I couldn't breathe. I'd been slammed against the counter on my station in garde manger, my back crushed against the cutting board while my sous chef pressed the edge of his clipboard against my throat. A vein bulged on his forehead and his eyes were wide with rage. My legs scrambled in a panic until I finally managed to kick his knee. I got up and ran like hell out the back door.
In my experience this kind of attack isn't typical of kitchens, but aggressive behaviour and mean-spirited pranks are. I once saw a chef dump a hot spoonful of peppercorns down the back of a cook's jacket. Another chef I knew would heat the ends of his tongs on the gas burners and pinch the cooks' forearms, screaming at them to hurry up. In France, a cook filed suit against Joël Robuchon's Michelin-starred restaurant empire, claiming he'd been forced to work 15-hour shifts with no meal breaks and that his head chef made him drink cooking water he over-salted. Another Michelin-starred chef, Yannick Alléno, is also being sued by his former staffers.
My particular experience happened at the first Toronto restaurant I worked at after moving from Austin. I barely knew anyone at the time, so my first friends were my chef and his cousin, the saucier. We'd all hang out every night after service, playing pool at this crappy sports bar in downtown Toronto's west end, the same bar where the knights from Medieval Times went after work. Everyone from the kitchen staff was there except the sous chef.
When I came home to tell my husband about it, he wanted me to call the police but I refused. The restaurant was my life and they were my only friends in this city.
He was a tightly wound guy who rarely drank and absolutely hated swearing. In our kitchen he played the hard-ass while Chef was everyone's best friend, asking that we all contribute ideas to the new menu, nurturing a collaborative spirit that made working there so exciting. The sous chef, however, wanted a silent kitchen where everyone lived in fear of his wrath. It should come as no surprise that we hated each other's guts.
One night, when Chef was away on vacation, the sous was running the show. Everything went wrong during service and the sous and I had a dustup over him taking my calamari pans—the only pans thin enough to heat up quickly and get a good sear on the calamari. When service finally ended, we cleaned up, and the sous chef waved me over.
"I need you to take apart that stove and scrub it until it shines," he said. It was midnight. I'd been working the stoves since 6 PM and had been in the kitchen since 2. This was my punishment for the calamari pan incident. I told him I wasn't going to do it and when Chef returns we'd explain the situation and he'd decide who was right. I then told him to go fuck himself and stormed away. That's when he came at me in a rage and rammed the edge of the clipboard against my throat.
My husband wanted me to call the police but I refused. The restaurant was my life and they were my only friends in this city. Despite the sous, it was a job I loved. I decided to talk to the owner, a woman. Attacking a 95-pound cook with the rest of the crew as witnesses? No way would she stand for that.
I will always look back on that episode as the worst of my entire ten-year career. The attack? I'm fine, I survived, I don't have nightmares. Everything that happened after, that's what stays with me.
As I recounted the incident to her I started hyperventilating. She told me I was in the wrong, I had no right to talk back to my sous chef or disobey his orders, and that if I wanted to keep my job I should just suck it up. I went back to work with tears pouring down my face. When Chef came back a few days later he handed me a piece of paper, looking embarrassed as I read it. It was a document stating that I had to respect the sous chef's authority and do whatever he said. There was a spot for my signature at the bottom.
This guy threw me down and choked me. Two of Chef's cousins and the owner's nephew were in the kitchen that night. They all witnessed it. No one doubted he had attacked me in a blind rage, but they didn't care. According to them I was in the wrong.
I'd never felt so awful, so let down. So I quit. But my days with that restaurant weren't over; I would go on to work with the owner on her cooking show doing craft services before I left for good. I will always look back on that episode as the worst of my entire ten-year career. The attack? I'm fine, I survived, I don't have nightmares. Everything that happened after, that's what stays with me.
READ MORE: Sexual Harassment Made Me Quit Being a Chef
There is a tyrannical culture in kitchens. Not all of them—but it exists, and in restaurants like that one I worked in, it's accepted behaviour. But times are changing, and the world has become very connected. Hopefully that will mean kitchens, already brutal enough workplaces as it is, will become less threatening places to pursue a career.
So what happened to the people I worked with? Chef fell off the radar. The owner sold the restaurant and opened another. She had a show on the Food Network that lasted one season. As for the sous chef, he became a poultry inspector, spending his days approving factory farms. Surrounded by filth and despair, he landed right where he belonged.
Post-Script: This is completely unacceptable behaviour in a kitchen. As a line cook, you do what you're told and never talk back. I was young and acting like a brat, I loved my chef, and completely despised my sous chef. In my naiveté I thought I could brazenly tell him off and chef would agree with me that he'd been in the wrong. I was in the wrong. Of course what happened next makes the whole thing moot.