If I were to talk to you about Mexico I'm sure many thoughts will come to mind, our gorgeous beaches, the outstanding archeological sites and the beauty of our colonial cities, but there's one thing everyone agrees is our biggest contribution to this world: Our food and drink.
In my opinion Mexican cuisine is the strongest cultural legacy Mexico has ever offered (strong enough to be named by UNESCO as Cultural Heritage of Humanity) it's an astonishing amalgamation of colors, scents and unique ingredients that create such a distinctive experience that even some of the best chefs in the world struggle to create the flavors a Mexican grandmother can cook in her sleep. Our gastronomy, our cuisine is our identity.
But what is the price we pay to enjoy this experience? It would be easy to answer "the one in the menu" yet that is a half-truth. It's no secret that jobs in restaurants are some of the most demanding in the world, having to work long shifts, during holidays and having almost no time for a private life -Mexico takes this to the next level by also not providing its culinary workers with decent salaries or overtime, healthcare and insurance, vacation days, a lunch break, the list goes on. The real price we pay is the slow and steady deterioration of said workers, the destruction of their mental and physical health and the killing of their passion for the art.
Working a culinary job in Mexico is slow suicide and here's why.
The Restaurants: Where it All Began
Mexico is home to some of the best restaurants in the globe or at least that's what most publications agree on, one of these is Pujol Restaurant, ranked number 12 in the 50 best restaurants of the world. Whilst this is an unbelievable accomplishment that should be celebrated and worn with pride, it isn't the case anymore. This year (2021) the testimony of an intern by the name of Ximena surfaced on the internet claiming that she was forced to work 16 hour-shifts with no opportunity to eat or a lunch break, also no pay. People, specially restaurant owners, believed this would be another sensational story that would be forgotten in a couple weeks, but they didn't count with how utterly tired culinary workers were with this injustice.
You see Ximena's case is not an isolated incident, this is common practice for culinary workers to the point they have assimilated it into what's seen as a "badge of honor" or "making your bones" but we'll get to that in a bit. Ask five restaurant employees and four will tell you they have suffered similar types of abuse. Her testimony began a snowball effect that encouraged more and more workers to come out and share their stories. One account on Twitter called @TerrorRestMX has amassed an amazing number of testimonies and claims from workers all around the service industry in Mexico, with entries being posted almost daily. Not only "Gourmet" type restaurants are being outed but almost every single restaurant type that exist, from franchises to local "trendy spots" seem to be guilty of one or other abuse.
One such case of a "trendy" restaurant hit with claims of lack of payment, work and mental abuse, racism, sexism and even physical violence is niddo. Over 21 different allegations have come out detailing how much of a "living hell" was working in this restaurant, one claiming that the owners began a crowdfunding campaign to pay the workers' salaries but used the money to open several new locations instead. Another one showed a "contract" where the employee has to accept that if he/she arrives five minutes late all tips will be confiscated. This, of course, is illegal according to the LFT (Mexican Federal Labour Law).
Speaking of the LFT, a full-time job in Mexico is considered to be one where the employee works 8 hours a day 5 to 6 days a week specifically pointing out all extra time worked is to be paid as overtime. Each and every testimony and allegation coming out claims some sort of lack of payment., be it the legal salary, overtime or tips. Most restaurant owners defended themselves saying that the current Covid-19 pandemic didn't allow them to pay full salaries, that workers knew this and kept working regardless. While this almost sounds like a believable excuse, how can they explain the fact that they haven't been paying according to the law since before the pandemic? How do they justify the lack of decent salaries and the theft of tips for decades then? Simple, they can't. They're breaking the law and no one is doing anything to stop them.
The Colleagues: Normalizing Injustice to Look Toug
"Having a restaurant in Mexico and following the law is almost impossible! You have to understand"; "Look, this is the job you chose, if you weren't ready to sacrifice everything for this then you should quit"; "It's all the new young kids that are complaining, you need to go through this if you really want to become a chef". I've heard this and many more nonsense from my ex-colleagues, excuses that pretend to justify the horrible stress levels and abuse people go through when working in a kitchen. Again, it's nonsense bordering in Stockholm syndrome, when you hear this coming out of a person working your same job and having your same or worse pay it's almost impossible not to lose it.
As I said earlier, most culinary workers have incorporated this abuse into their work seeing it as normal or a must if you're to have a career in service. This is stupidity in its purest form, no job should require you to suffer from constant mental and work abuse. This comes from the "tough and rude" culture that accompanies culinary work, a culture made popular by celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay. Constantly yelling and humiliating workers on his shows, Ramsay created a persona that chefs in Mexico and all around the world adopted believing it to be the root of Ramsay's international success. That was a core mistake since a persona isn't a personality and also not the reason of his success.
