'Everyone knows. We all know, we're all complicit aren't we'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

James Allcock, the chef and owner of The Pig and Whistle in Beverley, Yorkshire, wants to see positive change in the hospitality industry.

'Who doesn't?' You might ask, and you would be right. But the follow-up question should really be, 'How?'

James doesn't have all the answers, but he knows what direction we should be headed in, giving more of a spotlight to restaurants where the teams are happy, diverse and talented than the ones where staff are worked into the ground, because that will give the industry an extra incentive to change for the better. 

Lead the way, Michelin-starreds

Moving forward, the chef would like to see a different group of people take centre stage for providing great hospitality while holding themselves to high standards in all aspects of their business. 

"People like Gary Usher, Emma Underwood and us to a certain extent. We're tiny, but we're still doing the right things, we're working the right hours, paying the right money, we've got a good all-female team that came together organically," he said, "it's things like that that need promoting, not Marco Pierre White’s son who understands hard graft. He understands nothing - he understands an archaic view from his dad, who's a clown." 

The BS stage

Before this can happen, however, he wishes for prominent chefs, businesses, television networks and media outlets to lead the way.

Not naming names, James mentions high-profile chefs who have come forward to talk about how the industry needs to improve working conditions for its staff, "and I've definitely been to their restaurants and seen them treat people like s**t," he said.

"We seem to be at the bulls**t stage," he added, "where there's loads of people doing the right thing, but there's also loads of people talking about the right thing whilst quietly doing the wrong thing." 

"That's why people want to call it out." 

In order for anything to change, more instances of misconduct need to be brought to the fore, as they remain rampant in some parts of the industry.

"Everyone knows - we all know, we're all complicit aren't we," he said. 

‘It’s only someone’s tea’

As far as James is concerned, restaurants shouldn’t exist unless they are able to operate responsibly.

"It doesn't matter does it, it's only someone's tea. You're not driving an ambulance to save someone's life are you. Even if it's three Michelin stars, I don't really care, you still don't have to be a w****r to people do you - or you shouldn't have to be, and if you do, I don't really want that anymore, it's b******s."

"If that's genuinely the only way you can achieve that, by abusing people, whether it's verbally or through hours or conditions, you shouldn't exist in any capacity, you certainly shouldn't be hero-worshipped or aggrandised, like 'you're really cool because you've worked loads of hours.'" 

Conceding that not everyone needs to own a three Michelin-star restaurant, he said, "it's just frustrating that those are the people who are then held up onto a pedestal and generally get most of the positive PR." 

"There's a bare minimum of respect for people - you might have three stars, but it's not really working if it's achieved on the basis of someone working nineteen hours a day, even if they're not getting verbally abused or physically abused anymore, it's still abuse to work that amount of time.

"It doesn't have to be screaming or throwing pans anymore, even though I'm sure that exists. They're the ones who get the plaudits, and that's what still puts people off the industry, because that's been hailed as the pinnacle, and the thing you should aim for." 

#Boycott the bullies?

Asked whether he supports the campaign calling for restaurants to be stripped of their accoladesshould it be discovered that their staff are being abused or mistreated in some way - which Michelin has confirmed it won’t be doing, unless a legal charge has been made against the alleged perpetrator(s) -  James struggles to see how it could be done on a practical level, but does believe that businesses whose revenue relies on the hospitality industry should question their affiliations. 

"I can't see them suddenly demoting Gordon Ramsay from three to two stars because he also screams at his staff. I just don't think that's going to happen." 

That having been said, he added, "why should Michelin associate with someone who's a bully, or who's burning someone, or who's making their staff work twenty hours a day?"

"It's difficult, but any responsible company in this day and age shouldn't be associating with someone who's burning someone. If you went to work at HSBC tomorrow and you counted some money and got it wrong, you should be disciplined for doing your job wrong. But if someone gave you a papercut, it would be huge news - it just wouldn't be tolerated."

The possibility of introducing an accolade for best practice brings its own complications, namely how it would be inspected and whether restaurants should be rewarded just for doing the right thing when they should always have been doing it. 

"At the same time, it can't change unless it's praised for being correct, even if correct is just what everyone does," he said.


While James thinks whistleblowers - such as the Punks with Purpose group that called out the ‘toxic culture’ at BrewDog -  are doing a good thing by stirring up a conversation, whether that turns into anything concrete remains to be seen.

"They're really putting pressure on [BrewDog], but it almost feels like a bogus independent review and a 3 percent pay rise to tell everyone to shut up and maybe nothing will ever change. But maybe that's just me being sceptical." 

And while even the slightest improvement of working conditions shouldn’t be dismissed, “they won't feel it as a business," just as he doubts that The Kitchin Group has gone bust following the allegations made against senior members of his team.

"He [Tom Kitchin] wasn't dead for lunch the next day because everyone thought he was a bully, he'll still be full for lunch."

'We just all need to be better'

Despite everything that is going on in hospitality at the moment - from the restrictions to the staffing crisis and the interminably rising cost of food, the chef maintains a positive outlook.

"I do feel positive about the industry,” he said. “From my little corner in the world, at least I'm not scratching around looking for trade."

What’s more, he does believe that we’ve come a way since the days of frying pans being thrown across kitchens, but knows that we can do better still.  

"Everyone needs to be better, whether that's guests and no-shows, operators and wages - what we charge guests and making sure tips are transparent and not squirrelled away because someone broke a glass - we just all need to be better. And if it's slowly changing then it's better than not talking about it at all." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 20th July 2021

'Everyone knows. We all know, we're all complicit aren't we'