How Michelin Star Kitchen Stresses Shaped Vite Ramen's Culture
It’s World Mental Health Day.
Did you know that in a recent survey, 10/10 people said they don't like being yelled at in the workplace?
Shocking statistic, I know.
Hi, Tim here, reformed yeller(is that a thing?) with anxiety, depression, ADHD. This is the story of how Vite Kitchens was built from the group up to fight against generational workplace trauma, and how we built our systems of work and management to work with neurodivergence, not just accommodate it.
See, once upon a time, I watched a video of Gordon Ramsay. His passion was inspiring, addicting, and I kept watching video after video in the grainy, 480p rips on YouTube. The show was a British show, the F Word, and though he did yell sometimes in that show, the yelling and screaming wasn’t the focus of it.
Back then, I fell in love with the passion, the artistry, the skill, and everything that the food world had to offer. Even after I had started going to culinary school, I hadn’t really heard of what Gordon Ramsay was thought of in the USA– I think everyone just kind of assumed I knew. The version of Gordon Ramsay that I was familiar with was very different than the character he’s built up in the US of A.
It was a bit of a shock to me, then, when I learned that he was known for yelling and screaming at even the smallest little mistakes, and was generally known for inspiring fear. Oblivious as I was, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into for workplace culture in the professional kitchen either.
And so bright eyed and bushy tailed, I entered the cutthroat, brutal world of fine dining and haute cuisine.
…side note: My nickname was actually Squirrel in the kitchen because of how twitchy and fast I was. Should’ve been a good indication that I had ADHD, I guess, which makes the metaphor up above a little more literal… sort of? Not really? Meaningful? One of those things.
Surely the world of Hell’s Kitchen was dramatized, right? Just for TV?
The real kitchen was worse.
The intense yelling and dramatic outbursts seen on shows like Hell's Kitchen pale in comparison to the immense pressure and anxiety experienced when cooking and plating meals worth more than your day’s wages. The chefs at the place I worked, to their credit, hardly ever raised their voices, but that didn't make them any less fearsome; their words, laced with venom and disgust at our perceived incompetency destroyed our sense of self-worth each and every day. We were pushed to achieve absolute perfection at any cost, including our physical and mental health. This was, after all, a Michelin Star restaurant.
But it was the derisive sneers, the shake of the head as they told us to “go cook at Denny’s,” the rolling of the eyes, the constant pressure that cut deeper than any knife. I would’ve preferred being yelled at– At least, that meant that they thought we could improve. Often, the most crushing thing was when they’d just tell you to dump what you made, and that it was worthless, they’d have to do it themselves because of just how hopeless and useless you were.
There’s a certain irony in that the over the top ways a show might portray the yelling and screaming is a good visual analogue for the kind of workplace abuse that goes on in the kitchen. Even though things might not be as dramatic, mostly owing to the open kitchen design we had, the end result was the same-- cooks who tiptoed around on eggshells, hoping that they wouldn't catch the chef's attention and ire. But this was the way to do things, we learned, this was how the best cooks and chefs were made.
We were a Michelin Star restaurant, and imperfection had to be punished-- else, how else would you have perfect food, going out to businessmen who could hardly taste anything through their drunken stupor?
I learned this venom quickly. By the time I led the garde manger station, I picked up these sneers and poison as second nature, and could cut down egos with the best of them. An infamous story that my mentor, Shingo Katsura, likes to tell is when he watched a huge, former gang-banging, meth-slinging new guy on the line run off the line away from the small, 130lbs soaking wet Asian guy(I was extremely skinny from undereating and overworking then), just to lock himself in the walk in to cry. I didn’t raise my voice that time, just let the poisonous, condescending words drip from my tongue like venom; but I was plenty happy and capable of letting loose a torrent of ugly words and anger as well, then watch in delight as others wilted away beneath the onslaught.
There is an undeniable, gratifying sense of power to be able to do that to someone. I’m sure many of you reading this may think that I was simply a good person, realized it was wrong, and broke out of it through the goodness of my heart… but life’s not that simple. I was a dumb, young kid, fresh out of high school where I’d been picked on and bullied as a nerd. I’d never experienced this kind of power before, never been on the other side of dishing out the anguish. I relished it. Craved it. It was addicting.
