photo credit: Nevada Restaurant Association

Restaurateurs recognized for running healthy kitchen environments share their best practices.

In a bustling kitchen where timing, quality and safety are everything, the charbroiler isn’t the only thing that heats up. When the rush is on, tempers can flare and tensions spike. Couple that with the job’s brisk pace and nontraditional schedule, and kitchen staff may be at risk for depression and fatigue. “There’s heavy stuff happening in restaurants,” says Sarah Worley, one of the chef/owners of Biscuit Love in Nashville, Tenn., adding that it’s not uncommon to see employees who struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues.

After television personality and former chef Anthony Bourdain killed himself, the Wall Street Journal published the article “Reckoning with the Dark Side of the Restaurant Industry,” delving deep into chefs and restaurateurs speaking out about the stress, depression and substance abuse in the field. More and more restaurants are taking notice, and working toward ensuring employees are given tools and resources to overcome such obstacles. 

Worley is part of a cohort of chef-owners that have made it their mission to create kitchens that are fair, friendly and emotionally healthy places to work. “My partner and I both worked in kitchen environments in our 20s where the screaming and yelling was normalized, and it was terrible,” says Worley. “I knew I didn’t want to live like that again or be part of a business that was like that for others.” Here’s how Worley and other likeminded chefs are taking real steps to improve their kitchen culture. 

Offer communication training. Biscuit Love has a strict “no gossip” policy and requires that new hires take a communication training course in their first 60 days. “We define gossip as conversations about someone that you wouldn’t have to their face,” she says. 

As part of onboarding, Wildflower Bread in Scottsdale, Ariz. also trains employees over the course of five weeks to use a communication tool set called Safe Space. It outlines how tone and body language are more persuasive than what is said, the importance of using “I” vs. “you” statements to avoid the blame game and the difference between stating facts and making judgements. 

Level the playing field. At Biscuit Love, Worley says she makes wage levels and their accompanying job duties public. “We want all staff to see the road to advancement at the restaurant, and how they can make more money,” she says. “This cuts down on in-fighting about who is making what and why.”

Likewise, Lior Hillel, the executive chef and co-owner of four restaurants in Southern California (the Bacari restaurant group and Nature’s Brew), encourages every member of his staff from dishwashers to front-of-the-house managers to contribute meal ideas for the menu and pays the employee a bonus if their recipe idea is implemented. “It keeps me inspired, and it also shows that I value their opinion regardless of their position on staff,” he says.

Take an empathetic approach. Hillel describes that when an employee is late, for example, communication can get explosively tense over text messages. When you read a text, you read it from your own perspective, filtering the words through your current state of mind. An innocuous message can turn into an accusatory message that the writer never intended. “We train our leaders to first take a concerned approach, asking ‘Is everything okay?’ because you never know what might have happened to the employee to make them late,” he says. 

Similarly, as part of their communication training, Biscuit Love employees are coached to assume others have positive intentions when they find themselves in a difficult conversation. “It’s important to not put your feelings on someone’s else’s actions,” says Worley.

Watch your tone. “I can get upset, but I don’t yell,” says Hillel. “And if I don’t yell, no one else yells. It’s unacceptable in our kitchens.” He also says there’s zero tolerance for harassment or offensive humor. “No one should feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or singled out,” he explains. 

Worley says at Biscuit Love, they have a strict no-nickname policy. “We believe that names are powerful, and that identity is important, so we don’t allow anyone to put an identity on someone else,” she says.

Unite around a purpose. In order to keep up morale, particularly in a kitchen where tasks can get repetitious, offer reminders about the mission behind the work. “If you don’t have something to believe in, it can be hard to wake up and come to work every day,” says Wildflower Bread CEO Louis Basile. His staff, called Breadheads, are trained on the framework of Wildflower’s purpose: to change lives, create traditions, build community and feed the soul with passion—every time, every day. 

Provide resources. Biscuit Love employs two staff-care specialists, one English-speaking and one Spanish, to assist employees with any challenges such as housing, transportation, childcare and substance abuse. “They hold regular office hours at the restaurants and will also bus tables with staff members to find out how everyone is doing,” says Worley. “It’s confidential and very solutions-based.”

Join #FairKitchens. This movement, initiated by Unilever Food Solutions, sponsor of the National Restaurant Association’s Centennial, aims to help create kitchen environments where everyone supports each other. “Our vision has been to make the 17 million kitchens around the world better places to work,” says Clare Stroud, Unilever’s global lead for #FairKitchens. Over 2,000 chefs have already pledged to follow the initiative’s TEAMS code: Talk openly, Excite passion, Act as one, Make time, and Say ‘good job.’ Connect with #FairKitchens to receive staff training tools, employee resources and more tips to create a sustainable and fair workplace. Get in on the conversation and take advantage of the rich ideas being shared to enhance kitchen cultures.