10 Chefs Who Make Their Restaurants Happier, Healthier Places to Work

These days, the stories are constantly breaking. Employees of this restaurant lived in terror of the head chef's wrath. Servers at another told HR about ongoing harassment by a manager, and nothing was done to stop it. Front of house staff had their tips skimmed. The owner was handsy and relentless. Now that these shameful practices have come to light, restaurants are coming under intense scrutiny, and more and more of them are trying—for various reasons—to do the right thing.

But how about the chefs and restaurant owners who have taken measures all along to make a healthy, balanced, positive work environment for their employees, just because it's the right thing to do? At the recent South Beach Wine and Food Festival, we spoke with 10 of them who have proactively created systems and cultures to make their employees' lives physically and mentally healthier. Here's what they told us.

Amanda Cohen: Dirt Candy, New York
We don't have tipping at the restaurant and it creates a totally different environment and we're able to pay everybody a higher wage. People are able to have better lives. My cooks don't leave as fast and they can live in better apartments if they want. New York's really expensive and we're able to retain our staff. It gives both my back and front of house of a lot of security knowing that they're paid well.

Kelly Fields: Willa Jean, New Orleans

Since the day Willa Jean opened its doors, it was the restaurant that I always wanted to work at. That means we have always had a work-life balance. For management, nobody works over 50-60 hours a week. The normal restaurant is 100 hours. We don't let that happen. We have a very competitive fitness program in the management team, where we all do boxing classes and Pilates together. I match all of my managers' gym fees. We check in with each other every damn day.

Walks are a really great way to connect with my people, and for them to connect with me. Or we'll sit at our outside seating, outside of it all. That's the key: get outside of it.

Michael Gulotta: MoPho and Maypop, New Orleans
The number one thing is more team meetings. We bring everyone together as a group and talk about, "How can we run this more efficiently? How can we do this thing?" I take feedback from my cooks, like hey it would be would be really cool if we come in an hour earlier, because we'll hustle to try to get out earlier.

I'm open with them about the margins we're working. I tell them how much I make, how much the restaurant makes, and how much we pay in payroll every year and every two weeks. I give them all those numbers. I asked them, "How can you help me? How can we all be successful together?" And they'll tell me, "We'll come in an hour early and we promise to be out by this time. We know how to break it down fast and get it clean the way we need to have it done. If we can come in an hour earlier and do prep, we're less stressed for service."

We're also making sure that everyone has a good family meal. That goes way back, that's old school. And I make sure that they can go outside and take breaks.

Ashley Christensen: Death & Taxes, Poole's Diner, and more, Raleigh
One of the biggest things for us is teaching people to only work the standard full time. I want managers to not work more than 50 hours a week. It's traditional in our industry to have folks feel like they have to destroy at work all the time. And we've tried to implement a lot of tools that help folks organize themselves, to realize if you're saying you don't have time to take a vacation, that's not the case. You just need more help organizing how you approach your work. I think people are their best selves at work if they get to enjoy their life outside of work, if they get to feel like they're successful in both. Seeking work/life balance should be the biggest thing.

The next thing is focusing on how to celebrate people where they perform today and every day. I grew up in a system where I wanted to be in management. I wanted to climb as fast and hard as I could. But that's not for everyone and if it were, then we wouldn't be able to do the work on so many levels that we're able to do.

I really want to make a shift in the industry where we as employers find ways to celebrate people for their successes at every level of performance in our companies. As managers ourselves, we get a little gleam in our eye when we see the young folks who are like, "Oh I really want to manage a restaurant. I really want to do what's next." But I think if we celebrate a little bit more whatever one's doing at the moment, we can create more of a balanced industry. Otherwise, I think if the only goal is being the boss or owning something, we're just setting people up for failure and ultimately to promote them to their unhappiness or incompetency.

Incompetency isn't a bad word. It's like hey this is the job I was meant to do, I'm not equipped to do this job. It can't be the only symbol of success.

