One of the biggest names in gastronomy is lifting the lid to reveal the truth about fine dining in response to the immeasurable changes in the restaurant world.
The Secret Chef monthly column launched with The Curse of the Celebrity Chef on industry insider website Fine Dining Lovers, offering compelling commentary on how the digital age sowed “seeds of destruction” in the restaurant industry, and transformed it into a “carnival of narcissism” before “2020 brought the extinction event we needed”.
“Here we have a household name that is willing to tell the truth about the world of restaurants and fine dining,” explains Ryan King, editor-in-chief of Fine Dining Lovers. “They felt this was a time of reflection, a time to pause, to think and to heal, and we are honoured to be able to act as the conduit to drive it forwards.”
After a number of late-night meetings, kept secret from everyone, the chef agreed to swap their knife for a pen. A deal was struck ensuring freedom of expression, so there is minimal editorial influence and only King is aware of the chef ’s identity, with anonymity being the anchor of the column.
The Secret Chef said: “I would like to provoke some thought on what the industry can be moving forward. There is cultural and structural baggage that needs to be addressed.” They added that they hope to provide “a view to the past and a lens on the future. Some tough talk couched inside viable ideas for a better future”.
The second instalment of the column focuses on mental health, opening with the tragic suicide of Anthony Bourdain, and recalling Bob Carlos Clarke’s haunting photographs of Marco Pierre White in White Heat, which portrayed him as “a gaunt, fatigued and highly-stressed chef at his artistic peak”.
The column reminds us of the mental health issues that commonly arise as a result of working in restaurants, issues exacerbated since the lockdowns began. What does this mean for an already dysfunctional industry?
Unite The Union, the UK’s largest union body, reported that nearly two-thirds (65%) of respondents reported an increase in mental health-related issues and in the U.S, a new study has emerged claiming that as many as 68% of hospitality and retail staff reported poor mental health in 2020. The numbers come from SuperFriend, which published its report detailing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the hospitality and retail industries.
The Secret Chef examines the effects upon mental health of extreme shifts (“16-18 hour days and 6-day weeks”), the stifling environment (“more like a psychological experiment than a place of work”), the brigade system (“more French Foreign Legion than haute cuisine”) and the prevalence of a “code of silence” that allows abusive behaviour to continue unchecked.
We must take comfort in the fact that the events of 2020 have allowed an openness and willingness to change opinions and views on mental health as a whole. “The pandemic has focused the nation’s attention on mental health and the inequities baked into our service delivery system,” says Mental Health America’s President and CEO Paul Gionfriddo. “If implemented, the principles and strategies imbedded in this visioning document will address those inequities and ensure that no person – of any racial, ethnic, or cultural group – with a mental health condition is ever again treated as a second-class citizen, as a danger to themselves or others, or as someone whose unavoidable health condition is somehow their own fault” he adds.
The Secret Chef column will continue to address issues with such honesty and transparency, in the hope that the chef community can reflect and emerge from the pandemic with a focus on building a fairer, healthier and more compassionate kitchen culture.
“It is an incredible opportunity for us to offer our audience this rare chance to hear the truth from within the industry,” says King. “The reader is given a seat at the table, to hear those raw conversations that are conducted in private, when everyone has gone home from the restaurant, the kitchen is empty, and chefs speak without fear of judgment. This is the inside perspective from the top level of the kitchen.”
Where to read
The Secret Chef column can be viewed on Fine Dining Lovers or directly at www.finedininglovers.com/tag/secret-chef and is updated every month or so.
About Fine Dining Lovers
Fine Dining Lovers is an international digital platform supported by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, but editorially independent, that publishes insider information from within the restaurant world, drawing on its unique access to the best the industry has to offer. Its team of talented journalists writes and publishes daily content, including breaking news, exclusive interviews, recipes from the best kitchens in the world, in-depth features, inspiration from around the globe, advice on cooking techniques, insider travel guides and more for an audience of chefs, experts and gourmands. In addition to editorial content, Fine Dining Lovers is committed to supporting the restaurant industry with regular content from the world’s best chefs, restaurateurs and producers.
About Ryan King
Ryan King is the Editor-In-Chief at Fine Dining Lovers and has spent the past 10 years writing about the world of food, chefs and restaurants. A graduate of the prestigious BBC Journalist Training Scheme, he won Food Journalist of the Year in 2017 in Italy and has traveled the world in search of fascinating food stories, from foraging in the driest place on the planet to eating bacteria at high altitude in the Andes of Peru.
He has presented at a number of food events, including an investigation into Kitchen Culture which was launched at Food on The Edge in Ireland in 2019 and a talk on the future of food at Miami’s Food & Wine Festival in 2018. He was also one of a handful of journalists invited to attend Ferran Adrià’s special conclave on the future of gastronomy after the chef closed his elBulli restaurant. He is passionate about all things food and the people who make it happen, a firm believer that the table is the universal meeting point of the world.