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Language, chefs: Why you might want to rethink swearing

A selfie recently posted on LinkedIn made its way to my page. It had a headless picture of a woman with this description: “Female Line Cooks are Bad A__.” I posted the following comment:

I teach students to put passion and pride and love into each dish they serve. I don't allow swearing nor do I allow the "a__" word in my kitchen. I want food to look and taste like it was made with passion, served with pride and has love in each bite. My experience in 20 years of cooking and teaching is that when people have an attitude the food has an attitude. In other words, I want food that tastes good, not that is "bad a__." Save the bad a__ for motorcycles and extreme sports. Keep the passion, pride and love in the food.

I didn’t intend to launch a major discussion with comments coming in literally from around the world. The bottom line: The older chefs and cooks considered my point well-taken. To the younger ones I was an old fuddy duddy. People even resorted to making fun of my last name.

A chef in Australia asked if I really did not allow swearing. He told me that he has a three swear word to one non-swear ratio in his kitchen. Here is how I responded:

1. I teach in a poverty level program. Many of my students are straight out of jail/prison. Several are on work furlough for the day then go back to jail after class. Many are in drug/alcohol rehab. I had two students gunned down in the last year just blocks from my class—one survived, one didn’t. I have taught here for 11 years.

2. I teach one day a week in the local jail.

3. I teach part time for the US Navy.

4. I am not a prude nor a Bible thumper. I can swear as well as any chef. (Just a joke.)

I got the idea of no swearing from the Navy where swearing is not generally accepted in the galley. Yes, if you spill hot oil on you, there might be a bad word or two. However, swearing is not allowed on a regular basis. What I noticed was that everyone got along better, there was less stress, the food did taste better, etc. (Of my 14 Navy assignments there was one where this rule was broken constantly. I don’t think it is coincidental that of the 14 assignments this was the one with the worst food and the most disgruntled cooks. In addition, the ship’s crew had the lowest opinion of the food on this ship than any of the 13 other assignments.)

I talked about this with a friend of mine who is the executive chef for a large very upscale hotel in the United States. He is Italian and he told me that swearing is contradictory to Italian cooking. The food is to be treated well and respected. How can you, according to him, treat food with respect when you are swearing all around it? I’ve spent many hours in his kitchens and I never heard even a shout in his kitchen by him or the staff. So I brought the philosophy back to my class and the jail. I have noticed over the years MAJOR improvements in temperament, less fights, less yelling, less stress for me and everyone else and a heck of a lot more pride taken in what is done. Since I have instituted the policy there has only been one time that I had to intervene between inmates or students. That was over three years ago.

I would much rather hear: “Chef, I made the jambalaya again today, it tastes great. Lot more love went into it today and it shows” then I would like to hear, “Here, Bob and I made the f____g jambalaya again. The recipe was a piece of s___t but we pulled it out of our a__.”

I teach everyone not to serve a plate unless you could serve it to your grandmother and tell her you were proud of it. That gets a lot better results with the people whom I teach then having someone swear and scream at each other when they bump into each other, drop the broccoli, etc.

After 25 years of professional cooking I believe that it is virtually impossible to have passion for what you do and pride in every dish you make when you are cursing a blue streak. I have students who are now sous chefs in two star restaurants in New York and Chicago.

I have students working around the world in major hotels and cruise ships. My job placement rate is nearly 100% with over 90% working in culinary 2 years later! I don’t know beyond that, we only keep track for two years. I have taught for 11 years, have published over 100 articles, and spoken at nearly a dozen conferences. I must be doing something right.

Finally, two questions for you: would you rather have your cooks give you a plate to go to a customer and say: “Here is the f____ filet. Bruce knocked the s_____ out of it and I had to rescue his a____ from the weeds. Here it is chef,” or would you rather hear, “Chef, one tenderloin medium rare as you called out?” Which do you think the customer would like better?

Another LinkedIn friend e-mailed me and said Escoffier did not allow swearing in his kitchen. I have to admit that I never heard that before. So, I looked it up and came up with quite a few sites that backed him up (take a look at the third paragraph of this one). Now, you are probably wondering why—with everything going on in the world of cooking—that I decided to allocate a lengthy blog to to this subject. The answer is simple. I have learned that in kitchens where swearing has been banned food costs have dropped and customer satisfaction has gone up. I am not making this up. I have a number of friends and colleagues who have told me about this. I have noticed it myself. When everyone starts swearing, tempers fly (even if the people swearing think it’s innocuous). When tempers fly, food starts getting cooked incorrectly. Mistakes happen. Food costs increase. When people treat each other professionally, the opposite happens.

So here is my challenge to you. Stop swearing, and get your staff to stop it, and watch your food costs and customer satisfaction improve. After you have tried it for a month, post a comment below and let me know what happens.

P.S. I wrote the above on a Tuesday. The next day, Wednesday, I was doing my regular teaching in jail. One student, who was in class for the first time, dropped a tray of food on the floor and let out the “s” word. Three students who had been in class before circled him. “We don’t say s___ in the kitchen or the food will come out tasting like s____. And, be careful with the food. Chef Adam has to watch his food costs.” To say I was proud would be an understatement.

P.P.S. On Thursday I attended a sexual harassment prevention training program at work. The attorney teaching the class brought up how swearing (particularly using sexual swear words) could be considered sexual harassment in the work place. He gave an example of a lawsuit by a woman against a company after she was fired. The company claimed that the woman didn’t mind the swearing and even swore herself. The women claimed that she did it because she felt pressured to be just like everyone else. The case was settled for a sizeable sum.

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