Ben Shewry talks with food journalist Lisa Abend at the 2018 MAD symposium about becoming a chef, and fighting back against the culture of overwork and harassment:
He starts talking about going to work at Attica around 13:40. At 18:20, Abend directs the conversation toward the changes he’s made in hiring practices; the big impact of having everyone give talks about themselves; the challenge of making it possible for people to come forward with problems; and shortening the hours (from about 37:30).
Here’s what Shewry says about shorter hours (I’ve taken the closed caption transcript that’s automatically generated by YouTube, and cleaned it up a little):
Lisa Abend: …Has it affected quality? do you feel like you’re a less lesser restaurant at the level of cuisine because of it?
Ben Shewry: No I think I mean we’ve— we are working at most 48 hours in the kitchen or less in the front of house at most 45 hours or less— that’s across four days in the kitchen, so they have the staff has three days off. [applause]
I mean the quality is better than ever. Like there’s just no comparison you know? What I’m asking for– I’m not talking about being all lovey-dovey and being soft as some people have have accused me of. You know, that’s not what it is. It’s like, I don’t need 48 hours, I need an elite 48 hours from you, you know? I need you to be great for 48 hours, then I need you to go and forget about this, and have a great life, and concentrate on some stuff that’s good for you. Have breakfast with your boyfriend or your girlfriend or your wife, or you know— like, whatever. Like I don’t care. Please just don’t– don’t be here.
And at the start of this we literally had to police it. Like I’m there first, same time as Carly, and we see in the camera staff coming like two hours before their shift. Literally we have to go out there and say, “Go away!” Like, “You can’t be here! You know, like, your shift is not starting so please— go away, have a coffee, I don’t care.” And so it was a really big cultural shift for them as well, because they never ever work like this, you know? They— they always sort of— Everybody subscribes to this, “You’ve got to do the hours,” you know, “You just got to do the hours, otherwise you’re not hardcore,” you know, which is such nonsense! What about if you did less hours, and you did them a lot better, you know?
I think there’s something in that, and there definitely is something in that at Attica. That’s how it is, and the food is better than it was. But the culture, particularly the environment, the atmosphere, is like the best of all time, you know.
And that’s not to say that– I’m not sitting here saying well we’re perfect, and that, you know, we live in a bubble, that we aren’t affected by everything the same as you guys are affected by… But the culture is excellent, you know, and and people are, like, genuinely happy and they can do things. They can get a haircut, you know?
What becomes really clear is that the transition to 4-day weeks is part of a much bigger set of changes that he’s made to the culture of restaurant since buying Attica in 2015. Abend does a fabulous job in the conversation of showing how the drive to shorter hours is, for Shewry, part of a bigger effort to create a more humane and empathetic and creative workplace: that fundamentally, if you want to treat people well while also demanding a lot from them on the job, you have to let them have their own lives in exchange.
There’s also some very insightful stuff about gender, working hours, and working conditions, and how reducing hours– and more broadly, making a more humane culture– makes it easier for women cooks to do their work and also manage family obligations.
Sherry’s impatience with the idea that you have to be an abusive person to be a creative genius– or that genius gives you permission to be terrible– is palpable, and hard-won.
It’s really worth listening to the whole thing.