Behind the Kitchen Door

  • Saru Jayaraman
  • ILR Press
  • 208 pp.
  • Reviewed by Brigid O'Farrell
  • February 28, 2013

An important and timely story about those who prepare and serve our food.

Behind the Kitchen Door brought my past racing forward. The summers I spent as a waitress were the hardest I ever worked both physically and emotionally. I knew that the chefs and cooks and dishwashers in the sweltering kitchen all worked harder than I did and come fall they would move back to the city and into other kitchens. I could make some money and go back to school, not to the grinding life of restaurant work. That was my lesson in the last century.

For the 21st century Saru Jayaraman brings life in the dining rooms and kitchens of restaurants across the country into full focus. With a mix of personal narrative and research data she tells an important and timely story about those who prepare and serve our food from high-end restaurants to neighborhood diners to fast-food chains. She shows us the pride and the perils of restaurant work and how diners can be part of the solution to workplace problems we see every day. 

Jayaraman highlights four key issues and how they affect not only workers, from hostesses to dishwashers, from the front of the house to the back of the kitchen, but customers and the general public: lack of paid sick days, poverty wages, race discrimination and sex discrimination including sexual harassment. For example, although 10 million people work in the rapidly growing restaurant industry in the United States, the industry includes seven of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the country. The federal minimum wage for tipped staff is only $2.13 an hour. 

Woven throughout the book is the story of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, which Jayaraman co-founded. The author tells us in the beginning that the book is both a celebration of workers’ lives and a call to action. She does not disappoint, beginning with the wrenching story of her co-founder Feddak Mamdouh, a Moroccan immigrant and one of the headwaiters at Windows on the World, the famed international restaurant on top of the World Trade Center. He survived the 9/11 tragedy but lost his job. When the owner opened a new restaurant several months later, Mamdouh and most other surviving Windows workers were not rehired. ROC-United called a meeting of surviving workers. There was a protest. The New York Times was there. Windows workers were soon hired into the new banquet department. 

Workers’ stories are at the heart of the book. Daniel, for example, came from Ecuador to New York City, where he started as a dishwasher, got his GED, and eventually became a runner in a restaurant owned by Mario Batali, celebrity chef and leader of the “slow food” movement. Latinos, however, were not promoted to wait staff. Their tip money often disappeared. Jayaraman writes, “It took protests, litigation, and some great press, but in the end ROC-NY won over $1 million in stolen tips and wages, promotions for several of the Latino bussers, and a new, transparent promotion policy." 

ROC-United uses a mix of public relations, data collection, legal action, worker education and grassroots organizing to draw workers in and then help them confront employers. There are now 10,000 members across the country. Eleven successful campaigns have recovered $6 million in stolen tips and wages. ROC has opened worker-run restaurants called COLORS in New York and Chicago. The ROC National Diners’ Guide grades restaurants nationwide on employee wages, benefits and equal opportunity promotion policies. The author convincingly ties workers’ rights to the organic, sustainable, slow-food movement. Those who care about how animals are treated and crops are grown need to care about the health and well-being of the people who chop, stir, clean and serve their food. 

Jayaraman also encourages readers to start asking the people who serve them food, whether in a white tablecloth restaurant in Manhattan or the local burger joint in Los Angeles, how are the workers faring? She urges us to support a raise in the federal minimum wage for tipped workers and paid sick leave legislation. She advises that we look around and don’t eat at restaurants that segregate their workers by race and gender. 

I do have two concerns about the book. 

First, it lacks historical perspective. Jayaraman asserts that, before ROC-United was formed, restaurant workers never had a national voice. This would be news to those serving tables in the 1950s when one out of four waitresses belonged to a union. The Diners' Guide also harkens back to the National Consumers League and its “white lists” of the early 1900s, when consumers were asked to shop at stores that offered equal pay for equal work, a 10-hour day and a minimum wage of $6 per week. What might this experience show about ROC-United and its contemporary efforts?

Second, the author fails to provide any information on ROC-United’s relationship to the labor movement. Similar organizations in other industries get support from and have formed strong alliances with existing unions. According to the Department of Labor, almost 300,000 people who work in food preparation and serving occupations are union members. Where does ROC-United fit in this picture?

Behind the Kitchen Door offers inspiration, strategies and real-life examples of ways that restaurant workers can improve their lives and consumers can help them. My days as a waitress may be long past, but my responsibility to support those who work in the industry is not.

Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar whose most recent book is She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker. Visit her at www.bofarrell.net.


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