Picture a great restaurant, the chef up at dawn, dusting hand-milled flour on a butcher’s block. The chef under a spotlight, tweezing chive blossoms in the chaos of the pass, or fanning the wood fire under a row of shimmering, trussed birds.
The chef is in sharp focus, but everything else — everyone else — is an inconsequential blur.
I don’t need to describe the chef to you. He is a man, probably. A genius, definitely. Let’s say this genius is volatile, meticulous, impenetrable, charming, camera-ready. He doesn’t just manage the staff behind a great restaurant. He is the great restaurant.
For decades, the chef has been cast as the star at the center of the kitchen. In the same way the auteur theory in film frames the director as the author of a movie’s creative vision, the chef has been considered entirely responsible for the restaurant’s success. Everyone else — line cooks, servers, dishwashers, even diners — is background, there to support that vision.
This way of thinking has informed the industry’s culture at every level. But the power of the chef-auteur as an idea is fading, and as restaurant workers organize and speak up about abusive workplaces, toxic bosses and inequities in pay and benefits, it’s clear that the restaurant industry has to change.
The elevation of the chef to front and center is relatively new. Until about 40 years ago, chefs were considered unglamorous, trolls of the stove, hidden behind the kitchen’s swinging doors.
With a few exceptions, they weren’t thought of as artists, or visionaries. They couldn’t generally aspire to magazine covers, or amass devoted, cultlike, international followings. They did not get book deals, or discuss their inspirations in interviews, or star in documentaries, or hire publicists to make horrific scandals disappear.
In his 2018 book, “Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll,” Andrew Friedman documents the mythologizing of chefs, and their rise from obscurity. He writes that before the 1970s and ’80s, chefs were “anonymous workhorses,” in many cases not only unknown, but thought of as interchangeable.
The 1970s kicked off a shift, changing the way chefs were perceived in the United States. As Wolfgang Puck built a reputation for innovation in the kitchen at Ma Maison, and went on to open Spago, he helped usher in an era of American dining when chefs became names — big names — known to the public outside the restaurant business.
As chefs inched toward auteurship, they were finally recognized for grueling, previously undervalued labor. They were also given more room to reimagine dishes and menus, to tinker with how restaurants worked, and who they were for. They made restaurants infinitely more exciting place to dine, and to work.
By the time I started cooking in restaurant kitchens, in the mid-2000s, willingly vanishing into the militaristic brigade system, the chef’s status as an auteur was beyond question, and the deeply embarrassing phrase “food is the new rock” was tossed around with almost no sense of irony.
One chef I worked for shared photocopied pages of Ferran and Albert Adrià’s cookbooks, in Spanish, so the staff could study the ratios and techniques used in the famous kitchen of El Bulli. It was thrilling, and many of us experimented with blowing isomalt sugar sculptures or setting hot jellies.
That iconic photo of Marco Pierre White looking young and angry and sleepless and beautiful in his chef whites was a talisman for several cooks I knew.
It appeared in his influential 1990 memoir, “White Heat,” which showed what was possible when an ambitious, brilliant young chef achieved total power: Mr. White wrote about his habit of putting cooks inside trash cans to punish them, among other forms of intimidation.
“Kitchen Confidential,” by Anthony Bourdain, was also canon. Throughout his career, Mr. Bourdain called for attention and respect for immigrants, undocumented workers and the many underpaid, overlooked roles essential to a restaurant.
But he was also a celebrity, and he upheld a romantic ideal of cheffing as the kind of brutal, impossibly demanding, but ultimately meaningful work that exalted misfits, drawing them together with a sense of purpose — at least, for the duration of dinner service.
This complicated, shared understanding of restaurant kitchens was often used to justify the work and the hours, and the unreasonable expectations in service of excellence and glory. It also explained away the gross, systemic deficiencies of the business, and normalized abusive work cultures.
In his 2019 memoir, “JGV: My Life in 12 Recipes,” the chef Jean Georges Vongerichten writes about the culture he fostered in the late 1980s at Restaurant Lafayette, which received a three-star review from Bryan Miller in The New York Times.
The restaurant’s longtime dishwasher, referred to as “Sam” in the book, had been working at the hotel for 20 years, and took a 45-minute break while a critic was in the house. Mr. Vongerichten, who took the dishwasher’s place at the sink during that time, was furious. As his sous-chef held the walk-in door shut, trapping Sam inside, Mr. Vongerichten pummeled him.
“I’m not proud of it,” Mr. Vongerichten writes. After the dishwasher went to security to report the abuse, the kitchen closed ranks. “Everyone in the kitchen knew what happened,” he adds. “But nobody said a word.”
