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FOOD

It’s a Gordon Ramsay world. We just live in it.

There’s plenty of discourse around kitchens and conduct right now. Reality keeps refusing to catch up.

Contestant Syann and chef/host Gordon Ramsay in the "Pair of Aces" episode of "Hell's Kitchen."FOX Image Collection via Getty Images

When Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental on Boylston Street shuttered, it represented yet another pandemic-era restaurant closure. It also created an opportunity. Who might move into this prime location?

My private thought and fervent wish was a new Eastern Standard, not terribly far from the original location. It would have been brilliant. Instead, as is happening with many prime locations, the space went to an out-of-town venture. Last month, the hotel announced celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay would open Ramsay’s Kitchen. Gordon Ramsay North America joins New York’s Blue Ribbon Restaurant Group (not to be confused with local favorite Blue Ribbon BBQ), which is moving into Eastern Standard’s Kenmore Square location, and Major Food Group, whose lavish Contessa sits atop The Newbury Boston, in adding Boston to their expanding national and international rosters. There’s money to be made in this city, for those who can afford the entrance fee.

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But the choice of Ramsay is particularly notable. The UK chef’s Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London has three Michelin stars, and four of his other restaurants are currently recognized by the prestigious dining guide. Yet in this country he is best known as the profanity-spewing, chef-berating host of television shows such as “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Kitchen Nightmares.” In 2011, I interviewed Frank and Anthony Gesualdi, brothers who appeared on the latter show in hopes of fixing what ailed their North End restaurant, Davide (since closed). “I think about it, I still get a little traumatized. My wait staff wouldn’t talk for two days,” Anthony said. The most cursory online search reveals clip after clip of Ramsay emotionally grinding cooks into the ground. He denigrates their looks, their intelligence, their capabilities, their character. Sometimes he grabs and physically moves them. This isn’t all in good fun. This isn’t a couple of F-bombs. This isn’t tough love. It’s abuse and humiliation. Watching it could tie your stomach in knots. But for many viewers, this is entertainment.

Is Ramsay’s behavior genuine, or is it staged TV shtick? I don’t think it much matters. It reinforces the outdated and wrongheaded notion that it’s acceptable, even good, for kitchens to operate this way. It glamorizes an old “bad boy chef” trope that many in the industry are now actively fighting against. Restaurants have seen a kind of reckoning, a nascent correction, in recent years, as employees begin to speak out against such behavior. Investigations have exposed allegations against a long and growing list of chefs and restaurateurs — from Blaine Wetzel at the Willows Inn in Washington to Mario Batali in New York to, locally, Tzurit Or at Tatte Bakery & Cafe. Many have paid a very real price in terms of lost business, reputation, opportunities. The James Beard Foundation has added chef conduct to the considerations in giving out its coveted restaurant awards. “All people deserve to feel respected, safe, and supported in the workplace and have the same access to opportunities as anyone else in the industry,” its website says.

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The incoming Ramsay’s Kitchen sends a clear message: Star power and capital still outweigh such concerns. Will consumers feel the same way?

Brandi Felt-Castellano, co-owner of Apt Cape Cod, recently closed for a "day of kindness" after a series of events in which customers became unruly and made staff cry.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

It’s a pretty safe bet. Far away from reality TV, in actual reality, last week Brewster restaurant Apt Cape Cod had to shut down for a “day of kindness” in order to give its staff breathing room from the continuous verbal abuse by customers: cursing, insults, even the expressed wish for one employee to get hit by a car, according to chef and co-owner Regina Felt-Castellano. Gee, I wonder where they learned it.

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It’s just the latest in a string of similar incidents reported at restaurants all over the state and country. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association put up billboards saying “Thanks for your patience as we restaff & reopen our restaurants.” The Rhode Island Hospitality Association created a “Please Be Kind” toolkit, offering downloadable signs with a similar message, along with a poster listing mental health resources for the hospitality industry. After months facing the wrath of diners mad about being asked to wear masks, staffers now face the wrath of diners mad about having to wait to be seated or served. (Maybe this country needs a booster shot of gratitude: Are you alive? Are you in a restaurant? Is someone going to bring you food you have money to pay for? My friend, you are winning.)

Restaurants face a labor crisis. Millions of workers left the industry during the pandemic: Wages are low, benefits are hard to come by, and the health risks of COVID are an added concern. Seemed like a good time to, I don’t know, learn to code or something. According to a May survey by the National Restaurant Association, restaurants are down 1.7 million jobs from pre-pandemic levels, with 84 percent of operators reporting that they now employ fewer staff; more than half of the full-service operators polled are unable to open at maximum capacity because they don’t have enough workers. Some employers are offering signing bonuses and other incentives. There are signs looking for help posted in many area restaurant windows. The website BostonChefs.com currently has job listings for 245 front of house and 198 back of house positions (it went up while I was writing this sentence). Chatting with the people at my table after dinner recently, one owner asked if any of us wanted a job or knew someone who did. “We used to look for passion,” one local chef told me the other day. “Now we look for a pulse.”

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Workers know what time it is. As the Apt Cape Cod story went viral, so did a photo of a Burger King marquee in Lincoln, Neb: “We all quit,” it read. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”

What would it take to fix things? Good pay and good benefits would go a long way. What would it take to provide those consistently, in an industry where margins were plenty slim even before the current cost increase on everything from disposable gloves to scallops? Higher prices for consumers is one answer, but tell that to the people who feel entitled to yell at teenagers waiting tables because their pancakes didn’t arrive right away.

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So this is the moment we are at in hospitality. Plenty of questions, with answers that will arrive, one way or another, over the coming months and years. There’s plenty of discourse around kitchens, conduct, and kindness right now. We’re still waiting for reality to catch up. In the meantime, people keep being terrible to restaurant workers. It’s mind-blowing that I even need to say it, but this is not OK.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.