Bottom Chefs: A Working-Class Lens in the Competition Kitchen

Last week Top Chef Boston aired its Thanksgiving episode (filmed in July) in which the chefs had to squat over open fires, stir pots with large wooden spoons, and to try to cook a Thanksgiving feast limited by the ingredients (venison, blueberries, clams, squash, goose, etc.) that would have been available during the first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621. Katsuji Tanabe, an eccentric, funny, mouthy chef, the son of a Mexican mother and a Japanese father, won the competition with a dish that combined squash, lobster, and fresh herbs. Tough-as-nails Stacy Cogswell, the only chef who is actually from Boston, was sent home for getting dirt in her clam dish when she had to plate on the ground at the famed Plimoth Plantation.

In the last decade we have seen a prodigious spike in the number of reality shows that feature labor in the kitchen. From the Food Network competitions, to the Master Chef empire, to the Emmy winning Top Chef, if you like to watch people braise, chop, and sauté on TV this is a Golden Era to be sure.

Right now we’re in season 12 of Top Chef, and the Boston area cooking challenges have been decidedly working-class in their orientation. So far the challenges have included cooking a meal for “Boston’s bravest and finest” (police officers) and contributing a humble dish to the Boston Food and Wine festival that the chefs had to base on the first thing they learned how to cook as children.

On Top Chef the humble sous chefs, once just a notch above dishwasher, are now celebrities in waiting—gracing home town newspapers when they appear in these competitions, and often starting new businesses with their new found fame, if not the prize money, when they win. Many of the contestants hail from working-class and/or immigrant families, and their working-class backgrounds are featured in multiple interviews during the show.

Top Chef trades heavily in the exoticization of working-class bodies and voices. Many of the contestants are heavily tattooed, tough, and prone to excessive cursing. They tell genuinely moving stories, direct to camera, about growing up poor, and/or immigrant, and/or being raised by a single mother.

These personal narratives are real—the cheftestants are not faking their hardships, and we know that cooking has long been a working-class vocation. But Top Chef trades heavily in the contestants’ hard luck pasts, in part to increase the drama and/or the tears as contestants talk about how badly they want to win, the sacrifices of their immigrant parents, how they couldn’t afford culinary school, or how their moms worked two jobs when they were growing up.

During the competition the chefs are forced to cook under harsh conditions, including extreme heat, and limited cooking accouterments (as in the Thanksgiving episode). These conditions are designed to increase the tension on the show, but sometimes they cause real injuries. Chefs have cut and burnt themselves, and in some extreme situations, chefs have collapsed or passed out during the filming of an episode. Ironically, perhaps, by forcing the cooks to work in these conditions, and by frequently invoking their working-class lives back home, Top Chef reminds us that for most workaday line cooks, sous chefs, and aspiring “wanna be’s,” the food industry is brutal—the ultimate combination of overworked, underpaid, and uninsured.

This season, Top Chef has found itself in the middle of a bonafide labor dispute, as the show has been using non-local and non-union camera operators and crew. According to multiple sources, a Teamsters protest in July designed to highlight this fact erupted in a scene of members of a Teamster local cursing and hurling racial and sexual slurs at the Top Chef cast, including Padma Lakshmi.

If the allegations are true, these Teamsters should have been fined or worse for their behavior. But their rage—hate filled though it was—is it understandable? Teamsters, who in Boston represent drivers as well as camera operators, and are now trying to organize 1,600 low paid parking attendants, represent some of the last unionized workers in a country that offers less and less to those on the bottom.

Doesn’t it make sense for workers to fight back against a profitable show that has the resources to pay top dollar and to practice what it preaches? The show’s main celebrity Tom Colicchio is a food justice activist as well as a celebrity chef and a restaurateur. He helped to make the film Hungry in America, and he has been publically critical of the refusal of Congress to extend food stamp benefits during these difficult times. On the other hand, Colicchio has been sued for wage and tip violations in his restaurants (in 2008). Colicchio, of all people should know that fair wages are the best way to combat hunger, and he should be making sure that all who work for him on Top Chef, as well as in his restaurants, are paid fairly and decently for their work.

Ultimately, why are cooking shows like Top Chef so popular? Top Chef bills itself as one very unlikely path to the American Dream, a chance for a single humble kitchen worker to become a superstar. But perhaps by accident the show also reminds us of the real labor, harsh conditions, hard luck backgrounds, and low wages of the vast majority of real life cooks and kitchen workers across the country.

As we sit down to feast this Thanksgiving let us remember that those who cook our meals when we’re dining out are among the poorest and the hungriest in America. We should work to feed the hungry, of course, but we should work even harder to ensure that food workers earn a living minimum wage. That way the bottom chefs of America won’t need to compete to win their own spread in Food and Wine magazine or a $100,000 prize in order to have what everyone deserves: the dignity of a decent life.

Kathy M. Newman

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Bottom Chefs: A Working-Class Lens in the Competition Kitchen

  1. keatontb says:

    Great post Kathy. In my decade of working in, operating, and consulting for restaurants, I know the margins and costs in great detail to operate an honest and growing business. The one big issue with restaurants is that there is very little transparency when it comes to where the company is going. If you are working for a one off place, the wages should be much higher as the owner is not looking to spend as much cash in the future as the other owner who is looking to expand. It costs money to create jobs, especially a second, third, or tenth time. If the company knows where they are going and their goals, this should be clearly communicated to the staff as money should be tight for everyone to create more jobs in the future. At least this way, the staff and future employees can choose to take the smaller pay now to learn and grow with a more aggressive enterprise or not.

