During my brief stint working at Hot Stove Society, Tom Douglas’s amateur cooking school, a man in the class watched me saute and asked where I’d learned to cook. I said I spent three years at Douglas’s original restaurant, the Dahlia Lounge, and he leaned in: “I hear Tom rode you guys pretty hard.” I mentioned that Brock Johnson was the chef, and I hardly interacted with Tom, who runs some 16 restaurants. But the deeper inaccuracy, the implication of a brutal culture, I left untouched. If not in this man’s words explicitly, then in his glinting eye and grin, I saw something long central to professional cooking valorized: abuse.
It’s Marco Pierre White hurling imperfect cheeses against a wall in his biography. “If you are not extreme,” wrote the most revered chef of his generation, “then people will take shortcuts because they don’t fear you.” It’s Gordon Ramsay. It’s documentaries that juxtapose slo-mo shots of bucolic crops and noble hands saucing plates with chefs (Dan Barber, René Redzepi) berating their cooks.
To me this behavior always felt foreign. I worked in kitchens—Dahlia, Sitka and Spruce, Damn the Weather—from 2013 until earlier this year, but Seattle restaurants, I’ve heard, are different. I once asked a cook about working in London. He shrugged: “A lot more yelling.” I’ve had similar conversations with cooks from Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Houston.
Maybe this politeness is a product of Northwest Nice, or of enduring small city vibes, or of an industry grappling with cook shortages and trying to coax workers with kindness. It is, I think, a convergence of these things.
As some restaurant empires have expanded, they’ve also codified decency. At Dahlia, we had to say please and thank you—even if through gritted teeth. Hearing this from your coworker, it’s easy to scoff at the imposed politeness. But in an industry where abuse has been systemic, rules that demand basic human decency for people at work also feel vital.
For a food-loving city, Seattle restaurants have long been laid-back compared with those in New York or Chicago. Our cooking here can lack technical precision, and probably that’s owed partly to our kitchen culture. I’ve broken butter sauces and had chefs shrug, maybe sigh, and tell me to send them out: It’s not perfect but it still tastes good. But many of the best cooks I’ve worked with have also been the politest, the most decent. And even if our culture keeps us a beat behind, that lag may correlate to the mental and emotional well-being of an entire profession.
In the last year, some of the darkness inherent in the country’s old-guard restaurant culture bubbled over. Sexual harassment and assault allegations dethroned John Besh and Mario Batali. Anthony Bourdain is dead. Many of the problems of restaurant culture persist—substance abuse, low kitchen wages, sexism, harassment, anxiety, depression—and all are linked. Seattle restaurants are not utopias. I’ve seen those problems, and slowly, some of those too are improving. What I haven’t seen are sauce pans hurled at heads, spittle-lipped fury.
Professional cooking will always come with harm—burns, backache, carpal tunnel, the stresses inherent in razor profit margins. But some abuses are avoidable. During my interviews at Damn the Weather and Sitka, I talked with the chefs (Aaron Means, Logan Cox) not only about cooking philosophy but respectful working environments. Given the focus for the last decade on ethical food systems, it’s been heartening to see conversations around sustainability growing to encompass—finally—both the pasture-raised egg and the person who cooks it.
Heard It Through the Decades-Old Grapevine
Cedergreen Cellars Old Vine Chenin Blanc Columbia Valley 2016 $19
Chenin blanc made from old vines is becoming increasingly rare in Washington as its grapevines are replaced by more profitable varieties. Goodbye, vinous history. This wine from Cedergreen Cellars stands as a testament to what we’re losing: enchanting aromas of apple, honeycomb, and pineapple that lead to dry, textured flavors. Pair it with a hearty Thanksgiving spread. —Sean P. Sullivan