person particularly, it's about the whole situation, but you feel the need to outlet it at somebody," he said, so "just being human and acknowledging that that's happened and apologising to the whole team is the correct way to rectify that." 

Sadly, even now, all too often, leaders don't know how to handle people whose performance isn't up to scratch.

"If someone isn't performing, they're bullied and pushed out through bullying and being made to feel worthless - which means they may actually leave the industry," Scott explained.

"It's not beneficial to anyone, you look like a t**t and that person who could've actually turned out to be a great chef has left feeling deflated, not having been given the chance to learn." 

If there is an issue with that person's performance, he said, that has to be dealt with separately. "It's not about being soft or letting people get away with stuff." 

"Be professional about it - if someone's not performing, have that conversation with them. And if they're still not performing, there are routes to get rid of somebody."

"If someone's not right for our business or for the job that they've applied for and accepted, they don't keep the job. That's not being an a*****e, that's professionalism and that's business. There's no shame in moving people along for the right reasons, but there is a huge amount of shame for moving people on through bullying because you're too much of a coward to address the issue." 

"You've got a responsibility to train the next generation. Some people aren't right for it and they'll come to their own conclusion that they're not right for it, but the way a lot of these top-end kitchens work is where they feel that they've got such a good reputation and they've got queues of people out the door wanting a job, people are worthless, dispensable and not worth their time, which is a shame." 

'The black and white line of it is, abuse should not exist in this industry'

In contrast, Geoff Smeddle has trained dozens if not hundreds of great chefs. For Scott, it is telling that he is still in touch with many of them. 

"He gets invited to their weddings and gets Christmas cards from them every year - ten years later, we're still in touch and even ten years later I know that I can pick up the phone and say, 'I've got this situation going on at the restaurant, how do you think I should handle it,' and he'll continue to mentor me in that way.' 

"The fact that he's not pushed himself publicly is telling of his character, that he's not got an ego."

Not to be misrepresent his mentor, Scott said: "Geoff's kitchen is tough. It was hard. There are times where you questioned it, like, 'is this really what I want to do,' but that's down to me or whoever is working there. 

“That's down to their want and ambition and drive, that still needs to exist, but it needs to come down to that person's disposition - it should never be forced." 

"The black and white line of it is, abuse should not exist in this industry, and people who need to use the high pressure as an excuse, I don't know what they're trying to achieve but it just doesn't fly."

keep it constructive 

Where Scott is concerned, although the situation has come to a head with the current staffing crisis, turning the page on outdated practices will take time.

"Let's whistleblow, let's call people out, great, it gives the customer a bit more education about what's going on. But actually, the customer doesn't really care at the end of the day." 

"Businesses like this won't suffer from this, the only thing they'll suffer from is less good staff coming to them."

"The biggest issue isn't about pointing the finger at anyone," he said, to whatever consequence for them, "but a much wider conversation needs to be had about how do we change these things, what is it producing, what is the direction of our industry if we keep going like this."

"Those are the bigger conversations that need to be had."

The underlying fact is that many restaurants are run in an exemplary way, Scott said, and the knowledge that they bestow on young chefs should be spread far and wide.

"The Peat Inn and Geoff aren't unique. There are lots of businesses out there that are doing the right thing, but they're not shouting about it."

"The ones that are shouting about it are your typical ones with the larger egos, because they like to be seen and heard - and usually they're not doing what they're saying they're doing." 

In the meanwhile, operators reaching for their marketing budgets may benefit from Scott's advice: "Less words, more action."

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall  – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 16 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 560,000 followers across Facebook, X, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 28th July 2021

'There are lots of businesses out there that are doing the right thing, but they're not shouting about it'