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Emma Bengtsson: I have zero tolerance to swearing in my kitchen

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Aquavit’s Emma Bengtsson, the first Swedish, female chef to hold two Michelin stars, took the stage at Food on the Edge 2018 in Galway, Ireland to talk about kitchen culture and how we can change it.

Opening with a passage from Kitchen Confidential where Bourdain writes about actually stabbing another chef with a meat fork in the hand to defend himself. That’s how it used to be claims Bengtsson, someone who has been around kitchens long enough to have seen it with her own eyes.

In fact, she’s herd far worse, citing tales of Marco Pierre White, Bocuse and Bourdain.

“The 20-hour days, the throwing of the hot pans, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what goes on in the kitchen.”

To many people in other occupations it seems insane, according to Bengtsson. It takes a special kind of person to enter this kind of environment. Even though it’s a profession, this kind of behaviour became acceptable, not only acceptable, but it became admired.

“We put our heads down, we grew a thick skin, both literally and figuratively, depending on how much we burned ourselves, but we got the job done because working in that kind of kitchen became like a badge of honour. You knew if you could survive it, you could go on to be whatever you wanted to be.”

Bengtsson considers herself lucky that she came the kitchen at a turning point. The kitchen was still a tough place but as long as she kept her head down and her mouth shut around the more seasoned chefs in the kitchen, she would be fine. For the most part. Being a woman added to the pressure of that already difficult environment.

Tough as that environment was, however, chefs learned all they could. They experienced every station, until they new it inside out. This is something that we’re losing says Bengtsson.

“We are losing the time it takes to become great”, she says. “The new generation are in a rush to become successful and move forward, they’re going too fast. “The thought of becoming a sous chef or a head chef wasn’t something wee considered until we knew we had a solid foundation to stand on.

Bengtsson grew accustomed to working 80-hour weeks, sometimes wondering on the way home what to would feel like to have a night off. Yet, she glorified those days looking back on them as the most perfect of days. She recently commented to her mother that she feels lucky that she was blessed with good health and was always able to show up for her team, to which her mother corrected her, telling her, she was almost always sick, but she didn’t let it stop her. Bengtsson even remembers lying on a hospital bed prepping for emergency surgery and she was tortured at how she couldn’t show up for the team the next day.

When Bengtsson attended last year’s Food on the Edge symposium, she listened to other chefs talking about the changes they had made in their kitchens, improving the sustainability of their chefs, she reflected on what she had done. Yes, she had made changes and tried to make her kitchen better, but not enough. Bengtsson says, “we must do more and more every day, to make the change”.

How do we change our kitchens for the better?

“Right now, we’re at a tipping point,” says Bengtsson. “We need to preserve everything that was good about the old days but push forward into a new kitchen culture”. We all have to ensure that harassment, bullying, throwing hot pans and stabbing with knives, tat we have zero tolerance for that kind of behaviour. For Bengtsson a quiet kitchen is key.

In her kitchen there is no shouting or yelling, she’s even gone as far as to ban swearing. That might seem a bit extreme, but Bengtsson believes that swearing escalates, and besides, “I’ve never thought of it as a very grown up thing,” she adds. She also believes that you can manage a kitchen by working only five days. It lets her head chef and her sous chef know that she can trust them enough not to have to be there every single day. It’s also OK to be sick in Bengtsson’s kitchen, even though sometimes it’s her chefs who send her home when she’s sick. Recognising, that everyone learns differently is important and all ideas are welcome.

Last, but not least, Bengtsson leaves us with the idea that “We should never stop listening to our cooks, never stop listening to the people who show up every day. If you can’t respect them, then they’re going to move on. In this industry it’s so difficult to get cooks working for you who are loyal. I don’t want cooks coming in and leaving after a month, I want cooks staying with me for years. That for e is the proof and evidence that I’m running the kitchen the way I want it run.”

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