Ómós Digest #60: Sustainability overload.
Adopting a new formula for restaurants & fine dining.
“I don't know that there’s really any restaurant that is doing that many things, you know, that fast, putting out that many plates, that quickly…”
- Kyle Connaughton, Chef Patron of Single Threads.
Documented within history are a series of iconic food movements that have shaped eras, each defined by their own distinctive principles and rules that have helped pave the way for gastronomy. Haute cuisine, Nouvelle cuisine, Avant-garde and the Nordic Food Movement (to name a few) each involve a development of ideas, diverging viewpoints, a progression and evolution of both technique and technological advancements from that deployed by their predecessors. They capture the imagination of chefs, writers and gastronomes the world over, and with that, change the face of food and cooking as we know it. Today, faced with the impending shortage of food and throwing our very own future into question, such evolution or should we say destruction has catapulted us into the myths of a new movement. As businesses throughout the world embrace sustainability within their workplace, restaurants of all manners and chefs alike are attributing their loyalty and dedication towards a more ethical form of cookery. One that places respect on the sourcing of the very ingredients that shape their creations. In principle, this shift in philosophy is positive. Fundamentally, it’s designed not to set out and impress, but to form an awareness and responsibility surrounding food production. As humankind at last begins to take responsibility for climate change, two big issues loom. Firstly is this devotion towards a sustainable future an earnest one, attributed by businesses who seek to make positive change, or are there ulterior motives involved? Secondly, when will we see this term ‘sustainability’ be applied not only to consumables projected onto menus and advertisements, but to the human beings who dedicate their entire professions to cooking and hospitality?
The issue I personally have surrounding the term sustainability is that it has become void of meaning. At its core, sustainability refers to the ability to maintain or support a process continuously over time. When we apply this to our food system, this inevitably relates to systems producing food put into production in a manner that the planet can positively support, maintaining and encouraging soil health and livestock management, resulting in an an ecosystem that acts as a carbon storehouse, rather than the degrading unsustainable agriculture that today is polluting our environment. However, sustainability does not only concern food, consumables, packaging and the environmental effects of industrial pollution. The term has succumbed so much to greenwashing. It’s casually thrown around by global corporations, politicians and developers then placed on the consumer so much so that we have become more concerned about the plastic straw than the livelihood of the cow or the treatment of the human being. Sustainability has become so overused that we no longer hear it, let alone understand its true value.
In truth, I’ve wanted to publish this article many times. Like you I am sure, over the last couple of months, I have read countless articles detailing staff shortages, abuse and neglect. I’ve had numerous conversations with those I regarded as ‘hospitality heads’ who have dedicated their lives to the trade, and who now tell me they have hung up their Birkenstocks, Blundstones and Dr. Martens in favour of a career that relies not solely on wearing their heart on their sleeves, but that offers balance, a liveable wage, and leaves them feeling, well, cared for… Hearing this, I feel both relief and disappointment. Relief that they have found the courage to make an exit. This industry for too long has been a thankless environment to work in. It promises so much but too often has offered little in return, trapping those within. The industry we know as hospitality has abused the work-life balance of its own people, taking them from their families, causing missed moments and entire sacrifice, which up until very recently has in essence become normalised. This has lead to severe consequences — burnout, abuse, mental health issues and suicide. I myself have had moments where I have felt completely isolated, broken and questioning my own career, but luckily had the correct support around me.
“The jobs we humans are uniquely good at are often the jobs we do not value at all. Social care jobs, for example, are defined by economists everywhere as low-skilled or unskilled. For a chartered accountant taking part in a discussion on automation recently, this prompted an existential wobble: “It’s easier to automate me than a carer or a cleaner,” he said. “So am I really more skilled?”
- Sarah O’ Connor, The Financial Times.
The industry for decades has represented itself as a hardworking vocation where sacrifice was considered part of the profession, and those who enlisted were admired and respected for their gallant devotion. As a consequence to the accepted lifestyle of the chef, harmful effects and addictive habits become normalised, attributed through poor working environments and consequently a lack of self care. While chefs have forever been lauded for their commitment and skill, in particular to Ireland, front of house has never been given the respect it deserves. The career (which it is) has been forever viewed as an interim role, a means to an end, a temporary paycheck only fitting for students with very different career aspirations elsewhere. I can’t begin to tell you how many demeaning guests I have encountered. Clicking their fingers, expecting, demanding, raising voices with intonations that suggest that the career of FOH is servile and thus of a class wading far beneath them. It's a rather bleak prospect isn't it? We speak of development, advancements, evolution, but this industry's demise is by fault of its own behavioural underdevelopment. As food, restaurants and gastronomy will continue to evolve into the future, sometimes by way of seeking inspiration from the past, one thing is certain, in 20 years’ time, no one will look back into the archives to learn how to ethically run a restaurant. So, you might be asking, why after 15 years of grafting, having been subject to this treatment for such a long time, should someone like me be thinking that my future remains within restaurants? Occasionally I wonder what it is that prevents me from trading in my knives for tools that might provide me with the ability to carve cutlery or build furniture. What stops me from putting an end to the constant pursuit of finding the next amazing grower, instead of wanting to become the next amazing grower? What intercepts that momentary thought that life as a potter in solitude would undoubtedly be a satisfactory existence, is that food, hospitality and restaurants, especially the kind that are at the centre of my existence, provide the ability to be part of all of the above… daily! It’s that creativity, sense of exploration, ability to produce things with my hands and the interaction with people and communities to collaborate and share experiences. It’s this that keeps me driven, continuing the pursuit to fulfil a desire. That first ambition to be the best has now been replaced by an overriding desire to one day be a part of an elite group of restaurants doing what truly matters. The question is not what is the future of this industry, but how can I change it for the better?
