Alex reviews Behind the Kitchen Door

By Sarumathi Jayaraman and Eric Schlosser
Published on February 12, 2013
Published by ILR Press
Source: NetGalley
How do restaurant workers live on some of the lowest wages in America? And how do poor working conditions-discriminatory labor practices, exploitation, and unsanitary kitchens-affect the meals that arrive at our restaurant tables? Saru Jayaraman, who launched a national restaurant workers organization after 9/11, sets out to answer these questions by following the lives of restaurant workers in New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Detroit, and New Orleans. Blending personal and investigative journalism, Jayaraman shows us that the quality of the food that arrives at our restaurant tables is not just a product of raw ingredients: it's the product of the hands that chop, grill, saut, and serve it

As a current food industry professional, Behind the Kitchen Door gives a unique, behind-the-scenes perspective of how restaurants and the industry as a whole operate. With chapters titled “The Hands on Your Plate” and “Serving While Sick,” the book doesn't hold much back, being equal parts expose and informative documentary.

This title is based around the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), cofounded by the author, Saru Jayaraman, following the destruction of the Windows on the World restaurant located in the World Trade Center. This organization is essentially a workers union for restaurant workers, which is groundbreaking for the industry. Many personal instances are expressed, showing the hardship of workers in this industry, from all races and religions, and the success stories created with the help of the ROC.

Aside from the work the ROC provides, this book provides great examples of what most people take for granted in the food service industry and asks for a slight change of perspective from the general public in response. More often than not, people go to “big time” restaurants to celebrate, whether its a birthday, anniversary, or any number of other occasions. How often do you consider the people cooking your food, aside from the occasional celebrity chef who is most likely not in the building, or the server, servers assitant, and even host person that are there to make your experience the best it can be?

The “Slow Food” movement is also discussed. If you are unfamiliar with it, I suggest you research it through multiple sources. When done properly, it is arguably the biggest difference maker in United States. One of my favorite quotes from this book expresses one of my opinions about the food movement in America: “...the Slow Food movement was never supposed to become a consumer trend for the wealthy – the people who can regularly afford a $28 plate of spaghetti...” Until participation and awareness rises, the best and healthiest food won't be available to a significant portion of the US population due to the almighty dollar.

Overall, Behind the Kitchen Door is well written and a great read. It is even from an “authentic” kitchen tone, being that much of the negative is expressed, with an occasional positive thrown in. As a kitchen professional and culinary school valedictorian, I agree with many points in this book and would like to stress that the next time you eat at a restaurant, whether it is fine dining or a chain, to consider the workers and their well being, as well as the food.

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