Sign up for The Dish
Stay up to date on the latest food news from Boston.com.
Working in the hospitality industry can be a rewarding experience for many — the creativity, the ever-changing nature of the job, and the interaction with the public help drive some of the passion many have for restaurants. But recent events have further brought to light the toxic culture that exists within the industry.
In February, allegations resurfaced against chef Michael Scelfo of his past misconduct, after Eater reported on his latest restaurant opening, Josephine. During a WBUR event, comments from Ming Tsai became subject to public controversy after the celebrity chef joked about spiked drinks and made remarks about the #MeToo movement. Then last month, the Boston Globe reported that employees of Barbara Lynch, long regarded as “one of Boston’s best-known culinary success stories,” experienced inappropriate treatment from the chef, citing verbal aggressions, unwanted touching, and threats of violence.
“With the Barbara Lynch article, this is not just a critique of one person,” Tracy Chang, owner and chef of Pagu, told Boston.com. “It’s a critique of so many people, restaurant groups, and chefs, media and diners that have, over the years, continued to support people in power… while overlooking a lot of their flaws, a lot of their bad behaviors.”
In the weeks following the allegations, Lynch has denied mistreatment of her employees, and opened her newest restaurant in Gloucester, according to the Globe.
The #MeToo movement has opened a broader discussion of the industry’s problems, while local and national coverage have illuminated hard realities. In 2021, NPR reported that more than 70% of female restaurant workers have been sexually harassed. A 2016 Globe article shared a report by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United that one in three tipped employees surveyed in Boston have been sexually harassed at work.
When hospitality workers come to the industry out of necessity, and not by choice, they often experience difficulties in advocating for themselves, said Josh Lewin, who runs Juliet in Somerville. He told Boston.com that a combination of factors such as the pressurized environment of the restaurant, lack of leadership experience from management, and the presence of alcohol and substance abuse, may give rise to a toxic culture.
“The demographic at work can be so vulnerable, [that they] are going to be put in positions of diminished power. Various types of assault can happen,” Lewin said. “Abuse can happen; harassment can happen.”
We asked readers to share their experiences working in the hospitality industry — what they find fulfilling about the work, as well as what they find troubling. Below, here are five responses from Boston.com readers who shared their experiences working in the restaurant scene.
Some responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
“I’m glad you’re opening up this conversation, because I had a really intense personal dilemma with this very concept several years ago and didn’t have a lot of people who I could go to in confidence. So it’s really validating to hear that I’m not alone in this.
I personally lean on the more emotionally sensitive side. My feelings get hurt easily if someone is mean to me. I remember when I was working … as a hostess from 2018 to 2020, regularly lamenting to trusted coworkers that other servers were often mean to me. They would snap at me because I didn’t seat their section; they would snap at me because I did seat their section, etc. On the days when I served, the kitchen staff and chef would regularly snap at me if I had a simple question, discouraging me from going to them. Granted, performance-wise, I always did quite well, bringing in lots of revenue and keeping the guests happy. My trusted coworkers would often respond, ‘Well that’s just restaurant culture,’ in response to my frustrations about being treated poorly. ‘We all yell at each other.’ This really struck a nerve with me. Why should it be normal and expected to be mean to one another? Another coworker I was close with at the time even went as far as to tell me that I would not succeed in a management position in a restaurant because I am too emotionally weak, and I need to toughen up. This all sounded and felt so out of touch and old fashioned to me.
Low and behold, I ended up getting a management position one year later at a successful upscale restaurant in [the] Seaport. Even in that restaurant, the chef was known for having a really short temper, a monopoly over his staff, and an oddly intense and old fashioned level of power and respect demanded over everyone. It wasn’t uncommon that he would snap at me to the point of tears. Again, when I would go to coworkers for emotional validation, the response was often something along the lines of, ‘Well, do you know how many times he’s made ME cry? That’s just how it is!’ I somehow never could truly accept this. There was a time when I was extremely passionate about the restaurant industry and hospitality to the point where I wanted to open my own place one day. It dawned on me however, that if I were to be truly proud of my work, I’d have to somehow change the entire culture, because I’m not happy with how it is.
