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Why Escoffier's Brigade System Has To Go

13 August, 2020
Escoffier - Harold Villarosa

Now you're saying, “That’s ridiculous,” and I’m saying, welcome to our world. Or as we like to say: Bienvenido a America puto! What Escoffier conceived as a white jacket and toque hat-wearing system, turned into rap and Mexican norteño music blasting in a cramped kitchen. The extended hours focused the operation, and the hierarchal breakdown turned into abuse. Abuse from those in positions of power, who quickly forget they even started at the bottom. And then there’s the self-abuse. The drugs to push through a shift, and stand the line through a bad back. The alcohol to ease the adrenaline at the end of a mad service of being screamed at by the drill sergeant, and this is just the tip. The final hit of this system, the result of this profession we call passion, is often depression; in the worst cases, suicide. And people ask why chefs are dying. 

Anthony Bourdain, the guy who we revered for his honesty and truth storytelling, had a job and a life that looked like heaven. Travel the world, eat, talk to Obama, learn empathy and compassion through travel - and this motherfucker offs himself. Okay, he’s not a motherfucker, but it gives a nice punch, doesn’t it? Just like when you put micro-cilantro on a taco and charge me $12 for it (you know who you are).

Chef Bernard Loiseau, stricken with depression and at the time, was one of the most famous chefs in the world. Suddenly shoots himself because of a rumour of him losing his third Michelin star. Another chef, Joseph Cerniglia from New Jersey, who appeared in Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, was in debt for over 80k. With that much debt and pressures of life, he jumped off a bridge in 2007. Or chef Homaro Cantu of famed Chicago restaurant Moto, who took his own life in 2015 when he reached his breaking point. Its all part of this $800 billion industry, and the systematic bullshit we go through, day in and day out.

That’s just what people know and see. They don’t even see the scars the industry has left on all of us. Big-name chefs are chasing clout and money, so they’ve got to fake it, but the real know bro. Divorced, toiling away at a bullshit restaurant where the owners have you by the balls. It’s real out here. Chefs are fucked up in the head, and physically fucked yo. How did I get gout at 28yrs old? Oh, it’s probably the 25 ounces of butter we go through a week or the fucking duck skin chicharrón we fight like animals over at the end of the night. Oh, or maybe it’s me drinking gallons of soda that we broke the bar gun. Not only for us immigrant Americans, how about the immigrants who come here to have a better life? Using them as tools and ammo to load the clip to continue this thing we call service.

Exploited and underpaid, they’ve carried the restaurant industry on their backs, and when COVID-19 hit, we forgot about them like they shit. Why? Because they weren’t high enough up Escoffier’s chart? Or is it because of the color of their skin and the rampant racism we face in this industry also? What’s even more fucked up is those GoFundMe funds that were supposed to go to the workers. Where’s the money? They go hungry every day. Oh, and you, the owner, had the nerve to say they should be cleaning up instead of taking food to feed their family. And you are asking me, “What about me? Who’s going to care about my issues thru this virus?” 

This is what happened to our industry. The craft that we love, the place of solace and family where we can be creative and feed the people who are homeless and have less than us. It got dirty with people being greedy and forgetting what it’s about—making people happy.

So now there’s a chance for change, especially during this time and climate. The Black Lives Matter movement has opened the conversation about what minorities and people of color are going through. The restaurant industry is parallel to this country and government. As a society, just like as in our industry, we can pivot and change. Bring that community feel to it, lead with compassion and service.

What if the kitchen is made up of everyone working as a wolf pack? We move as a unit banging out work as a team? Each chef from the executive to the chef de partie taking all remedial tasks? There’s a lead alpha, but he/she will also be doing things that progresses the team. And when it comes to the profit and loss, there’s a team effort and conversation about costs, and what works and what doesn’t work. Making sure purveyors are being held accountable by having the whole team addressing it. This creates accountability but it also helps us to teach and mentor. Now you might say, “Salary, bro, what about payouts?” Now that gets tricky. You can have a profit sharing model, and if you’re a chef you need to be a partner. Even in corporate or huge restaurant resort projects. The owners need to make it worth the chefs’ while, and the staff should buy into the project with an incentive such as profit sharing. You might say that’s ridiculous and it will never work. At the end of the day, it’s about creating a new system where the restaurant lives forever.

Now it might seem over the top, or a socialistic ideal, but from the beginning of the brigade system to now, we’ve all seen what it does. How about trying something that will change the idea of this industry? We’ve lost so many chefs and we’ve lost so many great restaurants. But neighborhoods have changed because of restaurants. The industry creates economic systems and wealth in neighborhoods. So why don’t we try to keep the neighborhoods healthy and prosperous for everyone?

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