'You don't sort it out by targeting individuals, the entire industry needs to be reformed'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

When the news hit on Friday that The Kitchin Group was suspending two senior members of staff and launching an independent investigation into allegations of abuse, bullying and sexual harrassment, chef and owner of Darjeeling Express Asma Khan noticed that in their statements, no-one in the restaurant group issued an apology. 

Asma has been praised for the way she runs her award-winning restaurant, as well as for the calibre of its output - in that she chooses a very different style of operation to that still prevalent in many kitchens. 

"Saying, 'we're a top kitchen and there's a lot of pressure' - well, hello, you should come and see the pressure that we go through in my kitchen," she said. "We have nine women working, yet no-one is shouting." 

But her finger isn't pointed at a single person, nor does she believe that this should be anyone's aim.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," she said. "We don't want this to be a witch hunt. I'm not after this chef or the other, I don't care. But our entire industry is infected by this disease of bullying and oppression and silence and we need to cure this. You don't just go and target one person." 

The importance of tackling these issues runs deeper, she explains, as "it is a legacy which, if our generation doesn't sort it out, the next generation of kitchen teams will suffer in exactly the same way as they did twenty years ago. This is not acceptable." 

"Let us change it for ourselves and for those who are coming after us." 

Is silence complicity?

What has angered Asma the most about the past week's going's on, is the resounding silence emanating from the country's high-ranking establishments. The chef has taken to social media to oust what she calls "the conspiracy of silence," saying "it is not a good look for our industry."

"The powerful, successful, Michelin-starred chefs, people who you look up to in this industry, not a single one has said anything."

Consequentially, "all the people working for these powerful chefs will feel undermined - you want to see that your leader and your boss is speaking out for protecting people." 

Even in the restaurants which have made efforts to improve their practices, there is undoubtedly a belief that runs deep within the industry, which is that the end - great food - justifies the means.

"This is not how it has to be," and all great changes in society happened when people put their foot down. 

"At some point you need to stop something that is so wrong. Someone needs to be brave and stand up and say that we've got to stop, otherwise, none of the terrible things in societies in the past would have stopped." 

"When things are wrong, you need people to call it out. You need to have a collective, you need to have a conversation about how this is wrong. Then change happens."

For her, crucially, the highest quality of output shouldn't translate to abusive behaviour or poor working conditions.

"My restaurant is successful and we're all doing okay. I don't need to be some mad, turbulent, crazy deranged chef to be seen as a genius. I don't want that. I'm not Van Gogh, I'm just a chef." 

"They all think they're some kind of turbulent genius," she exclaimed. "Oh good God, you're just cooking food." 

So, what happens now?

Unfortunately, however, Asma is of the belief that self-regulation doesn't work in most places.

"To expect hospitality - who had not had the most exemplary record for the way that it treated its staff, for managers and owners pocketing service charge, for the brutality with which staff have been kept, the misogyny, the racism directed at people of colour - nothing has gone well as far as human rights, humanity, equality, justice go in this industry." But that isn't to say that reform isn't possible. 

As a lawyer, Asma takes a particular position on the question of pursuing restaurants legally for the things that happen in them.

"I know that these are complicated legal issues that can be expensive and protracted. People may not want to do that," she explained.

That having been said, transparency can be a way of proving one's commitment to good practice and values.

"Open up your kitchens. Let people talk to your staff, show us the gender balance in your kitchen, let people have cameras in. If you have nothing to hide, open up. If you have something to hide, you must reform." 

"I am a great believer in reform and rehabilitation, rebuilding. This is not the end of the road. The industry has suffered a lot and we need to rebuild from within, not from outside."

What should the consequences be for the businesses mired in allegations of abuse?

Up until now, "everybody else has been through this, the Gordon Ramsays of the world, the Tom Aikens', they've all brushed it off and they've lived to fight another day." 

"There's no sanction for this. The media is going to drop the story in a few days' time. 

And so, rather than let the stories emerge and then die down like they have in the past, she said, "something, structurally needs to change. There needs to be a change in attitude, a recognition that we have a problem. It's not like we're the only industry that's been through this - it's happened in Hollywood, it's happened elsewhere, where people have cleaned up their act and made it a much nicer place." 

"They've brought in processes where people can communicate about issues which are running." 

While progress has lauded across many businesses in the past couple of decades, the chef says that since she spoke up about The Kitchin Group's statement, she has received an outpouring of messages from people who have too been harassed, bullied, or assaulted whilst working in restaurants, revealing that it still happens more frequently than it is spoken about.

"We haven't progressed," she said. "I don't want to put the blame on the feet of chefs, but the structure of hospitality, where people have to work 16-hour days, in winter you don't even get to see the daylight, you come in darkness, you leave in darkness. 

"It has excluded women and it has excluded normal men who want to spend time with their partners, children, have a social life and see their friends. We've ended up with complete psychopaths in the kitchens who then take out all of their anger and frustration on people." 

"How can you burn someone deliberately? If this happened outside the kitchen, this person would be in jail for assault. Touching without consent? That's sexual assault. But somehow in kitchens, all of this is being allowed."

"We have fed these monsters, we have raised an entire generation of really horrible people in positions of power who think this is the way that you become a leader." 

"A lot of people are writing to me about this," she said. "It's like a Pandora's box that's been opened up, everybody wants to discuss it." 

And, avoiding the sensationalist approach, she said, "we need this conversation to happen," but "it needs to be in a responsible way."  

How do you break the cycle? 

After generations of people being called out for their offenses, they are still happening - so what, I asked Asma, can we do to bring an end to them? 

When it comes to restaurants found to be perpetuating unacceptable behaviours, she believes that a knock in the purse strings may be the only way - and the reason for her #BoycottTheBullies campaign on social media. 

 "You can hit them with money," she explained, "by taking away the awards and the glory that they have, and by having a reasonable, rational conversation about rights and justice. Do not burn people because they are a bit slow or something isn't done perfectly, do not abuse your women, do not racially abuse your kitchen porter who is black." 

"Where basic humanity, justice and kindness are not values that they want to have, take away the accolades, the glory that they have. This may make them wake up." 

She  points the finger at The Michelin Guide because in her view, "awards should not just be for the plate that came on the table, but what went on behind that kitchen wall, how that plate was created before it came out." 

"Can you imagine this happening in any other profession? To hit someone, to burn them or throw things across the room because it hasn't worked out how you want it to? It's happening all the time and no-one is complaining. This will only stop when you hit them hard and the only way to hit them hard is in the pocket." 

Furthermore, she said, "we should find routes by which we can all learn and be trained. If people require help, we should get help for our teams. For therapy, for anger management. Everything is possible."

Having already called out the industry's lack of a code of practice in the past, she added, "we need to learn lessons from other industries who have moved forward and set up structures." 

"We need to protect our own. People who work in our industry, we are morally responsible for, so by having this hands-off approach and living in denial, we are damaging people forever." 

"Other industries have cleaned up their act. So can we." 

'You can be humane and treat people equally. You don't have to suffer.'

Despite the horror of some of the claims being made, Asma is imbued with a degree of optimism for the future of hospitality.

"I am hopeful because there are people who are interested in calling it out, realising that they should no longer stay silent. This may be the way that things change, drop by drop," she said.

"In my lifetime I am going to see the change. I am not going to die before women and men are equal and where people can work without fear, this is my ambition in life.

"I don't want anything else, I just want to know that I called it out, I made a difference, I spoke up and I made people aware that you can be humane and treat people equally. You don't have to suffer."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 6th July 2021

'You don't sort it out by targeting individuals, the entire industry needs to be reformed'