Currently, to work in a restaurant is to get cursed at and yelled at daily. The irony here is that I was often ridiculed for not having the emotional ‘strength’ to handle this treatment. I would argue that the people who curse and yell don’t have the emotional ‘strength’ to channel their anger in a healthy and professional way. To this day, I can’t understand why people think yelling and cursing is in any way good. And where to begin with the sexual harassment. I do personally believe that restaurant culture is toxic overall.”—An anonymous Boston.com reader
“I have been in this industry for 16 years. I am now 33 and an executive chef for a restaurant [that is] a part of a small group of restaurants in New Hampshire. Throughout my time, I’ve seen kitchens fueled by the emotions of the line, drugs and alcohol. I’ve also seen beautifully run restaurants, but still I find the culture is surrounded by toxic drug and alcohol use, along with making it the norm of having no work life balance. I believe a change [is] due, and the pandemic may have helped for a bit, but now the expectation is to get back to normal, with fewer talented staff and shortages in the supply chain. I do believe the way restaurants are run currently [is] not sustainable, and we will see a major shift in the next 10 years.
Toxic culture is the way of the world in the restaurant sector. 60 hour weeks for salaried employees, abusive owners who care nothing about the human lives they have in their buildings. Drugs and alcohol use [are] rampant, as is a certain level of sexual culture. Many places are trying to change these tropes, but it’s almost impossible, as it is ingrained into the veins of this industry. Movies and other media perpetuate these ideals as a fact of the job; many chefs are almost proud of the sacrifices they’ve made in way of relationships, other opportunities and just a general quality of life to ‘get to where they are today.'”—Cory L. New Hampshire
“I have been in the hospitality field (back of house) [as a] dishwasher up to [an] executive chef for 20+ years. I’ve had amazing experiences in this industry, traveling, [going for] wine study in Europe, and have [had] extreme lows, from verbal abuse to almost losing my relationship with my fiancé and heavy drinking. I loved the people I work with but at the cost of not seeing friends and family. I finally made the decision to get out and enjoy time with friends, family, and loved ones, but I was too late and lost my father unexpectedly. But cooking for friends and family has helped the healing process. Sometimes it’s hard to give everything to something you love and are passionate about but seldom get even a thank you. I’ve slowly worked up to get that passion back, but on my terms and what I want. It’s not easy but it’s going to be worth it.
It sometimes feels/felt like a black hole that is just sucking you in. The toxicity, it’s all around you, and you try to be who you are regardless of the outside noise. Motivation through fear and even when you did great [is] sometimes not enough. When you start drinking to forget how [bad] your service might have been, instead of having a drink to celebrate a great service, [it’s] time to look inside yourself. Be careful and take care of yourself physically and emotionally.”—Jim B., New Hampshire
“Hospitality is hard. It’s never ending, no days off, and long, long hours. That is why drugs [and] alcohol are associated with the work. The work doesn’t pay well [and] can be unpredictable (seasonal, COVID killed it, etc.). I’ve worked in hospitality in some form (mostly front of house), catering, or even in hotels at the front desk, or within catering special events. It’s hard work, with never ending pressure to perform, for little pay.
[When it comes to toxic cultures], that is normal! Kitchens and such always have alcohol, and chefs have egos. Being a female, I have felt this at every level.”—Julie, Cape Cod
“I was the maître-d’ at [a local restaurant] for eight years, and in that time, I learned a phenomenal amount about not only this industry but human dynamics in general…
The hospitality industry is, at its best, very, very unique and at its worst, pure chaos and insanity. You aren’t sitting in a windowless office in front of a computer all day. You don’t punch in at 9 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. It’s a literal pressure cooker to provide a hand made product and to execute it as flawlessly as possible, day in and day out. It’s nerve-wracking and exhilarating. It’s sweaty. It’s physical. It’s tiring. It’s rife with emotion. It’s like speeding down the Mass Pike at 100 miles an hour with boulders being thrown at your car, trying to avoid a pebble a mile away. But we choose this industry because we love it… The bottom line is the hospitality industry and working in restaurants is unlike anything imaginable, and in the current state of the world that we live in, those values and pace and fire can be viewed as problematic. It’s understandable. But restaurants aren’t run by robots. They are run by humans with hearts. Humans with vices. Humans with anxieties. When we are on the front line of the kitchens and the restaurants, bringing you your meal, take a moment to remember this.”—Randy K., South End
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove the name of a workplace described by an anonymous reader.
Stay up to date on the latest food news from Boston.com.
Stay up to date with everything Boston. Receive the latest news and breaking updates, straight from our newsroom to your inbox.
Be civil. Be kind.Read our full community guidelines.