In 2019, Fine Dining Lover’s journalist, Ryan King, stood on stage before an audience of chefs and gastronomes attending Food on The Edge Symposium in Co. Galway. He stated, “I’m here today to hopefully amplify a conversation surrounding the sustainability of the chef, not the carrot, not the lamb, not the zero km supply chain that many restaurants seem to boast about. The sustainability of human beings who dedicate their entire professions to cooking for, nurturing for, feeding other people. I’d argue it’s one of the noblest careers, when you look at it that way.” As a means to shine light on this issue and to bring positivity to an industry that so desperately needs it, Ryan asked, “How can this obsession be made a sustainable one?” Where can chefs make an impact?
Through my training, I’ve worked 100 hour weeks, I’ve been subject to abuse, I’ve slept through entire days off, I’ve woken with blisters and sores in my feet. I’ve dreaded the inevitable arrival of Tuesday mornings (typically speaking Monday is the hospitality industry's Sunday). I’ve worked through injuries, in one instance in particular, having dislocated my shoulder, I felt obliged to work in a sling, aggravating the injury tenfold, all because “the team needs you”. Such phrases are common. Back on stage Ryan questions, “How many chefs have been asked to rest and recuperate because the team needs them at optimum health?.” That one really struck home. He continued by referencing a number of responses found within a discussion that took place on social media surrounding kitchen culture:
“If you can't stand the heat, step out of the kitchen.”
“I sacrificed so others should do the same.”
Although there exists today a number of restaurants who are positively paving the way for the future of hospitality, it’s comments like these that demonstrate that there remain many who persist in believing that this industry is broken and feel it should remain so. Considering that this mentality is widely available on social media, just think how prevalent it must be behind doors. Addressing the need for an entire shift in mentality within the hospitality industry is critical. The current system that many restaurants operate under is flawed and what is required is a reset. So where to begin?
In closing, Ryan introduced the idea of a new restaurant. One that defies the norm. Traditionally, a high end restaurant with ambitions of greatness - often subject to the chefs’ own ambitions and eventual sacrifice of their team's wellbeing - depends on a system surrounding the creativity of a menu. The formula is as follows:
Fine Dining Menu Formula, beginning of time - 2022:
Start: I design a challenging menu that will demonstrate my creativity and show my skills
How many chefs do I need to make this happen?
How many covers do I need to make this profitable (providing everything goes ok)?
Accolades + Chefs’ success + the rest of the team suffer
Fine Dining Menu Formula, 2022 onwards:
Start: What kind of a menu can I do with the skills that I have?
What is possible together with my team of 5?
What dishes are not possible at this moment?
Perhaps I lose that dish that is killing the team (that dish that takes one chef 8 hours to complete every day, that dish with 63+ elements, causing everyone to work extra hours, become exhausted) and simplify it, improving its deliciousness.
= Sustained success.
The result ultimately is not a dilution of creativity or ideas, but a realistic and sustainable model that takes the current chef shortage of our industry into account. It acknowledges the fundamental necessity that workplace culture be addressed and that work-life balance becomes part of the parcel within the organisation. What this clarity instils, as a result of self-care and self-awareness, is the courage and confidence to produce very simple food. This coupled with proper HR and clear intent on providing a positive working environment, will result not only in your own fulfilment, but the success and happiness of your entire team. Ryan accounts that every chef who has made an impact within kitchen culture has had to act in this way.
It's ironic that following the transcription of this video on YouTube, I was automatically linked to a suggested video. It was one of Eater’s Mise en Place clips, that takes us through a day in the life of a restaurant. In this case it was Single Threads, a 3 Michelin star restaurant in Sonoma serving an elaborate Kaiseki menu of over 40+ dishes, by a dedicated, well-oiled and militant team. The chef, Kyle Connaughton, who I quoted in the introduction, takes us through the world he has created around him. I think in normal circumstances this clip is a fascinating and commendable appreciation of craft and skill, and no doubt a remarkable dining experience that would have anyone reminiscing about it for the rest of their days. But having spent the past 20 minutes taking in Ryan’s interpretation of how the modern fine dining menu ought to be perceived, I know what side of the fence I sit on when it comes to defining tomorrow’s restaurant.
That said, below is the Ómós Manifesto of workplace culture that I hope you can get some benefit from.
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