Inside Irish restaurants: Bullying, burnout and sex harassment

We brought together top chefs to discuss the big problems in Irish restaurants and how to fix them

Six of Ireland's leading chefs speak out about their work, the stresses of the profession and bullying in the kitchen. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

The restaurant business has been hitting the headlines in recent times in unprecedented levels. From sexual harassment and bullying claims to concerns about stress levels and unsustainably long working days, the industry has been under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

To address these questions, and others, we invited a group of professional chefs to a round-table discussion at The Irish Times and gave them a platform to put their points across and talk about the challenges they are facing.

In addition to the six who attended in person, we took comments from two chefs with strong views on the topics up for discussion, who were unable to attend but wanted to contribute.

Damien Grey is head chef and co-owner of Heron & Grey, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Blackrock, Co Dublin. Bryan McCarthy is executive head chef at Greenes restaurant and Cask cocktail bar in Cork. Mary Farrell is executive head chef at Morton’s in Ranelagh and a final-year PhD candidate researching Gender Inequality in the Chef Profession in Ireland.

Niall Sabongi is a chef who runs three fish restaurants under the Klaw banner in Dublin city, as well as a wholesale sustainable seafood business. Ryan Stringer is executive head chef at the Ely restaurant group in Dublin. Carmel Somers is chef/owner at Good Things @ Dillon’s Corner in Skibbereen, a restaurant and cookery school, and is an Irish Times Magazine columnist.

Jess Murphy is head chef and co-owner of Kai Café in Galway. JP McMahon is a chef with three Galway restaurants and is also an Irish Times columnist.

More than an hour of lively dialogue later (and a transcript running to more than 7,000 words; edited down for these pages), here is what these key industry players have to say about what goes on in Irish professional kitchens.

Clockwise from far left, Niall Sabongi, Damien Grey, Ryan Stringer, Bryan McCarthy, Carmel Somers and Mary Farrell. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Clockwise from far left, Niall Sabongi, Damien Grey, Ryan Stringer, Bryan McCarthy, Carmel Somers and Mary Farrell. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Is sexual harassment at work an issue for chefs in Ireland?

Jess Murphy: Yes, unfortunately it is, from guys pinching each other’s arses around you to sleazy behaviour like inappropriate touching and suggestive comments. But my first real violent encounter was in New Zealand. The police were called when a 16-year-old kitchen porter got smashed up against a double-door fridge and slapped in the face by a 45-year-old manager, who was drunk. That 16-year-old was me. This still brings me to tears writing this, and it has affected me my whole life.

Mary Farrell: I walked into a particular kitchen, it was a new job, and there were calendars on the wall with women on them, in bikinis, whatever. So I said, ‘Right guys what’s this doing here?’ and I was just laughed at. They wouldn’t take it down, so I did. I came in the next day and it was up again. So I ripped it up and put it in the bin and said that’s the end of it. Not in my kitchen.

Damien Grey: Unfortunately you had to prove yourself to the lads. Women still, unfortunately, in kitchens, have to prove themselves, that’s the horrible part.

Ryan Stringer: I have never seen any of that and wouldn’t stand for that in any of my kitchens. I don’t see the difference in whether you’re a woman, gay or whatever. It’s what you do with these two hands that counts.

JP McMahon pictured at RTÉ's The Taste of Success. Photograph: Fusionshooters
JP McMahon pictured at RTÉ's The Taste of Success. Photograph: Fusionshooters

Is bullying happening in professional kitchens?

JP McMahon: It still happens in many kitchens that I know of. It’s the owner’s responsibility to ensure that it does not happen.

Bryan McCarthy: That’s a couple of places, with reputations, giving the rest of us a bad name.

Carmel Somers: I was the only female in the kitchen, and I left because it was very tough. But I had a German colleague, he was gay, and he got bullied more than I did. I think I became very scared of the whole environment.

Grey: I walked out of a famous kitchen here because of it, because of general abuse.

How bad has it been, in the past?

Sabongi: Some kitchens would let you go down, you’d literally be drowning and you’d be in the s**t completely and the pressure would be intense, and then all you’d get is chefs abusing you, for like eight hours. You’d be crying leaving. But you’d get up after four hours’ sleep and go back in and do it all again.

Is this changing, dying out with the old brigade?

Somers: I do think it has changed. We have all moved on, but we’re stuck with that reputation. I even hear customers saying to the staff – my kitchens have always been open – “I never hear her shout”, because they expect that you’re going to be shouting.

Sabongi: Only a bad chef shouts.

Stringer: I worked with a lot of chefs who were very harsh and then when I got my first head chef position, for the first six months, people may have thought I was a bit of a bully – now I don’t mean physically, but that’s what you knew.

Grey: I’m not going to lie either, when I first became a head chef, that was the only thing I knew: to control the kitchen.

Stringer: And then, if you’re smart enough, you realise, I’m going to get more out of this guy if I’m ... not “nice” to him ... but if I educate him.

Wages are not great in the food industry because people don’t want to pay high prices for food. We’re always looking for a deal

Ireland has a shortage of chefs – why is this?

Sabongi: There is a lot of repetition, and people lose interest. The guys, like they’ve been in three months, six months, and they say, “We’re still doing the same thing; when does it change, when do I move up?” In about three years’ time! And they don’t get that. They’re like, forget it.

