Stockholm Syndrome in the Kitchen


#86this: Main Menu

By Lily Hu

I recall being interviewed by the chefs and having no idea who they were, but I had done a quick read of their menus and the articles written about their restaurant group the night before the open call interview.

I showed up to the interview reading Kitchen Confidential, thinking it would be badass and I would appear to have all the insight about working in a kitchen, despite the fact that I had no idea what mise en place meant.

I entered the room, having nothing to lose, and hoped for the best.

They asked me questions that felt like a fun food trivia game. I had never roasted bones for a stock, cleaned an artichoke, or sharpened a knife, but I was eager to learn.

I had no previous restaurant experience, other than working with my family at our Chinese restaurant, so it was very exciting to be hired.

The restaurant had multiple concepts and was under the direction of white male chefs. One in particular was glorified by the media because he fit the archetype of the hot new chef.

He was young, talented, and angry.

He started off making snide comments that gradually moved to verbal abuse once he realized he could get away with it. He was particularly ruthless with me because he wanted to find my breaking point. I was one of the few people who would yell back with the hopes that speaking up would make his berating stop. Yeah, no. It just made me a clearer target. 

Because he was in a management position, he had the authority to reconfigure my role so that it was difficult for me to fulfill the tasks I needed to communicate with him for, like placing requisitions, firing orders, and asking questions.

One day, I walked into the kitchen, and saw that he had drawn a picture of a Fleshlight sex toy, and beside it he had written my name. This was on display for everyone to see, including my managers. He smirked. After months of putting up with his bullying and trying to push me out, I had had enough.

My co-workers encouraged me to file a report with the H.R. department. Unfortunately, he showed no remorse, but instead the bullying continued. When you work in a space that normalizes these behaviours, you become passive and accept it as a new reality. Comments wash over, and you stop putting up a fight. It’s not worth the emotional energy when your general manager says, “Chef has immunity.”

I had to weigh what mattered more to me, my career, or losing this job. So, you adopt cognitive dissonance by enduring the abuse in exchange for the uncertainty of professional growth.

I shut my mouth and remained loyal to the team, and the establishment.

It’s fucked up because there were moments where he would teach me things, and ask me to do events with him. It feels conflicting because someone is trying to gain your trust, but is still the same shitty person.

Salma Hayek mentioned Stockholm Syndrome in her New York Times Op-Ed on Weinstein, and it resonates, especially in the kitchen.

Stockholm Syndrome is classified as a survival tactic where hostages develop an emotional bond with their captors and exhibit a level of loyalty.

Despite the traumatic experience. I have learned to become more observant of what I want a workplace to feel like, and what kind of representation is needed to prevent racist and sexist values to thrive.

A revolution can only happen when individuals come together and refuse participation in the oppression of others. I think about it economically. If there is no demand for that commodity, then it lessens the supply.

We dismantle the patriarchy when we build solidarity and lead a resistance.

Sharing your experiences sheds light on issues that you didn’t realize were so widespread. The best thing you can do about harassment is talk about it.

Tell your co-workers, friends, and family about it. Document it. It doesn’t matter if you are not ready immediately to address it. Make the incident known.

You don’t owe anybody shit. But you need to show up for yourself. You don’t deserve to carry the burden of shame.

My power comes from knowing my abilities and what I am worth. It’s been a process, but somebody is always going to test your boundaries, and it’s not worth devaluing yourself to give them temporary satisfaction.

Educate yourself, read about resistance, go to protests, be a part of your community. This is an amazing renaissance we are in.

You are part of it.


Lily Hu is a freelance chef based in Toronto. Her work revolves around empowering communities through food and education. Find her on Twitter at @lovelylilyhu.