Back in February celebrated chef David Chang wrote a piece in Lucky Peach, which in turn was a response to a short essay by even more celebrated chef Rene Redzepi about the legacy of abuse and fear in professional kitchens. Chang makes some neat Star Wars analogies, and an admission that although he wasn’t sure exactly how to break the vicious circle, he has hope that a change is imminent.
Naturally the bar community saw parallels with the kitchen (as they often do) and were keen to point out similarities. I readily acknowledge that amongst the tinkle of crystal and ice and in the shadows of dark nights, abuse – as with so many other professions – often lurks. Quite rightly the less savoury aspects of the bar profession are slowly being picked at, pulled off and exposed.
Nonetheless I am hesitant to make such quick comparisons with life behind the stick and the life behind the pass. It is an easy equation to make, but to a certain extent I think parallels are overall superficial. Perhaps I am being uncharacteristically optimistic, and although there are plenty of horror stories in the bar world, my impression of the drinks industry is that as dark and twisted as it might be, it is closer to recovery and not quite as bent out of shape as the kitchen crowd. Bartenders are generally and comparatively empathetic, accepting, encouraging and supportive of their young.
Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential often gets credited with kicking open swing doors to back of house and baring all, both positively and negatively. Positively in the sense that out in the open there grew a newfound appreciation of how hard chefs work, some real concerns about what happens under the strip lights and in the walk-ins, and new generations of chefs found a platform to get vocal about depression, anxiety, abuse and addiction. Negatively as some think it may have helped to perpetuate its own myth, and so ingrained into the public consciousness was the idea of the live-fast, die-young rock ’n’ roll chef that it was accepted – no – expected of newbies, with some even drawn to the kitchen precisely for the fetishised opportunity of abuse, masochism and bravado.
In the bar, we have no swing doors. For the majority of a shift, we are exposed and on show. We are encouraged to be extroverted and the centre of attention, proactively personable, a figure of fun. Of course this can be a double-edged sword. With charm and smiles constantly dialled up to 11, bartenders learn to be masters at masking real emotion, and I am in no way saying that they are any less capable of being prone to depression and mental health issues, as is currently being discussed across global bar communities.
However (whilst trying not to generalise or trivialise a complicated issue), the first steps to understanding and addressing said issues are communication and openness, which brings me to another key difference I see between bar and kitchen. Although the chefs work at close quarters, in the kitchen the structure of the team tends to be extremely regimented and strict. Typically one might be assigned to one station, head down, repeating the same action again and again. Try getting a professional bartender to stand in front of a chopping board and cut limes (let alone charring bits of meat over a 427°C fire) for 15 hours straight whilst being yelled at, without any hope of ever actually seeing a guest receive a wedge.
Bartenders are required to manifest camaraderie and teamwork. The modern bartender is generally encouraged to be expressive and creative, have a strong talent in communication. Initiative and resourcefulness is not just a bonus, it is a must. If you are not enthusiastically sociable, you’ll probably not last very long front of house. Although one might be taken to one side for a stern bollocking, most professional head bartenders, supervisors, managers and owners will learn pretty quickly that if they don’t keep shouting and machismo in check behind the bar, it is only an earshot away from spreading like fire on Wray over the counter and across inebriated patrons. Pretty soon the fact that your bartender forgot lime in their fucking fizz will be the least of concerns as the barroom turns into a brawl.
Consider not just the hierarchy and working structure, but shift patterns. It is not uncommon for chefs to finish shifts at various times as the final courses go out, after which (the sensible ones) go home for a little sleep before waking up at the crack of dawn to ready themselves for the breakfast shift. More often than not bartenders tend to finish their shifts together, and the ritual of breakdown and cash up is usually followed by bonding over a beer (that most effective of social glue), a bitch about the bar and perhaps even a bit of bar lore, meaning that even those with least in common tend to finish the night on an even keel, having blown off a little steam and perhaps learnt something: about the industry; about their colleagues; about themselves.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say we are perfect, far from it. I’m certainly not trying to rub Maldon into the chef’s wounds. I’m not saying we don’t have stuff to worry about or improve on, or that we shouldn’t vocalise our concerns. I’m just saying it ain’t that bad: we’ve got it pretty good, you know? If David Chang has hope for his Sith lords, I have lots of hope for our young Jedis.
Heads up, smile: our first guest has just walked in, and you have the pleasure of greeting them.
Julian De Feral