Listen to the full interview.
Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and it’s relatively calm here at The World today, but it can get tense in our newsroom sometimes -- tight deadlines and breaking stories tend to raise blood pressure, salty language, and occasionally there are some hurt feelings. That’s nothing though compared to the heat in the kitchen of any restaurant. I’d hate to cook for Gordon Ramsay. It makes Nigel Fawlty and Manuel’s relationship in the kitchen of Fawlty Towers look progressive. Some French chefs have recently gotten fed up with the abuse behind the swinging doors and signed a manifesto to end hazing in the kitchen. For some insight into this, we called on James Oseland, former editor-in-chief of Saveur Magazine. He recently started a new magazine called Organic Life.
James Oseland: I suspect the origins of that tempestuousness in the French kitchen may have something to do with the fact that basically professional kitchens as we know them in France can trace their roots to royal kitchens, where I imagine there was a lot of very good reason to get whatever dish one was making particularly right. I think it’s just a very old and very ancient legacy perhaps that carries on.
Werman: It’s an apprenticeship system in France, like a lot of occupations. Is it a formal apprenticeship? How does it work?
Oseland: It is a formal apprenticeship, and it is intensely rigid. From the sous chef to the commis, all the way up to the very top of the line. I think there are things about that system that work very beautifully -- in fact, even brilliantly. Look at what the greatest French kitchens are capable of creating, the food they’re capable of creating. However, there is a lot of inherent nonsense. One of the things that always kind of trips me up when I encounter violence and yelling and the throwing of things, and all that kind of high energy, sometimes even toxic energy in the professional kitchen, be it in France or be it in New York City or Los Angeles or Hong Kong or wherever, is “Hey, wait a minute. Guys, we’re making food here. Can we chill out?” I don’t know, maybe this is the corny part of me, but for me, food comes from this very loving, very maternal place, a very soft place. It’s about nourishment, it’s about the bonding of culture. It’s not necessarily about throwing pots and pans and screaming at somebody. That’s always been a bit confusing to me personally.
Werman: What are the worst examples of abuse in the kitchen that you’ve heard of?
Oseland: I’m not going to name any names, but during my 5-year tenure as a judge on Top Chef Masters, the Bravo program, which is celebrity chefs in competition with each other, I’ve seen some pretty remarkable feats of kitchen abuse -- all sorts of screaming and all sorts of pouting, and sometimes even occasionally, yes, the throwing of objects. Pots being thrown and egos being pretty traumatized by what is, for all intents and purposes, bullying.
Werman: Why now this manifesto from these French chefs to change this abusive pattern?
Oseland: I think it’s likely that the public exposure to this kind of behavior through reality TV, and it’s not something only particular here in America. It’s reality food TV that we can watch all over the world, and a lot of it is produced locally. There’s no question that tempestuous and big and dramatic behavior makes for very, very good television. So, I think a lot of people are perhaps being more exposed to it these days within the last decade or so than they were previously. But it should probably be dialed down.
Werman: Interestingly, this manifesto was started in part by a French TV reality show cooking star named Cyril Lignac. Have you ever seen his show?
Oseland: I’ve not, but I’ve heard about it.
Werman: Is he kind of like the anti-Gordon Ramsay? Is that the reputation?
Oseland: We can hope so. And I’ve never met Gordon Ramsay, but interestingly, I’ve always heard that he’s nothing but the most beautiful and lovely guy on the face of the planet. What happens to him when he gets behind the doors of a kitchen and the cameras start rolling, I don’t know, maybe it’s a kind of Jekyll and Hyde situation.
Werman: Maybe he ate something bad. James Oseland, the editor-in-chief of the new magazine, Organic Life. Great to speak with you, as always James.
Oseland: Great to speak with you Marco.