    Like

  2. shelbythecar says:

    I’ve worked in the service industry for five years. Most of the prep and kitchen workers are immigrants, who work long hours, every holdiay, two jobs, and are paid minimum wage. They definitely should be better taken care of

    Like

  3. vhondasblack says:

    Reblogged this on vhondasblack and commented:
    A great read and very true! Having been a lover of Top Chef from the beginning, I can truly appreciate how honest this reflection in.

    Like

  4. beachtrash says:

    Wow. And I thought it was just a TV show. Isn’t the whole idea of becoming successful in America about starting at the bottom, working and studying really hard, becoming successful and lifting oneself out of the poverty connected with minimum wage? I grew up in a house with a dirt floor and no indoor plumbing. I was inspired by the vast number of role models in our society who had lifted themselves from poverty and focused all of their energy on becoming successful. I worked for minimum wage for ten years while getting an education in slow increments with the help of government loans. Are we saying that these folks are too dumb to do what I did? Believe me, I’m no rocket scientist, but I found a way to lift myself up into the middle class. I’m no exception. Many of my peers share my story. Sure, we were locked into minimum wage for many years, but the American dream is still available to everyone. Ethnicity is a distinct advantage in terms of admissions and government subsidy. I am most definitely a minority in my profession. Those out there who find themselves working for minimum wage their whole lives have other more serious issues. These are the people who do need our help. If you are at a low station in life and you are being exploited, reach out. You live in the greatest nation on earth. All things are possible.

    Like

  5. sjwoods318 says:

    Reblogged this on sjheslinwoods and commented:
    As the wife of a good service worker, I applaud this perspective which is too often overlooked. Our food service workers are often maligned and always unappreciated. When I hear stories of rich athletes leaving 30 cent tips, I am reminded of this truth. Preach sister. Don’t let people forget that the people who FEED you are human too!

    Like

  6. Great post. Most chefs and cooks work in shitty conditions with long hours at anti social times, with poor pay, and in average restaurants. Celebrity chefs are probably .000001% (I want to add more zeros) of all chefs. These shows even sometimes exploit the contestants paying them relatively little, limiting how they can franchise their appearance to their own benefit, and taking them away from their life for the duration of the show. The prize is ultimately quite small too.

    Like

  7. aredzebra says:

    The juxtaposition of glamorous celebrity chefs and the truly Cut Throat nature of the food industry is striking.

    Like

  8. I suspect that TV companies would not inflict these competition conditions on candidates seen as middle class….these series are pornography for those who are comfortably off.
    Colosseum without the blood.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Jean says:

    Well written. May I add that we as the restaurant patrons have to be willing to pay a higher dollar on dishes if worker wages are guaranteed to be decent. ‘Course we don’t know if it’s the restaurant owner that pockets the surplus.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Nicely written! I’ve always thought that the high pressure situations created in these competitions (I watch Masterchef US and Australia a lot) are created for exactly this purpose, to test how they would do in “the real world”. And the judges do say similar stuff as well. That this is the kind of work environment a chef has to face often. And I have sometimes felt that they’re trying to sell “The American Dream”

    Liked by 2 people

  11. pjwmia says:

    Important issue we all need to be aware of and understand why these conditions exist only then we can develope remedies. pjwmia

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Reblogged this on elziejackson and commented:
    All so true but its not the only low paid occupation in america especially Florida&southGeorgia &Alabama all with low wages in all lower and middle class.. Thanks to our politicians and President

    Liked by 2 people

  13. As a kitchen hand in a busy restaraunt i can attest that it is a jib unkike any other- low pay and high frequency if minor injuries being the
    Mist fommon complaints. However he larger issue us certainly how the class divide is exacerbated by the desperation of tho working classes. To quote le Carre, “the rich have eaten your future and your poor have provided then with the food.”

    Liked by 2 people

  14. M.C. Easton says:

    Thanks for a great post, Kathy. It’s a great observation that we love “poor little orphan makes good” stories, but that when it comes to individual profit, few of us are willing to shrink our margins in order to pay blue-collar employees a livable wage.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. Fred Anderson says:

    Marissa;

    There is some of what you allege. But . . .

    The “capitalist class” may not be doing all that well — at least, not in the restaurant trade. Approximately 60% of all new restaurants are closed within five years of their opening. About 2/3 of those went broke. (The other 1/3 were economically viable, but the owner wanted out for other reasons — retirement, health problems, family pressures, running-a-restaurant-is-more-trouble-than-it’s-worth, etc.)

    If you have saved any money toward your retirement (and I certainly hope you have), then you are part of that “capitalist class” — albeit a relatively small one. Labor & Capital, together produce a joint product. They are naturally in contest as to which of them gets how much of that joint product. But it is folly for either to become so absorbed in that contest that they seek to destroy their partner; for then there is no joint product. And even taking 100% of nothing, you still have . . . nothing. Rather, these two should do what they can to increase that joint product — to have a bigger pie to divide between them. It may be a little like a marriage — the way forward may be that each should be more considerate of the other. (See some of the management literature on improving the quality of work life in order to boost productivity, for example.)

    Liked by 2 people

  16. ekroczek says:

    Nicely done, Kathy. Isn’t it interesting that so many people out in TVLand work in offices (many of them basically white-collar proletarians) that we require “work porn” to entertain us? The class implications and ramifications of the hospitality industry are so convoluted that one could write an entire book about them (hint hint).

    Liked by 5 people

  17. Marissa says:

    Working around food and consistently being hungry is a certain kind of misery. As with countless working class jobs, rights are denied, pay is unlivable, and their labor is exploited for the benefit of the capitalist class. This unsustainable economic system of accumulation must be rectified by paying a living wage and distributing resources more equitably. Don’t those who prepare food have a job of zenith importance? Does every not need food, perhaps the better question, does everyone not deserve the right to nourish themselves???

    Liked by 9 people

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