So I am reading yet another book about food issues, but this time with a bit of a different spin: Behind the Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman is about the (often miserable) plight of foodservice workers in this country.
This coincides somewhat nicely with my meatless monday adventure this week: eating out vegetarian! I have been thinking lately that I really wanted to try going meatless in an Indian restaurant, because there is such a strong vegetarian tradition in India, and I had never tried any vegetarian dish besides a samosa.
As an appetizer we ordered some samosas dressed up in tamarind, yogurt, and chickpeas, which was delicious. Then, pictured below is Black Lentil Dhaal, Aloo Ghobi (my favorite spiced potatoes and cauliflower), basmati rice, and peshawari naan, which is stuffed with ground up cashews and raisins and spices. Everything was delicious; the naan was especially pleasing. The feast was certainly satisfying for not having any meat, and barely any dairy.
Give the vegetarian dishes a try the next time you enjoy Indian cuisine. Funnily enough, the book’s author is also ethnically Indian.
Now this was one of many, many times I have eaten in a restaurant. If you’re like most Americans, you eat out multiple times per week. But not until I started reading Behind The Kitchen Door did I stop to consider the employees in any restaurant. You figure they’re hired to serve you and that’s all you need to worry about, right? If you only knew.
Whether or not the oppression of restaurant employees in and of itself deserves our attention, I bet it would interest you to know that the treatment of those employees directly and indirectly affects the quality and safety of the food they serve us. Do I have your attention now?
Here are the most important truths I’ve gleaned from Behind The Kitchen Door that anyone who eats in restaurants should know:
- The federal minimum wage for tipped workers (servers, bussers, runners, etc.) is just $2.13. That means that after taxes and before tips, restaurant workers essentially make nothing if the state minimum wage isn’t higher. If their tips don’t make up the difference between that and the regular minimum wage ($7.25), the employer is supposed to make up the difference; however, they often don’t. This is illegal, and it’s called wage stealing. Another ridiculous practice that falls under that category is not paying workers overtime, also a regular occurrence in many establishments. An astounding proportion of restaurant workers cannot afford to eat. Something doesn’t add up here.
- There is no federal law requiring restaurants to give their employees paid sick leave. This means that if a worker stays home horribly ill, he doesn’t get paid, so many sick workers feel compelled to work while sick. This is compounded by the fact that the hourly wages without tips are so low that many couldn’t scrape by even if sick leave were paid. As a result, sick servers and cooks are often handling our food. The book lists several no-fun outbreaks that happened because an employee felt they had to go to work while sick to be able to survive and/or support their family. This legal loophole, to put it lightly, is a surefire way to cause food poisoning–as if salmonella infected eggs weren’t bad enough.
- There is, with several notable exceptions, almost universal racial discrimination in hiring and promoting. The “front of house” jobs (servers, hosts, managers) go disproportionately to white employees, while the “back of house” jobs (bussers, prep cooks, dishwashers) go disproportionately to people of color. Experienced Black and Latino dishwashers and bussers are frequently passed over for promotions to server and manager positions in favor of less experienced white workers.
- There is similar discrimination against female employees, and sexual harassment is far too common. Why is it that the majority of foodservice workers are women, but the majority of higher paid restaurant positions are held by men?
- People like me (and you, hopefully) are getting more and more interested in where our food comes from and the nutritional quality and its environmental implications, but so few of us consider the lives of the people who prepare and serve our food. Jayaraman’s argument is that we cannot have a sustainable food industry if the industry oppresses these workers. The industry’s infamous, never-ending push for cheap food has horrifyingly led many restaurants to treat employees without respect, and sometimes like slaves.
Of all people, I certainly have health at the forefront of my mind when eating out. But cruelty involved in the process of getting food to my plate has become an extremely important concern as well. If I boycott cruelty in the raising of animal products for consumption, then I certainly have to protest cruelty towards the humans putting the food on my plate. Next time you eat out, take notice, ask questions, let management know that fair treatment of employees is important to you as a customer. This useful guide grades restaurants based on how well they treat their employees.
So what surprised you the most about my little exposé? What are you going to do about it?