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Behind the Kitchen Door

Michael Pollan has encouraged millions to think critically about food, and helped redefine the concept of “sustainability.” He emphasizes the impact of big farm production on our bodies and on the Earth, and extols restaurants committed to using organic food. But an enormous slice of the food ecosystem is missing from the prevailing sustainability analysis — the plight of people who work in restaurants.

In Behind the Kitchen Door, Saru Jayaraman finally reveals what many of the 10 million people who work in the rapidly growing U.S. restaurant industry face daily while cooking and serving food. She reframes the meaning of sustainability to include justice for these workers. Jayaraman tells stories of her eleven years as a union organizer in New York and leader of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, and the workers and organizers she’s met and marched with along the way.

The stories are sad. Chefs hurl insults at immigrant servers and bussers (“You stupid Mexican! You don’t know how to work. You don’t know how to do your fucking job”). Managers refuse to follow through on raises even after promotions. Supervisors suppress workers’ potential: One manager told Daniel, a Latino worker, “You don’t know how to communicate with our clients. You’ll always be a runner.” Bartenders and servers are denied paid sick time off, forcing some to work until serious injury disables them.

But management is just part of the problem. Jayaraman discusses what has been for decades the core policy environment restaurant workers toil within: the legal minimum wage for restaurant workers is $2.13 per hour. This is part of the legacy of former Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain who, as leader of the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA) lobbied fiercely to keep tipped workers’ federal minimum wage low even as it rose — albeit slowly — for other workers. While federal law mandates employers pay the difference between lower minimum wage and federal minimum wage, Behind the Kitchen Door tells stories of restaurant managers forcing workers to report that they made the money anyway. Currently, the median wage for cooks and servers is just $9.02 per hour. Wait staff have three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce.

Jayaraman’s accounts are enough to disillusion any foodie. What she reveals behind the kitchen door is truth: truth about wage theft and tip garnishment, truth about women hosts being forced to flash or kiss their bosses before clocking in or getting paid; truth about the challenges women and people of color face in ascending to management positions; truth about darker-skinned workers consistently being relegated to the back of restaurants.

She also shares the truth about what’s possible. Jayaraman writes of worker-organizers who successfully striked to compel fancy restaurants in Midtown Manhattan to offer overtime, while also mobilizing consumers to write letters to restaurant ownership urging fair wage policies. She asks readers not just to tip better, but also to be vocal in restaurants: after paying for a meal, talk to management about whether workers have the opportunity to advance, whether they are committed to promoting more women and people of color, whether they are committed to paying fair wages.

While talk of sustainable food can seem like a pet project for privileged Americans, Jayaraman’s analysis returns this discussion to a practical analysis of class and critiques systems that, fundamentally, devalue the laborer in pursuit of profit.


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