Going Behind the Kitchen Door to Inspire A Different Kind of Foodie

If you love food, and if you love people, Saru Jayaraman's new book new book wants you to help ensure the sustainability of both by taking a look into restaurant workers' lives.

By Rinku Sen Feb 11, 2013

On Wednesday, Saru Jayaraman’s book Behind the Kitchen Door drops, and this is going to be a piece of shameless friend promotion. The book will be released that night at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., a beautiful space where so many activist authors have met their fans, and you can buy it here or at any book venue. Jayaraman is such an amazing organizer that she appears in both of my books, indeed is the number two in The Accidental American, the story of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-N.Y.) before it spawned a nationwide organization ROC United.


Writing from the perspective of a restaurant diner, in Behind the Kitchen Door, Jayaraman translates the great research ROC United has done, including the largest ever survey of restaurant workers nationwide. She tells the often-heartbreaking stories of workers who give everything they have to their workplaces, only to encounter wage theft, untreated on-the-job injuries, and rigid racial and gender hierarchies that prevent them from advancing within the largest private sector industry in our country.


We meet Daniel, a Latino runner at Del Posto, a four-star restaurant in New York City, who was told repeatedly that he could not be a server because he didn’t "communicate well," even as he watched white European men with incomprehensible accents get the best jobs in the house. We meet Alicia, a pastry chef who chronicled being called "little girl" by one chef, and a long record of unaddressed sexual harassment by another.  We read about Woong and Nikki, who worked with swine flu and conjunctivitis, respectively, because their wages were too low for them to take time off without paid sick days.


Most importantly, Jayaraman’s book brings together two ends of an industry — diners who want to eat ethically, and workers who want to be able to feed their own families. She explains some basic things, like why tipping is critical to workers whose federal minimum wage is only $2.13 per hour, how it happens that prep cooks, servers and runners are forced to go to work sick, and the mechanisms by which racial and gender discrimination is allowed to run rampant. You can watch her explain some of these issues during an appearance on CNN last week.


Jayaraman’s goal is to redefine the "foodie" identity, making it include as much concern about the people who put your food on the table as it does about whether the food was locally sourced or organically grown. In his foreword, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, writes, "The abuses endured by American farmworkers, meatpacking workers and restaurant employees violates even the most watered-down definition of ‘sustainability.’ Our food system now treats millions of workers like disposable commodities… When people ask what are the most important changes that we could make to our food system right away, I reply: Enforce the nation’s labor laws and increase the minimum wage."


This week, ROC United will be asking Congress to make the most basic change, to raise the federal minimum wage for tipped workers, which has been stuck at its current rate for some 22 years as a result of relentless lobbying by the National Restaurant Association. Please buy the book this week, on Valentine’s Day if you can, to help these workers leap into the public consciousness as they carry out actions in Washington this week.


The book’s website includes an invitation to join the Welcome Table, ROC United’s new effort to organize diners as successfully as it has workers. In addition to joining, you can download the national Diners’ Guide that will help you determine the best places to eat from a labor standpoint and what to do if you eat elsewhere and don’t like what you see. You can also watch beautiful profiles of workers created by Louverture Films, the company that is also developing a fictionalized film version of The Accidental American. Jayaraman is starting a 13-city book tour that includes Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago. Before you eat in another restaurant, you want to read this book and join this movement. If you love food, and if you love people, help to ensure the sustainability of both by reading and sharing Behind the Kitchen Door