Book Review: Behind The Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman
In her book Behind the Kitchen Door, available February 13th, Saru Jayaraman brings to light the harsh and often hidden realities of the restaurant industry. Ms. Jayaraman paints a vivid portrait of the lives of restaurant workers from across the United States, who share their stories about poor working conditions, wage theft, sexism, racism, and little to no health benefits or paid sick days. While her book provides a riveting critique on labor issues in the restaurant industry, it is not a cold or distant statistical presentation. In sharing stories about the workers' backgrounds, passions, struggles, and successes, Ms. Jayaraman lends a profoundly human element, both to their experiences of injustice, and also to their inspiring examples of empowerment and resistance.
The symbol of the kitchen door represents both a metaphorical and a very real division between what is known in restaurants as the “front of the house” (i.e. servers, bartenders, hosts, managers) and “back of the house” workers (i.e. dishwashers, runners, line and prep cooks). Most of the workers featured in this book are from the back of the house, who labor in the most physically taxing and lowest-paying jobs in the restaurant. Furthermore, ROC’s survey of over 4,300 restaurant workers across the United States found that disproportionately, back of the house workers are immigrants and people of color, in contrast to the lighter-skinned workers in the higher-paying, front of the house positions: “Behind the kitchen door, you can almost find a replica of the segregated buses of the Jim Crow South” (Jayaraman 133).
The restaurant workers interviewed in this book explain this stark divide as a product of the largely subjective hiring standards of their managers, who place tremendous value on whether or not a server has “the look” or the “table talk” that appeal to customers (Jayaraman 122). These subjective measures impact managers’ hiring and promotion choices, and reflect their biases along lines of race, ethnicity, immigration status, and gender.
Women workers interviewed in the book share testimonies about sexism and gendered divisions in the industry, as many women are not able to attain management positions, and many have experienced blatant sexual harassment at work. In the front of the house, women servers and hosts are judged based on their looks, as the expectation is that attractive female servers will earn higher sales for the restaurant.
As such, Ms. Jayaraman points out the hyper-visibility of the front of the house workers, whose appearances and actions are under constant surveillance, as compared to the hyper-invisibility of the back of the house workers, whose struggles usually go unnoticed by the public.
But in contrast to the many accounts of discrimination and injustice, Ms. Jayaraman provides many empowering stories of restaurant workers’ successes, as well as encouraging examples of restaurant managers who successfully run equitable businesses and promote good labor practices. All throughout, the reader can palpably feel ROC’s momentum in creating positive change for restaurant workers; their campaigns have fought to raise the federal minimum wage, to include paid sick days for all workers, and to eliminate occupational segregation in restaurants.
This book also serves as an important activist's toolkit. Since restaurants are so central to the lives of the average American, Ms. Jayaraman encourages her readers to take matters into their own hands. She lays out a concrete series of simple questions and actions that every restaurant-goer can use to help improve working conditions. She also points to ROC’s current 2013 Diner's Guide, a handbook for restaurant-goers which ranks restaurants in 10 major cities across the United States based on their labor practices.
Behind the Kitchen Door is a pivotal work in uniting the labor and food movements. Considering the increasing pervasiveness and popularity of “organic,” “local,” and “sustainably-produced” food, Ms. Jayaraman urges us, as her readers, to remember that the food we eat, both inside and outside restaurants, is inextricably linked to real people who work in the food industry: “Food can’t really be healthy, ethically consumed, or sustainable if it’s prepared and served in an environment that permits abuse, exploitation, and discrimination… Sustainable food, by definition, must include sustainable labor practices” (Jayaraman 48).
Click here to see the trailer for Behind The Kitchen Door.