Chef Anna Haugh on Conquering the Kitchen Culture’s Demons
Tallaght native Anna Haugh has more than a few strings to her bow. Working her way up to become Head Chef of the renowned Soho hotspot Bob Bob Ricard after years at the helm of the Gordon Ramsay group, Haugh has made her mark on the London restaurant scene over the years, and on the famously furrowed browed and furious chef in the process.
We could spend all day talking about Anna’s accomplishments and how she rose up the kitchen ranks, from Pied á Terre to Ramsay’s London House, but Haugh has made it her business to start a conversation about something which has long been taboo.
The bravado and expletives which come with kitchen life are far from confined to TV screens for dramatic effect, Anna detailed when she took to the stage at Food on the Edge 2017. In a symposium which focussed heavily on chefs mental health, Anna shed light on the critical issue of bullying in the kitchen.
“It would happen so often but you never got used to it”, she recalls, telling the story of a kitchen porter who had the misfortune of catching the eye of a particularly aggressive chef during her commis years.
“Seedy, an excellent worker, would never complain, he’d never bat an eyelid and just got on with it. He was quite short, about a foot shorter than me, and he had a disfigured face and something wrong with one of his legs. He was very positive but didn’t speak much English,” she remembers vividly.
“The Sous Chef was an out and out racist. If you weren’t white, it was a problem. He was a horrible human being,” she tells me. Seedy was clearly an easy target, as the chef used every tool in his arsenal to make his life a misery.
“At the end of the night we would have piping bags of purée, it was a two star restaurant, and at the end of the night he would go over to Seedy and pretend to ejaculate all over him”, Anna recalls, with audible sadness in her voice.
“The chef would make all these noises and be falling all over the place laughing, and some others would laugh along too.”
I don’t think anyone actually found it funny, but there were some who laughed along and some of us who really just wanted to die watching it.
Although, like the others, Anna was terrified of the repercussions of breaking from the ranks – the silent acquiescence to verbal and physical abuse in professional kitchens is insidious and rampant – she did what she could to ease the porter’s suffering: “I would throw out the piping bags, or bring pots over when it was happening, or call him away and hope he would get distracted and just focus on someone else. It really was traumatic.”
Anna isn’t made of steel, but there was a steely determination in her almost tear-stained eyes that day on stage in Galway, mirrored when we speak, by the sheer determination in her voice to bring this abuse to a halt in her kitchen and to encourage other Head Chefs to follow suit.
Describing an environment which very much resembles a schoolyard, there are the big dogs, those who follow and those who are fodder. However, Anna believes the root cause of the problem isn’t the tense and pressurised environment of the kitchen, as one might assume, but rather the lack of enforcement measures to prevent the disintegration of respect between chefs.
“Some good people do bad things. It’s the norm, like Lord of the Flies. It is human nature that if you’re not policed you lose the run of yourself” she believes, adding that “kitchens have been ruling themselves, deciding what is right and wrong and nobody has policed them. This kind of mentality of being able to do what you like to whoever you like because there were no repercussions was built,” she says.
Behind closed doors, it is like domestic violence in lots of ways, it can look fine from the outside but its a very complicated thing, especially when it comes from the top.
On the ever-present gender issue, Anna herself has of course encountered the stereotypical remarks and derision in the kitchen, but she is quick to point out “no more than what a guy would get”. She is able to laugh thinking back to the treatment she received once the troupes of male chefs discovered she had no interest in their inappropriate advances.
“Some of them were like ‘well what are you doing here then?’ or ‘what’s your purpose?’ It was really bizarre. I was a commis and it took them a long time to warm to me because I would have confused them with my ambition and my aggression and my ability to say NO.”
However, this treatment didn’t go unnoticed, and as tough as Anna has become, these blows landed, leaving her wounded. Her saving grace, and her advice to young chefs struggling, is to cultivate a strong support network beyond the kitchen.
“The first couple of years were extremely hard for me” she remembers, describing relocating to London and coping with being a young chef. “I was so lucky to have such supportive friends, they kept me on the straight and narrow. When you don’t have those networks around you, that is how you slip through the cracks”, she believes.
Making a vow to herself to never allow the kind of behaviour she witnessed take hold once she had a position of authority, Anna has focused on building a kitchen culture with zero tolerance for abuse – verbal, physical or substance, in her kitchen, with one simple ingredient.
I treat everybody with respect. I can be very firm and very blunt. I’m not like a Kindergarden teacher but I am very respectful.
In addition, to combat the possibility of isolation, the factor she believes is behind acquiescence to bullying in order to fit in, she has a strategy: “When a new person comes in, I always have a sponsor or chaperone for them. I’ll try to gather their personality in their mind as best I can and give them someone they’ll get along with, it creates a friendship or a bond. I pair them up with a kindred spirit.”
Despite, or perhaps as a result of, what she has seen, Anna has strived to create an environment in which she, and her team, can thrive, although she concedes that “No matter how hard I try, there will always be secrets and these underlying issues in a kitchen, you try to reduce it but you can’t eliminate it.”
But how is it that Anna has managed to scale back on an issue which has plagued professional kitchens over the years? Far from being a soft touch, Anna has merely brought a touch of humanity to a pressurised environment and has committed to being strong, but kind.
“I don’t think it’s because I’m a woman. I think it’s because I am outspoken. It isn’t about my gender” she says. It would seem that what the kitchen really needs is more chefs, like Anna, to become outspoken about the unspoken issues.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake Off and am passionate about discovering and creating delicious things – I can sometimes be caught in the act on TV3’s Six O’Clock Show or RTE Today. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me on my pursuit of deliciousness.