We are a nation of foodies. We are concerned that the food we consume is sustainable, organic and locally-grown. We post photographs of our meals on Instagram. We revere well-known chefs like they are rock stars. And we make countless trips to restaurants, whether they are greasy spoon diners or high-end white tablecloth establishments.
I admit to being a foodie, too. Though I eat plenty of homemade meals, I consider it to be a blessing to live in such a great restaurant town. My own neighborhood boasts of great eateries featuring all kinds of food-Indian, Middle Eastern, Thai, Mexican, Italian, Greek, French, Ethiopian and so on. There is even a restaurant in my neighborhood that makes gourmet, artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches.
I eat at these restaurants, enjoy my meals with relish, treat the staff with respect and always leave a good tip. But I truly know what it’s like to work at a restaurant? Well, I thought I had some idea, but Saru Jayaraman’s book Behind the Kitchen Door really opened up my eyes and my mind.
Behind the Kitchen Door takes a very thorough look at how those who make our food and deliver it to our tables are treated by the restaurant industry, an industry that can treat its workers quite cruelly. And this doesn’t just happen at fast food joints or national chains like the Olive Garden or Denny’s. Fancy, high-end restaurants are also guilty of treating their employees poorly.
Jayaraman first became aware of restaurant workers’ plight when she was contacted by some people who used to work at the restaurant Windows on the World. Windows on the World was located at the World Trade Center. On September 11, 2011 73 of Windows’ workers perished when the WTC was attacked and over 200 of its workers were displaced. Windows’ owner promised his surviving workers he would hire them for another restaurant in uptown Manhattan. He broke his promise prompting several workers, most notably Fekkah Mamdouh, to work together along with Jayaraman and protest this initial development. Windows’ owner recanted and offered these employees work at the new restaurant. Thusly, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) was created, and it is working incredibly hard making sure restaurants workers are treated with respect and dignity and are rewarded properly for their hard work.
Reading this book really confirmed why ROC is so necessary. Behind the Kitchen Door relayed story after story of despicable low wages, no decent benefits including sick leave or health insurance, stolen tips, sexual harassment and blatant racism and sexism. And much of this doesn’t just happen to bussers or wait staff; workers we assume aren’t skilled or educated. Even highly-trained cooks and chefs deal with these issues. In one profile, Jayaraman tells the story of pastry chef Alicia. Alicia graduated from a well-regarded culinary school. She’s a talented and creative pastry chef at a good restaurant who is often praised for her amazing creations. Yet, she is making barely over minimum wage. For some odd reason her bosses don’t see her education, talent and skills as a pastry chef worthy of a sustainable wage.
Other profiles discuss anger-inducing stories of women being sexually-harassed and denied promotions. Minorities tell of tales of whites given better positions or promotions even if they don’t have the skills or experience. Many of the workers profiled told Jayaraman of coming in sick because they aren’t given any type of sick leave and are worried they might lose a job if they do call in sick. I don’t know about you, but I really want the people handling my food to be healthy.
Why are these things allowed to happen? Well, the other NRA-the National Restaurant Association-has enough money and clout, especially with politicians, to work against the plight of restaurant workers. And some restaurant owners are just not ethical employers.
But Behind the Kitchen Door reminds us that not all is lost. Yes, ROC is doing great work and its influence is spreading throughout the country. But Jayaraman also gives us positive tales of restaurant owners who treat their staff with common decency and fair wages. LA’s Good Girl Dinette offers its workers good pay and is figuring out how to get them better benefits. Its owner, a young woman named Diep, also is open-minded to her staff’s ideas and concerns. And Jason and Ben who own Russell Street Deli in Detroit also offer good pay and hope to offer good benefits like health insurance. Russell Street Deli also boasts of a very diverse staff.
But what can we do as restaurant patrons do make sure the industry’s workers are treated fairly. Behind the Kitchen Door offers many options. We can ask restaurant managers about their labor practices, we can encourage our politicians to focus on raising the minimum wage for tipped workers, we can boycott restaurants that are known for treating staff poorly and we can also join ROC’s campaign support all restaurant workers and check out its ROC National Diner’s Guide, which rates how various restaurants treat their employees. Not all of these things will be easy (I’d be a bit nervous confronting a restaurant manager about his or her labor practices). And just picking up Behind the Kitchen door and being open to the plight of restaurant workers is a positive step in the right direction. Behind the Kitchen Door isn’t always a comfortable read-many of the stories will truly make you lose your appetite-but it is definitely important food for thought.