McMahon: Wages are not great in the food industry because people don’t want to pay high prices for food. We’re always looking for a deal, for cheap food. In order to pay a chef de partie a good wage, you either need to buy cheap or charge more. Also, young chefs want to become head chefs upon leaving college. They need to realise that you need to do your time and learn.

Farrell: A lot of people are not paid properly, are not paid enough. If we’re saying the business can’t support good wages, then what are we going to do about that?

Grey: Everyone has to start thinking: There has got to be a better way. If I’m training a chef I’ll say, “If you can find a faster way to do it, then do that.” It’s just evolution, progress. And it needs to be the same in the industry.

McCarthy: One thing that won’t work is the new national commis chef apprentice programme [launched by Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton on January 10th]. It’s going to take them out of the kitchen for nearly 50 per cent of their time. And you have to pay them minimum wage while they’re in college as well as in work.

More than once I worked a 22-hour shift, and many chefs in high-end dining work 16-18 hours a day

What can be done to encourage chefs to stick with the career?

Farrell: Are 12-hour shifts and split shifts absolutely necessary? Is there not a better way of running a kitchen? It’s not okay to say, “Well, this is the way it is”. If we don’t change the way the system works, we’re going to be back here in a year’s time saying exactly the same things.

McMahon: More than once I worked a 22-hour shift, and many chefs in high-end dining work 16-18 hours a day. This needs to stop.

Somers: It’s not a normal way of living and working. I mean I’ve done it all my life, and it’s so crazy, and we expect people to come and do it with us.

Stringer: Starting from the top, designing training in-house. Introducing them to wine courses or introducing them to something at a managerial level. So they might think, this guy next door is going to offer me an extra 50 cent a week to move to him, but this guy is going to train me up and possibly in five or six years’ time I can be ready for a managerial position.

Is there a solution to tackle the immediate problem?

Sabongi: Not being able to hire non-nationals is an issue.

McCarthy: I got a work permit for a Brazilian chef. It cost nearly €4,000, and it is worth it now because he is an amazing chef.

Sabongi: We lost two Canadian chefs due to visas. One is engaged to an Irish guy and they’ve just both moved back, so that’s another two chefs out of the country.

Stringer: We’ve lost a couple of Mauritian guys as well.

McCarthy: They don’t need to open the floodgates. People say you’ll have hundreds and thousands of Mexicans coming in and it’ll push the salaries down lower. But that’s not what any of us want. We’d just like to see the hoops they make you jump through at the moment [for visas] relaxed a bit.

Murphy: Work visas need to be re-evaluated. This is something I am passionate about, especially with the highly skilled workforce we have just sitting in direct provision centres.

Jess Murphy of Kai in Galway. Photograph: Hany Marzouk
Jess Murphy of Kai in Galway. Photograph: Hany Marzouk

What is the way forward for the industry?

Grey: We only open three days a week. We did that on purpose, because we do work long hours. It just is the way it is. We compensate by making sure that everyone has four days off. When we work, we work super-hard, but we do it together as a team.

The other thing we introduced is there’s no front of house or back of house, so the guys on the floor do prep, and once service is done, the guys in the kitchen get out and help polish and clean. We are a team, we come in together and we leave together.

Sabongi: We do that as well. There is no division, there are no chefs, there are no waiters, there are no managers. It’s one team, one dream.

Murphy: Senior chefs should be mentors, bringing young chefs forward to the media more, to highlight the new talent in this country. Seeing one female in a line-up of chefs promoting the industry makes my blood boil.

McCarthy: I’ve got five women in my kitchen and they’re five cracking chefs. I don’t know what I’d do without them. They bring balance into the kitchen, they actually bring something to the kitchen that I think was missing when I was coming up through as a commis to head chef. There was a lot of male aggression in kitchens, and I just don’t ever experience it now.

Are no-shows a growing problem, and if so, what can be done about it?

Grey: You simply have to say we require a small deposit. We’re very flexible – we’re not rogue about it. We’ve had no no-shows since we introduced this system and we’ve had plenty of cancellations, so we have plenty of conversations, we talk to people to work something out. I’ve only had to charge one table that turned up with not the correct amount of people, and it was horrible, I really didn’t want to do it, but we had to stick to our rules.

We hold credit card details, but people still cancel at the last minute. Sometimes they give you the wrong credit card number

Stringer: This Christmas, we had tables of 40, 50, 60, and we told them the policy was, if only up to three people don’t show up, don’t worry about it, but if it’s more, we’re going to have to charge. And the amount of groups that showed up this year with just three people missing was unbelievable – they were pulling people out of the woodwork saying, ‘Come on, we’re just going to get charged anyway’. It’s working for us, for everybody. It’s about survival, it’s inevitable.

McMahon: We hold credit card details for Saturday in Aniar, but people still cancel at the last minute. Sometimes they give you the wrong credit card number.

Why would anyone want to be a chef?

McCarthy: For a lot of us, we’re in it because we love it. I got my first job in a kitchen when I was 13 years old. From day one, I was hooked and never looked back. It’s a job that you’ve got to have a passion for, to survive the hours, the rigours of going from being a trainee to being a good chef who knows how to do every section.

Is there anything chefs can do to help them deal with the demands of the job?

Murphy: For the past six months I’ve been seeing Tony Óg Regan (former Galway hurler and performance psychology coach), getting advice on how I combat problems, kitchen and team management, and dealing with pressure. It is making me a better chef role model and that’s what it’s all about.”

  • An equal number of male and female chefs were invited to participate, but some had to pull out due to illness
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