New film Boiling Point shows one brutal night in the kitchen, and it has riled up chefs, who fear it can only damage the industry's reputation. Ben McCormack speaks to those who are trying to make a change from within.
Films set in restaurant kitchens have traditionally been recipes for romance. Think of Bradley Cooper in the 2015 movie Burnt, playing a brilliant-but-tortured chef who rises from rock bottom to win his third Michelin star, thanks to the love of a sous chef, played by Sienna Miller. Or Penélope Cruz in Woman on Top in 2000 (a title that would not fly in 2021), learning to fall in love again at the same time as swapping her superficial career as a TV chef for the honest toil of the restaurant stove. It takes a very sweet tooth to get to the end of either movie.
Boiling Point is made from altogether stronger ingredients. The film, which is released on 7 January, stars Stephen Graham of This is England and Line of Duty fame as Andy Jones, a London chef who is having the worst night of his life. Boiling Point is the first British movie to be shot in a single take and was filmed in the modern British restaurant Jones & Sons in east London, which just so happens to be owned by real-life chef Andy Jones.
The fact that the film's director Philip Barantini has himself worked as a restaurant chef has not prevented Boiling Point coming in for advance flak from the hospitality industry, not least for a plot which sees the fictional Andy Jones succumbing to the pressures of debt, addiction and a messy personal life on the Friday night service before Christmas.
The biggest point of contention for the restaurant trade, however, is the lead character's sometimes heavy-handed management skills. Boiling Point was filmed on the day before England went into lockdown in March 2020 and is, after all, meant as entertainment and not a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Eighteen months later, however, there is a sense that the depiction of restaurant kitchens as pressure cookers of unhappiness could not come at a worse time for an industry facing its biggest-ever recruitment crisis.
Can't stand the heat
"I think there is a perception that kitchens are tough and brutal environments where a lot of cruelty and belittling takes place," says Skye Gyngell, the chef and owner of Spring at Somerset House in London. "I'm sure there are still chefs like that, but none of the chefs I respect behave like that – we understand how important and hardworking our teams are and value them immensely. We appreciate how important staff retention is and we all cook much better when we are a tight and happy team who have each other's backs."
Anna Haugh, the chef and owner of Myrtle in London's Chelsea and a regular face on BBC's Morning Live, agrees that the public's image of the restaurant chef is at least 20 years out of date and a stereotype perpetuated by films such as Boiling Point.
"It took me a long time to have the confidence to be playful or feminine, as I was told that those things did not equate to being a good chef," Haugh says. "It would be like being a boxer and saying that you liked playing with kittens: it would be really bad for your image. People see me in my heels and a dress and think that when I go into the kitchen I turn into some sort of Marvel villain."
Yet there is now a realisation that being scary is scarring – sometimes literally. Haugh speaks of how she was bullied by one sous chef who made the back of her hands look "like cornflakes" by burning her with hot pans. Now that she and many other chefs like her are running their own kitchens, she is determined to do things differently. "You have to create an environment that provides a safe place that people don't want to escape from," Haugh says.
"Kitchens have changed," agrees Sam Ward, managing director of Simon Rogan's Umbel restaurant group. "It's no longer accepted that young chefs need to be brutalised and it's no longer celebrated. People are starting to realise that more time off, more rest and being paid for the hours worked are essential to morale. People are being called out and held accountable for their behaviour, and that can only be a good thing."
To prove the point, Rogan created the Simon Rogan Academy with Kendal College in June this year. The aim is to provide an annual intake of 14 students with an immersion in hands-on food and drink education at Rogan's Cumbrian restaurants and farm as well as one day a week at Kendal College. The 18-month paid apprenticeship ends with the fully fledged commis chefs experiencing a week-long stage at Roganic in Hong Kong and a Level 2 City & Guilds qualification under their belts. Needless to say, bullying and bad language are not tolerated.
As Gyngell says: "Happy people cook beautiful food." Spring has never opened on Sundays, which Gyngell regards as a family day, and operates a six-shift rule of one double and four straights to give the team time to recover. Staff are paid extra for working extra shifts. Education is available, whether that's wine courses, field trips or training in other areas of the restaurant. Haugh, meanwhile, encourages her staff to meet a friend for coffee on their breaks from Myrtle, but says it can be hard to challenge the belief that the more someone works, the better they are at their job. "If they don't take breaks, their mental health gets squashed."
Phil Howard, chef and co-owner of Elystan Street in Chelsea, London, remembers starting out in the kitchen of Marco Pierre White's Harveys in the late 1980s. "I was in there at 7am and out of there at 1am. It was six days a week and I ran my arse off all day. For a couple of months I went in on the Sunday too, to help with the cooking for Marco's books. That was absolutely all I did with my life."
Howard's next job was at Bibendum, also in Chelsea, under Simon Hopkinson. He described it as "a great working environment", that is more like the model for Elystan Street. "We're staffed correctly so we're not asking more out of people than we should be," Howard says. "That is one of the reasons why we are always fully staffed, because if you create a positive, wholesome environment, people will enjoy it and stick around for two or three years."
Howard admits there has been a generational shift in making kitchens more positive places to work. "If you've been abused all your way up the ranks, you will give the same abuse back when you get to the top. When I started cooking, kitchen banter was what it was, but the world has evolved for the better. I find myself going to say something that is no longer deemed appropriate and it is the younger generation of chefs driving the changes."
