INSIDER: In praise of niceness

Working in a tough kitchen used to be a badge of honour, as restaurants ran on the blood, sweat and tears of their staff. Now top restaurants are asking employees to leave their bad energy at the door, be nice, lead by example and mentor each other under a ‘one team, one dream’ banner. Has the hospitality industry entered a newer, nicer, era?

The restaurant kitchen as we know it was based on a military system of hierarchy set up by Escoffier at The Savoy in London in 1890. The long hours, hard labour, low pay and high stress levels soon resulted in a tough, take-no-prisoners culture. Sensitivity was seen as weakness, and weakness was seen as letting the entire brigade down.

By 1990, the stereotype was of a fat, screaming chef up-ending stockpots over hapless apprentices.

How times have changed. It’s still a tough business, but the open kitchen has transformed the workplace. You can’t rant at an apprentice as your diners watch on, horrified. Having females in the mix also sees less foul language and macho bullshit. And the rest is generational - young chefs today are more collaborative, they communicate more easily, and they want to have a good time at work, not a bad one.

We’ve even moved on since Marco Pierre White and Anthony Bourdain romanticised bad-boy chefs in a blur of short-order sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. If you read their books back in 1990 or 2000, you’re way too old to get away with boozy nights and hungover mornings any more.

Top chefs around the world are now actively creating workplace environments in which staff feel safe and can be heard. American chef Thomas McNaughton, CEO and culinary director of the Ne Timeas restaurant group (San Francisco’s flour+water, Central Kitchen, Salumeria) spoke recently at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival about their employees-first approach. Their manifesto: “Ours is a creative, hard-working environment filled with smart, fun and hilarious people. Everyone looks out for each other and helps one another.”

But it takes hard work to achieve a culture that is “generous, accountable and transparent” he says. The group has put together a Culture book for employees that is a virtual operations manual on how to be nice. Staff are encouraged to anticipate guest needs but also “share your personality, show who you are”. Problem solving is good, passing the buck is not. Being reliable is good, being flaky is not. Accepting feedback is good, making excuses is not. Having fun and challenging yourself is better than going through the motions or being "too cool".

It might sound cultish – here, drink this Kool-Aid and you’ll love your job – but it works. The real reward is a happier, more productive workplace and more interested, eager and engaged staff, which can’t help but have a knock-on effect on the diner. Seems like a nice – and clever – thing to do.