A chat with FairKitchens Chef Einav Gefen

by Heather Schatz

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Anthony Bourdain’s suicide has helped spark a national dialogue on the mental health issues many chefs struggle with — or have struggled with — at some point during their culinary careers. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently published a powerful multimedia piece entitled “A Reckoning with the Dark Side of the Restaurant Industry.”

It is our hope that these difficult conversations will help pave the way for a brighter future for our industry, and everyone in it.

To that end, we are pleased to announce that we will be working with our friends at Unilever Food Solutions, who recently launched FairKitchens, “a movement of chefs supporting chefs to inspire a new kitchen culture,” to help address and offer solutions to some of these issues.

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We recently sat down with Chef Einav Gefen, Executive Chef at Unilever Food Solutions, to discuss this innovative new initiative.  

ACF: Why did Unilever Food Solutions create FairKitchens?

Gefen: We kept hearing from chefs all over the world that their hardest challenge is to get and retain talent, [which led Unilever to conduct some research]. It was both qualitative and quantitative, with 400 chefs around the world. Psychologists followed chefs around the kitchen and back home. The results were staggering … Just the percentage of depression, anxiety, malnourishment, [and the] sense of a lack of fulfillment … there’s a huge issue here.

[So, we] defined the problem, but we also needed to define a solution. If we really want to make a change, we need to enable chefs [to run] progressive kitchens, [to recognize that they] can control their immediate environment.”

ACF: From there, how did you start the actual “movement?”

Gefen: “We linked up with external people, [such as] Chef Michael Gulotta and Kat kinsman of Chefs with Issues, who were very interested in trying to help us do something after we told them what we were thinking [of].

We did a two-day workshop in January, 2018 with our people, agency people, and external chefs. The first day, we laid everything we think is an issue within a kitchen – abuse, addiction, and suicide (which are getting most of the headlines), but also things as small as paid vacation days and comfortable shoes – on the table. Next, we asked, ‘If we were to make a change, how would it look? what should it be?’  On the second day, we looked at all the issues, and said ‘it’s not about selling more products for us…[We are a company] with a global reach and resources, so it’s really about trying to start a movement.’ [We hope to help chefs] run a sustainable business with a progressive kitchen…using people who are running things differently as a voice [of change]. This is the nuts and bolts of how FairKitchens got started.”

ACF: How does FairKitchens work?

Gefen: “We want to create a movement to change kitchen cultures. That’s a big statement! [We are working on] how to [create] change from the bottom up and from the top [down]. We’re trying [everything from] grassroots solutions to bigger solutions, which cast wider nets.

The first step was to get the conversation going and the next step for us will be to tailor solutions and resources based on what we hear.

We are [a few] months in, and have a website, Code of Conduct, and [the initial values, or] TEAMS expressed in The Code. It may sound basic what each TEAMS letter stands for [T: talk openly; E: excite passion; A: act as one; M: make time; and S: say good job], but we were shocked to see how much of the basic is not embedded [in kitchen culture].

There is a big white space of where chefs can [go to] open up; where chefs are talking now is mostly online. Chefs with Issues is probably one [of the few spaces] where chefs feel they can be extremely honest. They’re all in place in a community, but there are no tailored solutions to address those items that come up. We need to be the solution place in a constructive way.

[So,] we’ve also launched what we call ‘the herd.’ These are small events, up to 40 people. [For one,] we met at Michael Gulotta’s restaurant, and did not allow any media – we did not take any photos, and didn’t record anything. We had a panel run by a psychologist, a chef, a mental behaviorist, and we really did not fully define the topic – we said ‘sustainable kitchens and learning how to prevent a crisis’ – because we really wanted to see what would surface, what is a pressure point for them…is there one big concern that’s relevant for the majority of the nation?…For us, it gives us a pulse check on what type of things we at FairKitchens should tailor as an ongoing solution.

And, it might not be a one size fits all [solution]. The main point is for chefs to take the pledge, [and get started] working with the FairKitchens Code, to urge chefs to devote ‘An Hour for Us,’ which is really to sit down with your team and ask what is a FairKitchen to them. [We want them] to lend an ear and listen, because we realize different establishments may be different. Chefs or operators need to know what is relevant to them before [they and] we make any changes. We have  inspirational training videos on our website, so people can see chefs that are running FairKitchens and share the challenges that are that they are facing.

We are also in the process of putting together a channel that we will sponsor, where we will have the ability to do webinars with the ability for people to ask an HR person, a financial advisor, etc. questions.

What are some examples of things chefs are doing to help create FairKitchens?

Many of the things I have named. No more 16-hour shifts, instead, teams will be able to work only 8-10 hour shifts. They will be only working five, no more than six shifts a week, with paid vacation, where it’s reasonable. We love what we do – my happy place was the kitchen, but it is grinding work, so we want people to take time off. We should also take the time to do things like ask [our staff], ‘How you are doing? Is everything okay?’ The last thing you want is a chef, or someone else, who’s not fully functional in the kitchen, because at the end of the day it impacts the executing. I hear people say cooking is art, and I say true, but when you’re an artist you can have a blocked day. [Realistically,] you don’t always have that ability. There is some environments that chefs create to allow people to be honest and open up, where when you’re down, your team will carry you. It’s not necessarily ‘yes chef, whatever the chef says.’ This change and creativity. These chefs realize the process, and even if the person down the street pays more, [their employees] will stay with them.

How can other Chefs get involved?

They can go online and take the pledge, [make] a commitment…We want to start by creating awareness. You might think you run a kitchen one way, but maybe you find out you can do things better. The pledge is the first thing. Share it online – we found this helps, as it’s the way that people listen, trust and believe. Understanding that ‘mental health’ is not a curse or bad word. There are solutions, and prevention is the best medicine. If we create an environment where we are proactive, we will create an environment where the result will be less of the extreme unfortunate things. It’s such a stressful environment, and it’s charged with passion. It’s  like a pressure cooker, and if you don’t know how to relieve this pressure, you’re bound to explode – and different people can explode in different ways. We want to prevent the pressure from building up in the first place.

Why should Chefs could involved?

This is something that we think we have a responsibility [to do]  as a company that services the industry…But, we can’t do it on our own – we need people to join the movement from the bottom up. We are [also] working with industry leaders to join in a coalition so we will have more leverage. We talked to Open Table, we talked to James Beard, and other business partners, because a component of this is also more diversity in the kitchen, [in addition to a] better working [environment]. We’re talking to health insurance companies, to see about some sort of reduction in their fee. There’s so many components and we want partners that carry that passion. We need to let it catch fire and take it globally, because we can bring that global connection, which would be the cherry on top for me. The aim for us is to really start a [movement] here – we would love to see 17 million restaurants, the amount across the globe, getting engaged in one way or another.

Stay tuned for more on our work with FairKitchens. In the meantime, visit fairkitchens.com for more information or to take the pledge and be a part of the change.

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