Louisa Ellis on bullying and harassment in kitchens - and what needs to happen for things to change

The  Staff Canteen

Louisa Ellis, a private chef whose name became familiar to many when she appeared on MasterChef: The Professionals 2017 - and who came back to win the Festive Knockout  in 2020 alongside Danny Parker, William Chilila and Marianne Lumb - has worked for herself for the past two years. 

Partly, this was the result of feeling confident enough to go her own way, as suddenly being recognisable to an entire nation will do that to you.

But another factor was that when she did work in professional kitchens, she felt on several occasions that she was somehow out of place and experienced incidences of harassment and bullying. 

Having taken a step back from the kitchens where she previously worked, Louisa now wants to have a conversation about the practices that she sees as damaging to the industry's reputation.

"I now feel comfortable letting others know that we're here for them and that we can try and support them if they're going through something similar," she said. 

Not to name and shame, Louisa wants the industry to come together and object to such practices; to give people who may be experiencing difficulties an outlet, someone to talk to, and the knowledge that they're not alone. 

"I'm not here to destroy anyone's business, that's absolutely not what I intend to do," she said. "What I do want to happen is for people to be positively contributing towards this movement of moving away from this." 

"People will turn around and say, 'this isn't happening in my restaurant'. Actually, if it happens to one person in your restaurant, and that person is on their own, nobody is sticking up for them and they don't have anyone to go to, they are completely alone and need help." 

"I want people to know that there are many people in the same position as me and have had experiences like me and that we are willing to speak up if it happens."

Are Female chefs considered equal in kitchens? Will female chefs ever be treated the same as men?

Being a woman is one reason why people are singled out, she says, as many still feel like they have to work harder to prove themselves, and cannot escape certain attitudes. 

And whilst women do want to be treated the same as men, she said, there has to be some exercise of caution.

"If guys want to go around the kitchen and flirt with each other, that's fine, boys do that sometimes, they have fun, they compliment each other and whatnot, but as a girl, I don't want to be spoken to in a sexual way, or pushed up against the side deliberately. It's like, 'there's plenty of space for you to walk by, you didn't need to do that.'" 

Perhaps because it is male dominated, things one might remember happening in offices 30 years ago still seem to occur in kitchens regularly. "Like slapping bums, that's completely unnecessary," she said.

"The problem is, we won't say anything about that there and then because it's uncomfortable, but we'll walk away from that situation and we'll feel really uncomfortable about it, and we have to decide, do we let that happen and carry on letting it happen because we want to fit in, or do we take a stand and say actually that's not okay."

When she tried to stick up for herself, the chef says it turned on her.

"It almost felt like nobody had my back."

Having become quite outspoken on the topic on her social media, she said, a lot of people have reached out to her.

"It's awful to say, but a lot of these people were women." 

"One was a front of house member who actually explained that she had a Champagne bottle thrown at her because she made a mistake," and "another incident where she was asked to bend over because her general manager wanted to see the length of her skirt." 

Bullying and harassment affects male chefs too

But it's not just women, and Louisa speaks of her own personal experiences as well as stories other chefs have shared with her.

It often boils down to a single person in the kitchen acting in a way that is innappropriate, she explained, and others staying silent.

"Things like tea towel whipping - there was a time when people were doing that as a joke." 

"I witnessed a guy who was pushed into a corner being whipped by a tea towel, who later on in service had a massive breakdown. He was completely broken. 

"We were all in service and we looked around at each other, like, 'we all want to help this guy but essentially if we come off our section and we help him, we'll be the one that is in trouble.'" 

"I've witnessed chefs going into walk-in fridges because that's where they feel safe, or going to the toilet regularly because that's where they feel safe, away from it."

"It sounds bad, but even the smallest incidents can make people feel like that." 

Banter versus bullying

There will undoubtedly be a fallout when we have these conversations, she says, and there will always be those who deliberately amalgamate bullying with banter. But as the industry has made progress, it is capable of making more. 

"I'm not here saying don't have fun at work - we're already put in kitchens in some cases and told not to talk to each other. 

"To be quiet in service is already quite common in a lot of places, so that's already taking the fun out of it, so that's that.

"I'm not saying to people not to have fun and that will be an issue because some people will watch this and say, 'oh, it's just banter' but actually if you're not realising the difference between banter and bullying, you've got a problem and you've got to sort that." 

"I'm not saying don't have banter in kitchens, because banter is a two-way thing. It's two people - sometimes you might take the mick out of each other and call each other names, because you know where the line is between yourselves because you're friends with that person." 

"If you're not friends with that person and it's just a work colleague and saying something that could actually be out of line, that could be really offensive to that other person without you realising and could seriously damage their mental health." 

"You have to realise that you don't know what's going on in somebody else's life, not everybody likes talking about their problems and issues that are going on outside of work.

"So you should be careful essentially - you don't have to tiptoe all the time, but you do have to take precautions not to deliberately go out of your way and upset someone, because that obviously isn't fair." 

"If you can try to be more kind to be people instead of making a conscious effort not to be nice to people, we'd move away from the negativity." 

It happens in award-winning kitchens too

Louisa is cautious not to name names or point the finger, and makes a point of saying that she doesn't want her previous employers to think that this is directed at them.

She does however believe that even among the country's top restaurants - those getting recognition from their peers and their guides for the food that they produce - staff are still treated badly. 

"I had one person say that there was a Michelin-star chef that had sexually harassed someone in their workplace and it was unspoken of." 

The alleged victim question wanted to stay anonymous, she explained, as "they don't want to name and shame. All they want is for this to stop." 

And while many such cases must be taken to the police, Louisa does want to be an instrument of positive change in the industry when it comes to more subtle forms of abuse.

The idea of setting up a call centre or even text message service that people can contact anonymously is one that Louisa believes would have been beneficial to her and could be of great help to others. 

"Because even just telling someone about this feels like closure." 

But even aside from a helpline or a platform for a support network, she believes that change could happen organically, by having conversations and preaching best practice and phasing out negative ones. 

"It comes down to sticking together. The more we do that, the stronger the industry will get. It takes big chefs that have got a high following or who people look up to as role models growing up."

Speaking of the high rates of suicide within the hospitality industry, she added: "even I've been in a situation once where I didn't want to be here anymore because I didn't have anyone to go to." 

"I know that sounds really sad but that happens to people." 

"If we can make their lives easier by giving them the facilities or the network to reach out to, knowing that we have their back, they will feel so much better in that position." 

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations may be able to provide help and advice:

The Burnt Chef project: 24/7 helpline, advice and support services

- Samaritans 24/7 helpline

- Hospitality Action offers support services as well as bullying and harrassment awareness courses to help employers and managers identify and overcome issues within their teams.

Photo credit: THE GAZTRONOME

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 15th April 2021

Louisa Ellis on bullying and harassment in kitchens - and what needs to happen for things to change