By no means the state of the industry is Ramsay's fault, at the end of the day Ramsay and other celebrity chefs are not selling cooking but entertainment, drama sells but it doesn't work in the real world. Plus this persona has existed since the beginning, Ramsay just made it popular.
We're getting off track here, the point being that culinary workers are not completely guilt-free as we have all embraced this culture at some point and kept it alive even subconsciously. An easy example would be the immigrant culinary workers I know here in Canada. The moment these allegations surfaced most of them laughed it up, blaming the existence of the allegations on the "weakness" of the new generation, the argument being that this "weakness" is the reason why they can't make it in the industry in Mexico. I believe they were so immerse in this abuse they cannot see the hypocrisy of what they're arguing, they left Mexico to search for a better life and that obviously includes a better job, where you are paid fairly, why do this if you are not "weak"? "If you think they're just weak then why did you left Mexico tough guy?" A question that is yet to be answered.
A culture of unstoppable toughness and "through suffering and sacrifice you will get a reward" is the poison that has been slowly killing the industry. I'm not saying hard work isn't needed, but there's quite a difference between hard work and abuse. Sacrifice is noble when wanting to achieve a certain goal, not a salary we're entitled already by law when completing our work duties. This is creating such a heavy atmosphere that culinary workers have high levels of substance abuse, unhealthy lifestyles, mental issues and so on. This is absurd when you stop and think: this is a job cooking, we all have to cook at some point and restaurants represent the choice to not cook for ourselves, enjoy a better meal or celebrate a special occasion. The core being a restaurant is a treat not a necessity and yet is treated like a life-or-death profession. It's insane!
"Gordon, Gordon! Calm down! We are doing a bit of dinner mate, not sorting the Middle East." -Mickey O'Flanagan.
The Clients: You're not Always Right
As any other product in the world as long as there's demand there will be supply, this demand is what bred fast food chains, convenience dinners and franchises. Restaurants are businesses, crude and simple, they have to survive the market like any other business, this necessity to stay in the black created a unique philosophy with which most restaurants have worked for decades: "the client is always right" a dangerous mantra in its core.
To begin with, mathematically and statistically speaking, not all your clients will be right, it's just impossible. No absolutes exist in the service world. You will meet a hot-tempered client or someone that "just had a bad day", in real life one would choose how to deal with these people but working in a restaurant your choices boil down to one: suck it up and smile. The absolute power clients are given when entering a restaurant sometimes blinds them to the humanity of those serving them. When you dehumanize anyone, abuse comes easier.
Social media reviews have made this even easier since now you can write and slam anyone without the need of having said person in front of you, whilst most of these stick to slamming the place it is normally an employee who gets the blame for it. I recognize bad service also exist, some people aren't cut out for this type of employment, but think for a second how hard it is to provide good service when you're going through all this abuse during the day. It would be hell now, wouldn't it?
When entering a restaurant be sure to enter hungry and empathetic.
Culinary Industry: A Passion Killer
When I started working in kitchens I had big dreams and goals, I accomplished some and was rewarded for it. Because of my culinary experience I got to travel the world volunteering and cooking in places I had never even heard of, overall I have a deep gratitude for what this industry did for me and the great life lessons I took from it. It's because of my experience working in restaurants that I am currently applying for a Permanent Residence in Canada, but the positives end there.
This industry also killed my passion for cooking, I had to sacrifice a lot to make the job somewhat tolerable. My physical and psychological health suffered during this time: high stress levels, epileptic attacks, loss of motivation, weight loss, and nicotine addiction just to name a few. The constant reminder that I was nothing but a dispensable employee in the eyes of my employer didn't change a bit when working in Quebec (although I must say I was at least paid a somewhat acceptable salary in comparison to Mexico and I had social security). I developed an extreme negative attitude not wanting to socialize with anyone thus affecting my personal relationships deeply. My creativity was almost completely erased from me, in a general sense I lost myself.
I got told once "if your passion was this easily killed then you weren't passionate at all". No, my skeptical friend, it wasn't "easily killed" it took 10 years of constant abuse for it to die.
Nonetheless, I have mixed feelings towards the industry, I love it and want to see it thrive but I would also enjoy watching it burn to the ground. I guess deep inside I'm craving change, for the industry to understand that we are people too, for empathy to be common place in a kitchen, to replace the negative stigma for welcoming arms.
Culinary workers have given us some of the best meals and memories of our lives, isn't it time we give them something back?