Work

Behind those doors, it’s a different world

The physical isolation of chefs working in Michelin-starred kitchens can lead to violent misbehaviour and a different moral code. In our latest post, Robin Burrow, Rebecca Scott and David Courpasson explore how this happens.

Published in Journal of Management Studies here, our article is concerned with the connection between isolated places and misbehaviour.

We address this phenomenon in the context of a very specific group of workers: chefs employed in elite, fine dine restaurants around the world. What we reveal is an interlinked belief in two main things.

First, that kitchens are often experience as ‘isolated’ places where chefs can feel hidden from mainstream society. Second, that in isolated, hidden away places there can arise a sense of being free from constraint. Specifically, that it is possible to misbehave with relative impunity.

These beliefs were widely held amongst the 47 chefs’ we interviewed, who understood the kitchens they worked in to be figuratively different worlds. In these different worlds a different moral code applied, one which was centred on the idea that mainstream rules don’t apply. Thus what we show is that in the kitchen misbehaviour is seen as possible, and even normal, because, well, that’s what happens in a kitchen. Isn’t it?

 

Why thinking about misbehaviour as an effect of isolation is helpful

The significance of our findings is not actually the stark, brutal reality of the misbehaviour reported by the people who participated in our study. This is important, but it is actually already well known. From academic studies we know that hospitality is an industry where violent forms of misbehaviour are common. We also know that this violence is driven by militaristic cultures, hypermasculine values, extreme ideologies and the natural brutality of physical, stressful, fast-paced work.

Violence perpetrated by chefs in kitchens is also a common theme in the mass media. On television in particular, obsessive, impassioned, abusive gastronomes continue to be celebrated. Weirdly, we forgive their bullying, violent and aggressive behaviour. We don’t (generally) treat it as deviance or as naughty. Instead it is intriguing and entertaining. It is a symptom of laudable dedication. It is the unfortunate by-product of the otherwise admirable pursuit of excellence.

The significance of our study is, therefore, that it spotlights the effect of the kitchen environment and adds it to the list of reasons why chefs’ misbehave. In fact, we add two things:

First, we show that misbehaviour can be understood as something called ‘spatial effect’. Misbehaviour is a potentiality – a possibility – that is made possible by what we call a ‘geography of deviance’. Theorized in this way, misbehaviour in organizations – but specifically amongst chefs in kitchens – is understood as something subtly built into the physicality of a place.

So, in the case of chefs, misbehaviour is understood as a possibility created by kitchens’ [isolating] physical structures. By things like enclosed, windowless rooms located in basements and other sub-prime areas that are hidden away and shielded from view. These structures matter because they create feelings of invisibility, alienation and detachment – a sense of being away from and invisible to wider society. Our argument is that these feelings – these spatial effects – play an important role in facilitating and enabling cultures of misbehaviour to endure and proliferate.

The second way that our study advances understanding of misbehaviour in organizations is by showing how misbehaviour can be understood as a communal phenomenon. That is, as a ritualized component of an anti-structural way of being, where the kitchen is simultaneously apprehended as an instrument of social withdrawal and a symbol of detachment and deviance around which the community pivots. The potentialities of the kitchen are, we argue, made available to chefs via exclusionary structures that create both freedom from external scrutiny and the freedom to step outside of mainstream structural roles and obligations.

 

Robin Burrow is a Lecturer in Organizational Behaviour at Cardiff University. He has a PhD from the University of Warwick and his research is helping to unravel the connection between emotions and behaviour in organizations.

Rebecca Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing. Rebecca’s research focuses on the social and cultural aspects of marketing. Using ethnographic approaches she studies experiential consumption, multisensory consumption and ‘the body.’ Her research blends discrete and overlapping bodies of work from consumer behaviour, marketing, sociology and anthropology, which facilitate an understanding of embodied experience.

David Courpasson is a Professor of Sociology at EMLyon Business School where he is also Director of the OCE research centre. He is also a Professor at Cardiff University. His work on social and political dynamics in and around organizations has been extensively published in diverse outlets. He is a former editor in chief of Organization Studies.