Mr. Vongerichten went on to find international renown and open 38 restaurants all over the world. As of last fall, The Jean-Georges restaurant group managed 5,000 employees; its 2018 sales totaled $350 million.
As chefs built big restaurant businesses, often referred to as empires, they became powerful brands, capable of obscuring abuse, assault and discrimination. And if they continued to make money for their investors, they often maintained their power — as in the case of Mario Batali.
Mr. Batali became one of the country’s most high-profile chefs and restaurateurs, opening popular restaurants, hosting shows on ABC and the Food Network, publishing a series of popular cookbooks, and playing a central role in Bill Buford’s vivid book “Heat,” published in 2007.
But in 2017, several women spoke up about Mr. Batali’s pattern of sexual assault. It wasn’t until 2019 that he divested from the Bastianich & Batali Hospitality Group, and stopped profiting from the restaurants he’d established. In the same way, the chef April Bloomfield severed her partnership with the restaurateur Ken Friedman in 2018, after he was accused of sexual harassment, and she conceded in an interview that she hadn’t done enough to end the abuse.
The writer Meghan McCarron recently described the lasting power of auteur theory — a way of thinking about restaurants that has come at a cost both hard to measure and impossible to ignore.
“In the food world’s under-examined version of this theory, singular visionaries are still seen as the sole architects of a restaurant’s greatness,” Ms. McCarron wrote.
The idea of a chef-auteur is tenacious, and sly — it limits the narrative, and it sustains itself. Look at the homogeneity among major industry best-of lists from organizations like the James Beard Foundation, Michelin and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
White male chefs who already fit neatly into the stereotype of the auteur are overrepresented, praised for a highly specific approach to fine dining, then rewarded with more investment and opportunities to replicate that same approach.
So many alternative kinds of food businesses are never considered for awards or investments. They don’t fit into the chef-auteur framework, and in some cases have no desire to do so — community farms with food stalls, roving trucks, collaborative projects, temporary projects, or family restaurants where three different cooks take turns in the kitchen, depending on their child care schedules.
But for so many, it’s already too late. They’ve been excluded from the narrative, over and over again, to serve the idea of the auteur. They’ve been subject to abuse. They’ve been paid unfairly. Many have dropped out of the business altogether.
The pandemic has exposed the fragility and inequity of the restaurant industry, disproportionately affecting Black people, people of color, restaurant workers and those who keep the food chain running in the nation’s factories and farms. Bolstered by the power of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, workers are speaking up. The model for the industry, as it exists now, has to change.
In a recent newsletter, Alicia Kennedy, a writer based in Puerto Rico, declared that the chef, as an ego, had become irrelevant. “What’s next?” she asked. And as reports of moldy food and allegations of poor conditions for cooks at Sqirl surfaced this summer, the Los Angeles writer Tien Nguyen asked another urgent question: What would food journalism look like if it centered on rank-and-file workers instead of chefs?
It’s hard but necessary to imagine these answers. And as workers unionize at places like Tartine in San Francisco and Voodoo Doughnut in Portland, Ore., they’re claiming power, demanding better conditions and pushing toward newer, fairer models.
Other workers are pointing to the gap between how restaurants are perceived and how they’re run, as in Chicago, where more than 20 employees of Fat Rice challenged their employer’s social-media claim that it supported racial justice.
Menus are collaborative, to some degree or another. Chefs lead that work, perhaps assigning tests, approving new dishes, or tasting them, editing them, and in most cases making the final decisions that shape the way the food comes to the table. But in some cases dozens of other cooks could be involved in the process.
Restaurants are the work of teams, kitchens full of cooks and dishwashers coordinating with dining rooms full of servers, runners and bartenders. Each role, each day, plays a part in a restaurant’s success.
One of my last fancy dinners before the pandemic shut down dining rooms in Los Angeles was at Somni, a small horseshoe bar inside the SLS Beverly Hills hotel owned by José Andrés. The chef, Aitor Zabala, printed out a menu that night that credited everyone working dinner service.
The porters on duty that night were Josue Rodriguez and Mario Alarcon. The detailed chocolate work was by Ivonne Cerdas and Lindsey Newman. About a dozen more cooks had worked on the exuberant, fast-flowing 27-course meal, and each one was listed, like the cast and crew on a playbill.
When I asked him in an email about the design, Mr. Zabala replied that he wanted the whole team to feel connected to the restaurant, and responsible for its experience. He explained that it’s part of why meals at Somni include a service charge, and why all employees both contribute to service and share in those earnings.
A menu is just a menu, but I found this one a tiny, eloquent gesture, urging diners to consider the restaurant as a whole — a collective — with so many people at work beyond the chef.