Calm equals in control
Ben Murphy is a case in point. The 31-year-old chef-patron of Launceston Place in Kensington, London, is determined not to treat his own chefs in the same way he was treated as a young chef, alone and abroad in two of France's most famous three-Michlin-starred restaurants. "It was tough and there was a fair amount of bullying. There was a belief that what breaks you makes you stronger. Fine dining doesn't have to be so high-pressure though. I talk to all my chefs as if they're my equal."
This improvement in communication skills is perhaps the most significant change for the better in kitchen life and one that has yet to be depicted on screen. "For the past 10 years, we've ensured that we recognise that when someone is shouting in the kitchen, it is never positive or creates a positive environment," Ward says. "It means the person is losing control. Another important thing is to talk – talk to the team before making any big decisions. It brings them into the fold and means they get to have a say."
We all cook much better when we are a tight and happy team who have each other's backs
But while Ward says there is individual behaviour that should not be tolerated, he also points out that the hospitality industry itself, rather than the people working in it, is beset by ingrained problems. Howard echoes this, pointing out that the sort of high-pressure environment depicted in Boiling Point is often the result of a lack of senior training that would not be the case in other industries.
"Kitchens are full of people who have never had any training in anything other than how to cook," he says. "Then when they get to a head chef position they are expected to manage the kitchen and deliver financial results. There is often no training on how to lead, communicate or delegate. Bigger hospitality organisations might offer the sort of training required, but not the average restaurant."
One solution, Murphy believes, is to lead by example. "I do a section in the kitchen because I think if I'm not here, what's the point of people coming to work with me? The Launceston Place kitchen is very personal and we bond with each other. I know everyone's strengths and weaknesses. There's no shouting. If something goes wrong, we adapt to that. We've created a vibe in the kitchen which is really enjoyable. We listen to music and there is a lot of banter. I've had the same team for the last five years, which I'm really grateful for, and I've got a waiting list of chefs who want to work here."
Murphy posts pictures of the kitchen team at work to the restaurant's Instagram account and believes this transparency is crucial to encouraging new talent into the industry. After all, he reasons, if his team is unhappy, social media offers endless ways to let the wider world know about it. He is, of course, far from alone in nurturing his team. Jake Leach, who took over as head chef at Fulham pub the Harwood Arms in April, speaks to the families of the young chefs he has working for him from Westminster Kingsway College.
"I always speak to the parents to make sure they're happy with the hours," he explains. "A 16-year-old will tell me they can work 40 hours a week because all they're thinking about is the money. But they've got school to go to and parents who don't want them working that much."
Like all the chefs The Caterer spoke to, Leach says that the lockdowns of the past 18 months forced many to revaluate their career. "People are happy to work fewer hours and take a little less money to have an extra shift off," he says. Haugh thinks the extra time chefs had with their friends and families has made them talk more about their problems at work as well as appreciate the pleasures of simple home cooking. Murphy even contemplated turning his back on cheffing and thought about what else he could do with his life.
"I think chefs now are looking for more of a work-life balance," Gyngell says, "because they have discovered a different way of living during the long closures. They discovered that they could go to bed at a reasonable hour, have a regular exercise routine, meals together with family, bones that don't ache in the morning – and they really liked it. I don't think there will be the same willingness to be a slave to long hours and overtime in the same way again. I think it's really important that we recognise this and work hard to make changes in the industry. We need to in order to survive."
Boiling Point will be released in UK and Irish cinemas and on digital platforms on 7 January 2022
The film critic's perspective
"Having seen the film, I'm not sure I'd agree that it's angry or macho," says film writer James Mottram, "though it certainly portrays the intensity of working in a restaurant. In the end, it is a film about a chef who is spiralling out of control. He's having a bad night, a bad week, a bad month, it seems – and it all comes to a head here.
"Stephen Graham's character Andy handles his staff in a strict but fair manner, encouraging them in their work. It's only as pressures build that mistakes are made – including by Andy. There's no sense that he is a tyrant ranting at his staff in the kitchen. It's more that he's at the mercy of his own addictions."
While the advance reaction from the hospitality industry may have been negative, Mottram says that movie critics have been largely positive about Boiling Point, as has the awards circuit. Vinette Robinson, who plays sous chef Carly, won the best supporting actress award at the recent British Independent Film Awards, while the film was nominated in a further 10 categories.
Mottram's final verdict? "I don't think it would put me off a career in hospitality."
Dish of the day or dog's dinner?
Burnt "This gave me flashbacks to working in France, in both a good and a bad way. I could relate to it a lot." Ben Murphy
Ratatouille "My kids loved watching it when they were growing up so I have a real soft spot for it." Skye Gyngell
Waiting "This Ryan Reynolds film really showcases the camaraderie in front-of-house teams." Sam Ward
Chef "It's a romanticised, unrealistic view of what a kitchen is. ‘My life is falling apart, all the women around me are super-hot, I'm going to sort myself out with a food truck.' Because it's that easy." Anna Haugh
Gordon Ramsay's Boiling Point "I hope that young chefs coming into the industry can't relate to this in the slightest. The hospitality industry needs to do something to showcase how things are now." Ben Murphy
MasterChef: The Professionals "I could pick any chef out of the kitchen at Elystan Street who is a better cook than all of those guys on TV. It is sold to the public as the best of what our industry has got to offer, which is far from the truth. I can't stand it." Phil Howard
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