Rick Bayless: Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Xoco, and more, Chicago
We are always working to make a really good environment and we have since day one. I grew up in a restaurant that was around for 37 years. Some of the employees had worked there 30 and 33 years when my mother finally sold the restaurant and retired. I learned in that situation to create a workable environment that gives people a place to be challenged and to feel safe. I built what we've done in our restaurants for the last 30 almost 31 years now based on what I learned in my parents' restaurant. So I don't think anybody that works there would say that it's the kind of environment that you have been reading about a lot lately.

I model healthy behavior for the people I work with, and a lot of our chefs will be really inspired by that. Our Clark City restaurants have always only been open five days. Our work days are 10 hours, not 12-14. Plus I encourage the people that work with me to have lives outside of our place and we try to do our very best to accommodate whatever that is. We have a very diverse group of people that work with us. That's an important aspect. When you have just one kind of group together, things tend to not be as balanced.

Sarah Grueneberg: Monteverde Restaurant and Pastificio, Chicago
We have a really supportive team. We have fun together. When we have stages come in, we sit and talk to all the cooks that worked with them. So it's a group decision about who gets hired on. We all have staff meal together, or try to at least. I'll say, "C'mon guys, sit down!" They're like "Five minutes, Chef!" I'm like, "No eating on your stations!" We're having fun.

Matthew Jennings: Townsman, Boston

We changed family meal to make sure that that was protein-focused and not just a trash binge where we put out all leftover food for them. We sit and eat together, which has been a huge, dynamic change for us. I was able to arrange some free fitness classes for hospitality folks in Boston with my gym downtown. We have people from all over the spectrum from hoteliers to somms to chefs and servers. We're hoping to continue to do more of that and also open our restaurant dining room and clear the tables out and put in some bikes to do spin classes, basically a spin brunch.

Matt Abdoo: Pig Beach and Pig Bleecker, New York
Growing up, there was a golden rule in our house and it was treat others the way you want to be treated. That's how I am to everybody, even when I was running a very fancy large kitchen. I would never want to make somebody feel uncomfortable or upset. I'm not a yeller, I've never been that way, my personality now is my personality every day in the kitchen. I've never found that fear or aggressiveness or any sort of misbehavior made a cook perform better. It's already a stressful environment enough as it is. And usually when you're being mistreated it just makes you even more nervous.

That's probably the best thing to make the mental and physical and emotional well-being of your cooks and employees better. Just treat them how you want to be treated. Nobody wants to be treated like shit. Nobody wants to be made to feel uncomfortable. If you respect that, you'll have an employee retention rate that's forever, and people are happy, and they advance with you. The successes of your restaurant is being able to expand upon this great resource of employees that you built by having one simple golden rule.

Shane McBride: Maysville, New York
Family meal at my restaurants is a very important part of what we do. I think it's not only a health thing but it's a morale thing. It's sad when you go to restaurants and they don't have a fun family meal. It's definitely a key for me. And I always try to have something healthy. At my current restaurant, we have a vegetarian and we make something for every day. He's the only one and we make him a specific thing every day. It keeps the whole staff happy knowing that Stefan is going to get his vegetarian food. It makes everybody happy.

Justin Carlisle: Ardent, Red Light Ramen, The Laughing Taco, Milwaukee

We've built our entire restaurant on that philosophy. That's why we're only open four days a week. The staff only works four days a week. We are only open dinner service for two out of the three. So nobody comes in before noon. Everybody has a base structure. We support their families and their schools. If you have children then you are also not allowed in until 1 or 2 o'clock so you can take them to school but that you get two hours to yourself, no kids or not, before you come in. We're fortunate enough that we aren't as large and make strict rules.

Since the restaurants are all small we're intimate and we directly know and care and see how people are and what is going on in their lives. And we create that with their families we all get together as families. Wives and husbands and children and we all connect on days off to talk and hang out and see how people are and we associate because we're friends. We care. We'll have a barbecue together and relax and actually talk about something other than work.

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