I, like many others, had fallen into that trap. It’s easy to think you need to punish like this, to give “strict discipline,” to make people learn the “hard way”. You convince yourself that you’re doing it for them, that it’s somehow the right thing to do.
But really? You’re doing it for yourself. You do it because you like the power. And you’re doing it because it’s the easy way, where you can succumb to the first hint of emotion you feel, because mindfulness, communication, and tact are difficult.
And, if you’re taught no other way, then it’s easy to think that’s the right way. The only way.
I could’ve easily become the kind of person that I hated, become the same kind of person who had tormented me, but for the guidance and wisdom of my mentor, Shingo Katsura. He’s had an interesting life, of which I won’t disclose here for privacy reasons, but had seen much more of what the human condition had to offer, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. I’m sure if you were to ask him, he wouldn’t think himself wise, or have something about the way I see him, but…
Shingo, if you’re reading this, it’s my story, so I get to say how I see you. And also, thank you– I owe a lot to you. (for others, yes, I did send him a message too, before anyone asks me why I didn’t thank him myself)
We’d started at the Michelin Star kitchen at similar times, with him starting on the line 6 months before I. Back then, I was rash, quick to anger, reckless(Thank you, undiagnosed and unmedicated ADHD!), and otherwise perfectly primed to learn the Hell’s Kitchen way of doing things.
Shingo was different. Maybe it was the life he’d lived before cooking, or a natural understanding of the way of things, but he tolerated the pressure a different way than the rest of us. He wasn’t, by any means, a saint who was always happy and optimistic, and had an attitude and bold, sometimes aggressive confidence that could’ve easily gone the wrong way. But despite that, when he was angry, when he was upset, his words never lashed out at anyone, and no vitriol would leave his lips. Instead, the walk-in door tended to bear the brunt of his frustrations, and a fair share of the dents on the plaster covered metal were made by his fist.
If he were an unassailable, happy go-lucky guy who could never be upset, I don’t think I would’ve ever learned the right way to do things. I think I would’ve chalked it up to just a difference in people, that they were happy all the time, and that they just wouldn’t understand the same anger and frustration that I’d felt simmering away inside. But seeing him have the same tendencies, having his pride and his attitude and confidence, and still refuse to stoop down to the level I’d gone down to…
“Doesn't everyone do this?” I wondered, “Isn't this just how it is?”
And then I quit the culinary industry. Back then, I couldn’t really articulate why.
I didn’t have to wait long before it pulled me back in.
Just a couple years down the line, when I’d decided to attend community college, Shingo got his first position as an executive chef. He was determined to prove himself, and to do that, he needed a solid crew that he could count on, no matter what.
I got a call later that day.
“Squirrel– Timmy, how’s it going?” he asked. It’d been the first time we’ve spoken since I left. “What’re you up to now?”
I told him about going to community college, and not really knowing what I was doing, or wanted to do next.
“Look… I know you’re out of the industry, but…”
I accepted in an instant. I think he thought I’d need more convincing, or that I would be hesitant to return after I quit. But after quitting, I’d been directionless, frustrated. I’d quit because of the environment– I hadn’t quit because I hated cooking. On the contrary, I’d missed it dearly, missed the challenge of the dinner rush, the constant learning and improvement, the camaraderie between those of us trying to climb out of the weeds together each and every night.
I tried to say I’d take minimum wage. He insisted that he refused to pay me a true minimum wage, and we settled on the lowest wage tier they’d pay at the restaurant. I didn’t care about the money. I just wanted to cook again.
I think, there and then, is where I realized why I left. As I cooked in Shingo’s restaurant, I realized it wasn’t the long hours– If anything, I’d come in early, leave late, volunteer for anything and everything. It wasn’t because of the hard work– I was prepping faster than anyone else and picking up other people’s tasks. And it certainly wasn’t because I was useless like I was told– I could work anything from grill to fryer to expo to garde manger with the best of them.
His kitchen was run in a different way-- I didn't get the stomach dropping anxiety every time I drove to work. I didn't feel the rush of pressure in my ears that made the world numb and distant the moment I entered the back. This kitchen was fun, bright-spirited, passionate. It was filled with misfits, fuck ups, and a colorful cast of characters that made every day another wild story to tell, and it never, ever felt the way the Michelin Star kitchen did.
