'It started a conversation and sometimes it’s a conversation which needs a fire up its arse so it doesn’t go quiet'

Cara Houchen

Last week The Staff Canteen published an article which posed the question, do films such as The Menu, Boiling Point and The Bear accurately depict the modern-day kitchen and hospitality professional?

It unintentionally caused a real debate on our Instagram with comments pointing towards the choice of contributors, taking us in to a completely different subject matter – diversity.

Simmie Vedi, was one of those who commented on the post, and was ‘disappointed’ in the article. A chef of seven years, she previously studied law and worked in politics and you may have seen her recently representing Wales for Great British Menu.

She said: “I’m coming at this from an angle of being a woman, Indian, someone who suffers from CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) and bisexual - I’m pretty marginalised!

“I have followed The Staff Canteen since I became a chef, I have taken inspiration from articles and chefs you have written about – that’s why I was disappointed in the article because I’d never really noticed that before. There was no representation in that article for people like me.

“But it started a conversation and sometimes it’s a conversation which needs a fire up its arse so it doesn’t go quiet.

“We are not speaking to kitchens which are making an effort. I am glad they are making an effort and I want them to continue making an effort and continue improving.

“I understand that we will never have no bad kitchens, there will aways be a couple but if we can just whittle it down to a minority.”


Diversity in hospitality

Simmie believes there needs to be more variety all of the time.

“I think diversity needs taking into consideration every time one of these articles is written.

“Those people need to have more of a say - the bullying and abuse that does still go on, and has historically gone on, it’s people from those groups who are more affected by it.

“If you are going to represent x you need to represent y as well.”

She added: “I see other industries coming along, leaps and bounds and I feel in hospitality it seems to always be harder for us to make changes. It’s like people are digging their heels in the ground and saying no, it’s not that bad.

“You have people saying these films about life in kitchens are all coming out a at a time when we really need staff – that doesn’t negate from the truth, the industry isn’t kind to people sometimes.”

Simmie believes there are still enough people upholding a brutish way of working that things still need to change and we still need to talk about it.

“I agree with being positive and chefs like Raymond Blanc, I love him and what he does and I’ve seen how he treats his staff on tv, and I respect that. And Simon Rogan is an excellent chef, but these are people who also fed into the toxicity of it all those years ago and I want them to sit there and say, I did do this. Be accountable, it’s the only way to move forward.”

The Menu, Boiling Point and The Bear

The article aside, her thoughts on the topic of films made about the industry were, ‘it rings true’.

“Boiling Point and The Bear, I watched and I felt stressed by them,” she explained. “It’s not the same in every kitchen of course but for me there is not enough change which has been made yet.

“They are of course dramatised but they aren’t too far from the truth. When I worked in a gastro pub in 2015, my sous chef threw a kilo tub of soft cheese at my head because we couldn’t find it and he found it. So, he decided to launch it at me!”

She explained that certain kitchens still have a reputation and she has even been warned not to work for certain people because of their attitude towards people of colour.

“These are things that actually do happen,” she said. “There needs to be accountability for the bad behaviour, it’s all well and good people saying everything’s changing but hold your hands up and hold yourselves accountable for the things that you have done and the way that you have acted and apologise for it and repair it.

“Reach out to those people you treated badly, then move forward. You can’t just sit there and hide your head in the sand over the things you’ve done in the past – chefs who have twenty/thirty years in the business, you cannot tell me back then they didn’t treat people the same way and put their chefs through hell.

“All I see is people saying we’re changing this and we’re changing that, but where is the apology? That’s were my frustration comes from.”

As you can see her experience in kitchens has not always been positive and she says ‘bullying is still a thing’.

“You need to talk to line chefs, people who are working right at the bottom because those are the people who are still getting trodden on and still doing ridiculous hours and I’ve seen it. As a senior chef, who has been head chef in quite a few places, I’ve seen how hard my staff work.

“I have had to deal with people not liking me and telling everyone, and even saying they don’t know why they don’t like me.

“They made my life hell in work. And this has happened in numerous places.”

Simmie previously worked as head chef of Bully’s but has switched roles and moved to the production kitchen, Kin and Ilk, as a sous chef because she ‘wanted a life’. She now works for an ‘excellent head chef’, Mike Regan, who she says is protective of the teams work/life balance and always available to talk through any problems.

“He’s exemplary and people could learn from him."

She continued: “I’ve only done it for seven years and I am exhausted – what I want for the future is chefs to work eight hours day and restaurants to employ enough people to make that possible so chefs can have a life. This is for managers to; you can’t manage anybody if you are burning out.

“When I was head chef at Bully’s I tried to make it so they didn’t have to come in until one or two in the afternoon, I tried to make it so they could have a four-day week. These are things I really wanted to implement because I wanted to be the chef I needed when I first started in this industry. I don’t feel there are enough of those in management yet.”

How do we make more progressive changes in hospitality, which stick?

“It’s a process,” said Simmie. “It’s like a pendulum and it’ll swing one way or another and then it will settle and there will be a new habit, a new rhythm, a new way for chefs to go but it is a process.

“The conversations that have blossomed out of the article, I know it has riled people up but it’s part of it. Three years conversation in a very old industry, is not a lot. It does take time.

“These conversations are so important. One of the most important things is managers to be open with their staff, the people who are on the front line for you. They are the ones keeping it ticking, without them you don’t have anything – a lot of people forget that and I don’t want them to.

“Ask them how they are feeling, value how they are feeling and provide them with support.”

Change, Simmie believes, has to be led by those in charge.

“They need to be more open to negative feedback and they need to be less defensive. You are looking after people and I think managers forget that – when you get to managerial level you start caring more about targets and productivity, and I’ve been there myself.

“There needs to be more training within hospitality around management. Not only is it useful within hospitality but it gives you extra skills so that if you do want to get out of this industry, you’ve got something else there that might help you in other forms of work. Management and leadership are things which are important everywhere.

“I really believe in education and I do think the industry it’s on its way and if we keep having conversations like this then there is a chance. But there is support that needs to be utilised.

The Burnt Chef Project is excellent you can go to them with anything and Be Inclusive Hospitality, I did some work with them at the start, and they are fantastic. I have a lot of respect for Lorraine (Copes).

“There are good organisations out there and sometimes they are not utilised as much as they should be.”

She added: “Chefs are so diverse, that’s one of the things I love about hospitality – everyone is from everywhere. I think this is a magical industry with so many different walks of life and you can go anywhere in the world with this job and you’ll be alright.”

Photo credit: Bradley @ The Content Creators for Afon Mêl Meadery, taken at Lanelay Hall

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Cara Houchen

Cara Houchen

Editor 17th February 2023

'It started a conversation and sometimes it’s a conversation which needs a fire up its arse so it doesn’t go quiet'