New Book 'Behind the Kitchen Door' Exposes the Injustice of the Restaurant Industry

4 years ago

Over the past month or two, my office has been a veritable hotbed of infection. Even some of those who are normally immune to hacking coughs and feverish faces have been felled by the viruses running rampant this flu season. Lucky for us, when one of us is too sick to work, we have paid leave to fall back on, or the flexibility to work from home. This is not so for many restaurant workers in America, which means that when they're sick, they're often on their feet, in the kitchen, preparing food that ends up on all of our tables.

Are you a little grossed out by this thought? You should be. It's just one of the injustices that restaurant workers in this country—many of whom are immigrants, minorities, and women who are already fighting an uphill battle for equality in the workplace—suffer regularly. Saru Jayaraman examines these transgressions in Behind the Kitchen Door, which was released last month by Cornell University Press.


Credit: Cornell University Press

Throughout the book, Jayaraman tells the stories of restaurant workers who have fought managers who steal their tips and, in some cases, their wages; who struggle to pay rent and fuel their cars in the face of less-than-living wages; and who have faced harassment and discrimination as they try to rise through the restaurant ranks. The book may sound bleak, but Jayaraman also provides concrete steps we can take to help improve the industry for the people who help get food on the table when we choose to eat out.


Credit: Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

Lacy LeBlanc of Bookshelf Bombshells admits that she, like many others, generally doesn't give nearly enough thought to the people making her food in restaurants:

In a world where “fair trade,” “organic,” and “sustainable” are easily recognized buzzwords, do any of us really stop to think what “sustainable” really means, especially in terms of the people who prepare our foods? I know that I don’t. Yes, I try to leave a 20 percent tip when I go out to eat, but I don’t think about the living and working conditions of the people who serve my food. Even in the places where the servers know my name and usual order, I tend to only know them as “those nice people who make my sandwiches.” In this sense, I am certainly a typical American.

Situations like the ones Jayaraman talks about in the book happen all the time. Jessica Atcheson of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee told the story of a high school friend who waited tables in a pub-style restaurant for years:

Once she was in an accident outside of work that left her severely burned. Though her hands were wrapped in so much gauze that only the tips of her index fingers and thumbs were visible and usable, she had to go back to work after a week, because she had no paid sick days and couldn't afford to miss more work or risk losing her job. So she served food and poured beers with bandaged hands as they slowly healed. Her boss said nothing.

On Appetite for Profit, Michele Simon lists 10 reasons it's critical to care about the rights and welfare of food workers, wrapping up her list with this connection between keeping the entire food system sustainable and treating workers at all stages of the food chain fairly:

Hopefully this is obvious by now, but we cannot talk about sustainability without including the workers, who are on the front lines of all the problems that food policy wonks complain about. Every public health, environmental, and animal welfare problem that has been written about for decades intersects with the plight of food workers. We need them to help inform our analysis and to help forge solutions. Also, as good food advocates, we have a moral obligation to help ensure they can live sustainable lives. We are in this fight together.

No matter what actions each of us take, change must come to this beleaguered industry, says The Glutster:

As an almost daily consumer of this industry and food writer, I find something has to be done to improve this. Throughout my years of doing this, I have met many cooks and servers who see their co-workers more than their significant others. Its hard to believe this kind of stuff has been going in our beloved places of food reverie and good times for so long, but it is.

To learn more about the fight to help restaurant workers gain equality and better working conditions, visit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. If you live in a major metropolitan area in the U.S., you may also be able to use ROC's dining guide, which is available as an iPhone or Android app, or as a downloadable PDF, to show your support for fair restaurant worker treatment with your dining-out budget.

Have you worked in a restaurant and either been treated unfairly or had a coworker treated unfairly? If you're a diner, have you given thought before to how the workers in the kitchen are treated? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Genie blogs about gardening and food at The Inadvertent Gardener, and tells very short tales at 100 Proof Stories.

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