Food & Drink

How Celebrity Chefs Warped Our View Of Real-World Restaurant Abuse

“I realized, this is abnormal.”

A study from earlier this year looks at how food media has influenced the behavior of real-world chefs. Photo: FOX

A study from earlier this year looks at how food media has influenced the behavior of real-world chefs. Photo: FOX

Over the weekend, the author, restaurateur, and food columnist J. Kenji López-Alt posted a link on his Instagram account to an academic article titled “The Normalization of Violence in Commercial Kitchens Through Food Media,” writing his his caption, “I have been quite vocal for years about how the casual glorification of kitchen abuse on television by chefs like Gordon Ramsay (@gordongram) can lead to real world abuse.”

Curious, I downloaded the full article and found it to be incredibly instructive. Even if its conclusions do not feel new, exactly, it offers an undeniably clear look at the ways in which abuse continues to manifest inside professional kitchens. I reached out to the authors, Dr. Ellen Meiser and Dr. Penn Pantumsinchai — hosts of the podcast The Social Breakdown — to talk about the article’s origins, their findings, and where we can go from here.

What first made you decide to examine this phenomenon?
Ellen Meiser: I went to CIA for baking and pastry, and worked in the culinary industry. I thought I was going to be the next Anthony Bourdain because I love him, but this paper comes from a bigger study, which is my dissertation. The purpose was not to look at violence in kitchens. I was instead looking at how people in creative industries, like cooking, perceive the success-failure spectrum: success, averageness, failure. I didn’t even ask about violence. That was not something I probed for; it just organically came up. And two names that came up over and over and over again were of course Anthony Bourdain, because he’s such a huge figure in food media, and Gordon Ramsay. With Gordon Ramsay, it was about how he was influencing the culture in various ways, through entertaining — people thought he was genuinely funny — but also how he’s a bully. One thing Penn and I want to make clear is that the reason we cite Bourdain and Ramsay specifically is because that’s who the subjects were talking about. We don’t cite them because we are anti-Ramsay or anti-Bourdain; it’s simply what the data showed.

What was your method going into this research?
EM: I went out and interviewed people, which are the interviews we outline in the article. I also did participant observation in a kitchen — 120 hours of observation with field notes — and I surveyed 258 kitchen workers online, so that’s a quantitative aspect. That’s where the study started, trying to investigate how we think of success in a creative industry that’s also very commercial, where there are clear signs of success: a full dining room versus an empty dining room,

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