Things would go wrong there. They always do– nothing and no one is perfect.
Valentine’s Day, as with any restaurant, was one of the busiest, and most stressful days of the year. That year, we were doing a special pre-fixe menu for couples, which would serve the purpose of both seeming fancier as well as keeping the flow of orders consistent and manageable. Nico was in charge of the chestnut soup.
It was half an hour before service started, and we gathered around to get one last update, and go around to taste the foods we’d be serving, go over the plan one last time. When we got to the soup, everyone’s faces fell, and their eyes grew wide. No one dared to look at Nico.
The soup was scorched, burned from turning the flame too high. The acrid, bitter flavors permeated all throughout the soup, making it near inedible.
The look on Shingo’s face terrified us all. The menus had been printed. We had no backup course ready, and service was about to start.
Nico looked like he was about to pass out.
Shingo looked at Nico, and simply said, “You know what you did wrong.” Nico nodded vigorously, and that was that. He needed no further punishment, no additional words– the pain of failing someone you respected so much was punishment enough alone. There was no need for Shingo to rub salt in the wound.
The service did, in the end, go well. Despite everything, the customers ended up loving the chestnut soup, and Shingo even came into the kitchen once, laughing and slapping Nico across the shoulders as he reported that one of the couples raved about the soup, saying it was one of the most unique, special soups with complex flavors they’d ever tasted.
Nico smiled sheepishly. “I owe you, Tim.”
Earlier, I’d asked Shingo if we could take a shot at salvaging the soup. Nico and I had worked together on trying to fix it– he’d blended in more stock to thin it out and reduce the strength of the burned flavor, slung in some more hastily roasted and blended chestnuts to thicken it out again. I added additional salt, specifically a more minerally, briny salt to counterbalance the bitterness, and finished it with rosewater to mask the acrid aroma and a high polyphenol olive oil to bridge the flavors together.
In the Michelin Star kitchen, it would’ve been just thrown away, and we would’ve been torn to shreds by the chefs. But because of the way that Shingo dealt with the situation, in a measured, mature way, we not only were able to continue with service without incident, but arguably improved the soup.
When the customers asked what special technique he used to make the soup taste the way it did, Shingo responded simply with, “We brulee’d it.”
And they loved it.
Shingo was the kind of leader who, when the toilets clogged and overflowed, would pick up the mop and bucket, telling us he trusted us with the line before he left to clean it himself. He was the most skilled, constantly honing his craft, smiling and joking with the rest of us, and always seeking to improve. He knew his own limits, and would work to push them instead of pretending to be perfect, as I'd encountered so many times before.
And so when Vite started, I had to make a choice on how I wanted to lead my own team.
I knew the addictive power I could wield. I knew that it could make my life easier. But in the end? I don’t think it was a question of what I wanted to do. I think it was a question of who I wanted to be like.
Don’t get me wrong. I still respect the hell out of the chefs in that Michelin Star kitchen. They are there because of their skill, their passion, and the unmatched artistry they can do with food. But even so, I cannot want to be like this.
Because at the end of the day, as much as it might embarrass him for me to say so, I wanted to be a leader like Shingo. I wanted to be kind where it counted, firm where needed, and lead by example. I knew the pain of being yelled at, the distress caused by the vitriol and poison that dripped from those above me, knew the anxiety and stress it would bring. So, when it was my turn, given a choice, I wanted to do it the harder way. But the right way.
We stole a poster of Shingo, once, after an event, thought it was funny to hang it up and embarrass him a bit when he walked in the next day. I still have it, and it's hung up next to the break room and the offices. It's a reminder to me, and to everyone else, to think: what would Shingo do?
Just because you went through something bad doesn't mean that someone else has to as well. We can learn from our experiences, empathize, and understand that even though those experiences shaped who we are, we should also be the ones to find the better paths. Whether it's work, relationships, family, or friends, we can be the ones to overcome generational trauma.
Be the one to break the cycle. Stand up for what you know is right. It might be harder, but it's the right thing to do, and the fair thing to do for all those who come after you.
And, as always, remember to be kind, and savor life’s little victories.
Or ramen. You could also savor ramen. :^)
-Tim, CEO/Founder Vite Kitchens