When you change a set of strings on an instrument, one of the things you have to be careful of is to maintain tension in the instrument. A guitar or violin or piano is not one solid thing, it is an assembly of wood and wire that only keeps its shape because it is under a perfectly balanced tension, each piece pushing strongly against its opposite. Take too much tension away from the system and pieces start to pull away from each other, parts warp and break, and eventually the instrument falls apart completely.

It seems like the independent restaurant industry may be going through such a moment right now, the sudden slack in demand from a public health crisis causing escalating tensions in very delicately balanced parts of the industry, including below living wages for kitchen workers, restaurant cash flow, and a cultural system in which non-white chefs are treated as automatons, mechanically reproducing their own ethnic food or a head chef’s food, and white chefs are elevated as artists. I was really fascinated by this article from The LAnd magazine on the LA brunch restaurant Sqirl. Sqirl had one very, very bad set of practices—preparing food in a secret uninspected kitchen and serving moldy jam— that couldn’t help but go viral on social media, but one thing the article explores is that there were a whole host of other bad set of practices that Sqirl engaged in that are pretty much standard in the restaurant industry. There is a striking quote from Sqirl’s owner, Jessica Koslow that speaks to this: “I can apologize for and fix my own mistakes, but I am not in a position, standing alone, to apologize for a business structure that is foundational to the entire service industry and the majority of American businesses.”

One of the principal business structures that Koslow is defending is the unwritten convention that chefs are entitled to all the rewards, financial and social, for excellent food that comes from their kitchens, whether or not they cook themselves or even develop recipes. This attitude doesn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, restaurant culture seems to be one of the last remaining places in the economy where medieval craft guild norms determine respect, standing, and rewards. In as few words as I can, a craft guild was an association of craftspeople that regulated the production and sale of a particular trade in a particular place. The joiners’ guild of Bonn regulated furniture-making in Bonn, while a thatcher’s guild in London regulated roofing. The guild regulated quality by designating skilled workers as masters, who could establish their own workshops and sell their goods for the highest prices. Skilled workers on their way to becoming masters were journeymen, and workers learning their trade were apprentices.

Here’s the key parallel with kitchens: only master works were able to be sold for their true value. If you were an apprentice or a journeyman in a workshop, your work was not your own. If the work was high enough quality, a master could mark it with his own seal and it would be sold under his name. This was a time in which the rewards were mostly economic. For the most part, craftspeople did not have high social status, and the notion of the individual artist expressing themselves (which was not broadly applied to restaurant chefs until the 1980’s) didn’t become popular until the 18th century. It’s important to note that some amount of exploitation was built into the guild model from the beginning. Apprentices were essentially indentured servants. Abuse by their masters was unlawful but commonplace, corporal punishment lawful and universal. The primary function of a guild was to keep skilled workers from being able to freely sell their own work and undercut the prices of master craftsmen.

It was a very successful model in Europe for hundreds of years. But eventually the greed of the masters and corruption in the system caused it to topple under its own weight—exactly as we are seeing now in restaurants. Over time, masters began to make it harder for apprentices to become journeymen and journeyman to become masters. Instead of journeymen making master and establishing their own workshops, workshops and the master rank became something that passed down from father to son. The relationship between a master and his workers evolved from a trainer-trainee, mentor-mentee relationship to an employer-employee relationship. Guilds became hostile to other forces that threatened the masters’ power: technological advances, new tools and working methods, and a slowly globalizing trade market. In the face of such forces, the guilds were sidelined into irrelevance.

What we’re seeing right now in restaurant of the fiction that a kitchen is a craft workshop. Masters were responsible for providing lodging, food, and education for their adolescent apprentices. US restaurants rely on subsistence wages for their dishwashers and back of house, and often these are jobs held by people for years. In a landscape of inequality, it has become nearly impossible for talented chefs to open their own independent restaurants without sharing ownership with an investor. I think that part of what is so offensive to the former Sqirl employees is that the owner is being showered with respect and attention as a chef, when they know that, just like with the late stage guild workshops, her success has more to do with her access to social and financial capital than her own skill. It makes the fundamental exploitation of the kitchen—the back of the house creates all of the value, the owner keeps all of the reward—too visible.

If you are going to treat your staff as employees, you have to treat their jobs like jobs. Right now, the restaurant asks crazy things from its workers, many of them already illegal like working with no breaks or working in unsafe conditions. As staff are increasingly able to talk back, I hope this becomes untenable. If a chef treats its staff like collaborators, as many of the most excellent chefs and kitchens do, credit and rewards must be shared, and the old guild master system has to go. It had a good run, it’s time has come, we are ready for new systems.   

Further Reading

History of the guild system.

Overview of middle ages commerce.

Apprentice childhoods.

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