'Those that are resisting are silent'

The  Staff Canteen

Earlier this summer, hospitality workers came forward with stories about incidents of bullying and abuse in high-end kitchens that they had so far kept to themselves, lifting a lid on restaurants where such a culture had been allowed to breed. 

Asma Khan, chef and owner of the owner of London's Darjeeling Express took a vocal stand against it, calling for a wider conversation about how to reform the industry for the better

Later, and since, many have come to her to tell them their stories, fuelling her to keep fighting the good fight.

"It's really sad; so many girls have come to me showing me burn marks, bite marks," she said. 

"Imagine how crazy you are to bite someone in the kitchen. They come to me because they don't know me. I have seen more injuries in this short time that I've had a restaurant than in my whole life."

'It's not going to be easy, that's why I raised this, to open a conversation so that we find a way forward'

But most will choose to remain anonymous, out of fear, which she believes stems from a media environment and culture which idolise certain chefs and restaurants for all the wrong reasons.

"For too long, at prime time you've had shouty chefs being given adulation and space, being given too much media space." 

Even though this culture isn't ubiquitous in the industry, she said, "the understanding is, if I were a young girl or if I had a daughter and she wanted to be a chef I'd say, 'by God, don't go, look at that, someone sticking two pieces of bread on your face and shouting at you, don't go there, they're animals, they're brutal, they're going to be abusive.'"

"If I didn't know the restaurant scene, I would have forced her to go and study, I wouldn't have paid for culinary education, I would not have encouraged her."  

'Take away that glittering prize'

Asma has called for restaurants to be stripped of their accolades should it be discovered that bullying happens in their kitchens – to the near silence of many in the industry, and to an outright refusal by the Michelin Guide, on practical grounds.

Acknowledging that it would be difficult to put a workable system in place to do it, she rejects the claim that it is impossible.

"It's not going to be easy, that's why I raised this, mainly to open a conversation so that we find a way forward, so that people understand:  just be good to your team."

"Michelin stars or Rosettes are off the chef. This is what they're all aspiring to. Most of the abuse that you see now, a lot of people have said 'I don't want to be kicked out of a Michelin star restaurant so I suffered because I wanted to gain experience.'" 

"We all live with this constant threat of EHO turning up. We do our health and safety, it is that risk that they show up to monitor that we still label our boxes and check that everything is okay." 

"Why are we doing this? Of course we know that there's a very good reason for doing this, for the health of our customers, but there is also that stick. The sanction. The two stars that you will end up getting from the EHO."

"We need to set up a system."

'I don't want to be blocking the pipeline of future female voices in hospitality'

In the meanwhile, she said, the focus needs to be on driving these conversations further, and progress is being made, but as someone who has always stood up for the downtrodden, Asma is wary of how organisations can become complacent, calling on her to speak rather than seeking other voices to join the conversation. 

"There's still a lot of tokenism. One female on the board, one female in the panel. At every awards ceremony you see the token women being nominated. They never win. Why bother nominating them, just so that it doesn't look like a panel of eight men."

"When there are discussions in hospitality, videos or some kind of panel, I look at them and see all white faces and I'm the only one, I pull out. Because they will not put in another person, they think they have ticked the box of inclusion by having me there."

"I'm humming my cause because I'm occupying the space. The moment they have me, they've ticked immigrant, muslim, woman, older, restaurateur..."

No matter how tempting it is to rise to every fight, "I don't want to be blocking the pipeline of future female voices in hospitality." 

"This is where my biggest hurdle is. I'm saying it, but those who also need to speak are not brave enough. Until that happens, until they are brave enough to come up on stage, I will continue to speak up on their behalf." 

"Really, we need more voices. This is a real hindrance to the debate becoming broader, becoming more meaningful. “

"This is not being discussed, and I will raise it again and again."

'In the end, you need the worst to stand up'

But the wind of change is upon us – the mere fact that conversations are happening openly is hugely encouraging. 

Addressing podcast co-host, chef and owner of The Wilderness Alex Claridge, she said, "you are making your change, doing your ripples there, I am doing mine here. Eventually, it will be a tide. Eventually, we will change everything. If we cannot join up together, in our own spaces, if people start making a difference, in the end, we will all win." 

The most notable development in the past few months has been the silence shown among the highly successful chefs and restaurants, and this despite accusations being levelled at them.

"Those that are resisting are silent," Asma explained.

"Whenever I have written long pieces in the press when incidents have happened, I've taken on some very powerful, very prominent chefs in the press."

Expecting to be sued for libel, she said, "I am waiting." 

"This is quite surprising, because the libel laws in this country are very very strict and I have taken on and accused people of allegations," but to her surprise, "I haven't received the classic 'gag her, shut her down, don't give her a voice.'"

The truth of the matter is, Asma explained, we live in an age where the young aren’t scared to call out practices they want rid of in the public sphere.

"This generation are activists. Just look at their reaction to what they're eating, the push towards a lot of people eating plant-based food, the environment, there's an understanding. 

"This simmering sense of injustice and unfairness - how is it that slavery was stopped, colonialism was ended, women were allowed to vote? In the end, you need to worst to stand up. This is how in history change has happened. When people have watched for a long time, how did these terrible things end? Not by people saying, 'this is a bit awkward, let's brush it under the carpet.'" 

"A lot of people did brush things under the carpet, but the brave did speak up." 

After the pain and difficulties of Brexit and Covid, many in the industry are still fighting an uphill struggle.

Ultimately, she said: "It will not just be the fittest who survive, but also the ones with big hearts. The brave, the ones who are deeply rooted in the community in which they cook and serve. It is those people who will still be standing in 2022."

"We're all driven by passion. We cannot work this hard, we give up so much time in which we're doing other things. This matters to us. This is a calling, it's not a career we're doing. We're driving by a calling to cook, to serve, to feed, to build teams, to nourish and nurture teams."

"We have understood that we will all come out of this changed," and like a caterpillar that has gone through hell, she smiled, "we will all emerge stronger and more beautiful." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th August 2021

'Those that are resisting are silent'