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Behind the Kitchen Door

Saru Jayaraman

(Cornell University Press; US: Feb 2013)

Behind The Kitchen Door exposes the abysmal working conditions in too many American restaurants. Nothing author Saru Jayaraman writes should be news: televised competitive cooking is insanely popular. Viewers laugh when Bobby Flay or Gordon Ramsay go on a signature tirade. We’ve read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Bill Buford’s Heat, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter, and Dalia Jurgensen’s excellent Spiced, which recounts her life as a pastry chef in some of New York City’s finest restaurants. 


All of the above mention long working hours, injuries, low pay, an accepted culture of verbal and sexual abuse. Yet few consumers truly grasp what happens in “the back of the house”: the kitchens where their food is prepped, cooked, and plated. Many of the people who assembled that lovely little risotto primavera you spooned down last night at that cool new bistro aren’t even earning minimum wage.  And that’s just the beginning. 


Jayaraman, founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, is working hard to educate the countless Americans who dine out regularly. Unfortunately, Behind the Kitchen Door isn’t the ideal medium for further conveying the message. Unhappily, Jayaraman doesn’t have great writing chops.


If you can get past the uneven writing and depressing subject matter, Behind the Kitchen Door rewards you with one more thing to worry about. You’re already recycling, supporting local business, taking public transport. Your veggies hail from just up the street. Now, just when you want to let your guard down, go out to your fave joint for a nice burger or plate of tofu accompanied by a cocktail, Jayaraman has given you the dirt on restaurant staff and you can’t get it out of your head.


We eat out to enjoy ourselves, to celebrate, or just plain escape our own kitchens. Jayaraman’s use of graphs and legalese to describe tipping wages, laws, and cost of living may not grab you. But her stories of real restaurant workers and their lives will forever change the way you think about eating out. 


Restaurant Opportunities Centers United began after Windows On the World in the north tower of the World Trade Center was decimated in the 9/11 attacks.  While Jayaraman is careful not to name restaurant owners or abusers throughout her book, it was David Emil, owner of Windows On the World, who pledged to rehire workers that were displaced after 9/11.  When he opened a large new eatery with a Latin-American theme, however, most of the Windows On the World workers were denied employment.  Emil’s excuse: they were unqualified. This was a group of people hired expressly for their linguistic skills, diversity, and ability to work in a premier restaurant setting. A woman telephoned Jayaraman, then working as a labor organizer, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) was born.


Jayaraman was young and inexperienced at the time. Her qualifications were a love of eating out and an understanding of the immigrant experience: her parents are from India. As a first-generation American, she was able to empathize with many of the hurdles immigrant restaurant workers faced. Jayaraman began working with some of the displaced employees, staging marches and calling in managers, chefs, and restaurant administrators to discuss workplace issues. Jayaraman and her colleagues at ROC count numerous success: Emil met some of ROC’s demands, while Mario Batali, whose Del Postale restaurant epitomized workplace abuses, about-faced, becoming one of the best-behaved restaurateurs in the business. Jayaraman sees this as a win-win—better food, happier workers, happier customers.  Given Batali’s high profile, I question his true motivations.  But Jayaraman’s focus on success is understandable: how else could she continue in the field?


Each chapter of Behind the Kitchen Door presents an industry problem, a vignette about a worker who endured it, accompanied by a photograph, and a high number of happy endings—generally, better jobs, often with ROC. Yet the conscious reader realizes that for every appropriately compensated worker, there are dozens more out there working too hard for too little, desperate, with children to feed and bills to pay. 


In the chapter, “Real Sustainability, Please!”, we read how many restaurants offering—and charging for —organic or local are often lying about the food.  Jayaraman broadens the definition of sustainability to include workers, citing owner Diep Tran of Good Girl Dinette, in Los Angeles, California. Nearby Highland Park is the Los Angeles area’s “Little Viet Nam”, where excellent Vietnamese food may be had cheaply. Nationwide, the press have fetishized the neighborhood’s inexpensive food. And that hurts owners like Tran, who makes a point of providing living wages, promotions, as much organic food as she can afford, and working relationships with small farmers.  All of this takes more time and money, which is reflected in the cost—and quality—of Good Girl Dinette’s Food. 


Good Girl Dinette epitomizes the problem of ethical dining. Yes, you can find cheaper banh mi (the wondrous Vietnamese equivalent of a submarine sandwich). But will that $2 sandwich help somebody pay rent, feed a child, help a local farmer?  Will it be organic, prepared with care by a worker who feels invested in her job, who in turns chooses to invest in her?  I realize these choices are not available to diners.  But those of us who can afford Good Girl Dinette’s $8 banh mi should be eating there. 


The next chapter might put you off eating out forever. Restaurant work does not offer sick leave. Forget paid time off: take a day, lose your job. If you are a single, inner-city parent at a fast food franchise, that means you’re coming to work with your runny nose, your coughing, your sneezing. It means that no matter how careful you are, there isn’t time during lunch rush to repeatedly wash your hands. When bartender Woong Chang, contracted H1N1 influenza, he was told to stay on the job. Finally too ill to work, he lost his job. Nikki, a young woman who left a job after a coworker raped her, found work in a bar. The facility was badly overheated. Staff were not permitted breaks, even to use bathrooms. By midnight Nikki would be in the bathroom, vomiting. Her manager sent her back to work. Serving food and drink.


As Jayaraman repeatedly points out, restaurants that treat their employees this way tend to have little regard for their patrons. Often that lack of concern and respect extends to foods. One cook related working for an owner who was short of funds. He skimped not only on paying his staff, but on providing his customers with fresh foods, forcing his staff to prepare and serve food that had either gone bad or was on the verge of turning. The cook describes trying to wipe white slime from salmon before cooking and serving it.


The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour. Restaurants use countless avenues to exploit this, including stealing tips, illegal pooling and payout systems, and shift work, which is illegal—all adding up to impoverished workers and bad working conditions. One college student, Claudia, worked in a pancake house. There were days she went without eating, didn’t have enough gas money to attend school. One bad day, she flirted with the chefs in exchange for three pieces of shrimp. Jayaraman cites the owners of Detroit’s Russell Street Deli as the ideal restaurant. It pays workers well and provides benefits. And while the owners are indeed a model of what could be, just as Diep Tran is, they were fortunate in having a financial cushion when they bought Russell Street Deli. 


Racism remains widespread in many kitchens, as well. Restaurant kitchens are largely staffed by people of color, often immigrants, many undocumented. This means managers get away with underpayment, no payment, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Segregation by color is alive and well, with the “front of the house”: waitstaff and hostesses often being lighter skinned, while the faces literally darken as you work your way back, toward the dishwashing station. Often these immigrants are highly educated, multilingual, and highly capable. Yet they are repeatedly denied promotions. Some restaurants will only hire white waitstaff, citing the need for perfect English, even when the staff in question is a European with imperfect English. 


Jayaraman suggests we raise our eyes from our plates when dining out, and take notice when the bussers are all Latino and the servers white. She wants consumers to ask restaurant managers whether those bussers ever get promoted. If hailing the manager discomfits you, download the ROC’s National Diner’s Guide to Ethical Eating, and at least avoid the restaurants that are the most henious offenders. You can also take further political action on their website. And for heaven’s sake, TIP. Generously.

Rating:

Diane Leach has a Master's Degree in English Literature from Humboldt State University. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New Mobility, and The Collagist. She can be reached at dianesleach@gmail.com.


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