Oakland, CA — Abuse and misconduct has been a widespread issue across kitchen culture for generations. Unfair wages, verbal attacks and overwork in the service industry has gone unchecked for many years — fueled by the saying that if you didn’t like it, you could leave.
This mindset proved especially harmful for young people. Because of lack of experience, teens and young adults have often been a target of mistreatment at work — without prior knowledge of what a real job entails, young people are seen as easy to manipulate.
It wasn't until the past few decades that the general public knew the extent of the industry’s unhealthy work conditions. Radical pieces of popular media like Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” to FX’s “The Bear,” revealed the mystery of what truly goes on inside commercial kitchens. They have even gone so far to portray kitchen culture as a spectacle of horror, as seen in the 2022 film “The Menu.”
The rise of the #MeToo movement also brought a lot of issues of sexual abuse to light. Acclaimed chefs and restauranteurs, even some publicly speaking out against mistreatment in the kitchen, were put on blast for their own histories with promoting sexual abuse and harrasment — both in the workplace and outside of it. This included some like Mario Batali, John Besh, Ken Friedman and Charlie Hallowell. Though, as it often goes, many of them were never forced to divest their businesses as these cases floated into the background.
Many cases show teens being exploited by being overscheduled and underpaid, more than their older counterparts. I spoke with Francesca Berlow, a senior in high school and former waitress in Oakland, California. Though she was hired as a server, her responsibilities also included taking phone calls for pick up, cutting pizza, dishwashing and depending on the day, closing the restaurant. And when there wasn’t an adult working, she sometimes poured alcohol for customers.
Berlow’s variety of duties were due to severe understaffing. “On the weekends, I was just working with one other server in the front of the house,” they said. “But there was a really good chunk of time where it was just me.”
Berlow said the lack of staff often led to her having to take on the role of the restaurant's acting manager. “We would have tables of fifteen come in, on no reservations, and we were expected to be running this restaurant like no problem.”
Many at Berlow’s workplace were not being paid on time either. Older cooks — who were more dependent on their paycheck — felt the brunt of the issue, but would take out their anger on the teen servers. Though her hours were flexible, it became difficult to call in sick, as there wasn’t anyone to cover their shift. Staff continuing to work while sick or injured only added to the stress of the workplace. And rude clients didn’t help the situation either.
For generations, workers’ worth in society has been boiled down to our efficiency in labor: Your commitment to the kitchen determined what you deserved and the treatment you received. But we’ve entered a new era: one where Gordon Ramsey is becoming a toxic parody of the past. And terms like “working your wage” and quiet quitting are all the rage.
Berlow recounted how one of their fellow teen coworkers was able to set personal boundaries at work.
“If [my co-worker] made a little bit of a little mess up, it wasn't a character fault. She didn't see it like that, which is so amazing.” Berlow said. “It makes me sad — because I was so stressed out that I wasn't able to be like, she's so true. This doesn't need to be life or death.”
It’s important to recognize the privilege behind Gen Z workforce trends like quiet quitting. The main area of contention around these expressions is a sense of apathy around jobs that they create. Many worry that new generations disengaging emotionally with their work will damage general workplaces’ morale entirely. However, it ultimately depends on how you define these terms for yourself. It's important to find that balance of working efficiently while keeping a mindset that encourages self-preservation. There is hope in younger generations and the media pushing against the toxic narrative around being a service worker — employers and corporations just need to catch up.
“The way that my friends talk about their jobs is so different [from] how we've been told to think about a job. It's like — this is a way for me to make money,” said Berlow. “And if I'm not getting paid for something that I'm doing, then I'm not going to do it. And if I'm not being treated well, it's not worth me being there.”
The service industry is still sorely in need of reform. But as we are coming of age in a time where ideas around oppressive workplaces are further being challenged — my generation has more opportunity than ever to utilize accessible information about working conditions and more transparency in media to end the grueling working conditions in restaurants.
Piper Stuip (she/her) is a high school sophomore at Oakland School for the Arts focusing on creative writing.
Edited by shaylyn martos.