I became a vegetarian after the things I saw in London restaurants.
– London pest control inspector

In 2015 I took up a temporary job for the company named Best Parties Ever Ltd. It is a company that has been hosting the largest Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties in the United Kingdom for years. We were assigned to handle large events in Maidstone, Kent: the service involved an average of 900-1200 customers per one Christmas event. There were usually 3 main managers plus 6 of us, event managers. Working hours started at 8am and ended around 4am. Despite the hard physical work I took up the job consecutively for three years between 2015 and 2017 each November and December. Year by year, the rate was higher and higher, but we also got more and more hard work to do, despite our requests to hire at least 3-4 more people to help.

My last year of working for Best Parties Ever in the year 2017 ended with our strike and “walkout” from the workplace demanding a raise or at least an additional bonus. We did a “walkout” an hour before the main service which included serving 1200 customers waiting for the main dinner. We were in contact by phone with other venues of the company that at the same time served clients in other cities, mainly around London. Workers from other events also left their workplaces. The floor manager walked out with us. The head manager, the woman who was in her first job after college, was hysterical. She called the main owner of the company, who, after hearing our requests, agreed to pay us a double day’s wages, and something like a “reward” or “benefit” upon completion. We also requested additional people to clean up after the events. Needless to say, the company was so keen on our opinions that they agreed to all our demands. We were paid by a quick transfer to our bank accounts before the event started, and then we received “envelopes” after the end of work – that is, the money that was given to us from the owners of the company for silence about the strike and the conditions in the company.

After working for Best Parties Ever, I moved to London. It was January 2016, and as you may know, finding a job in Great Britain between January and April each year was almost a miracle, even in metropolitan London. Once again I had to rely on simple, hard and badly paid jobs, at the bottom of the social ladder. Because at the same time I was interested in working conditions in the capitalist world capital – in addition to the intention of quick earning for rent, food and books – I used a qualitative research method which in social anthropology is called “participatory observation.” I worked in places like food factories, production kitchens, drink bars, fast-food bars, pubs, hotels, events, clubs and also for low-, medium- and high-quality restaurants, as a production operator, runner, waiter, barman, kitchen assistant, kitchen porter, pantry chef, commis chef, waiters’ supervisor, and event manager. I worked mainly through employment agencies. Only three times I worked under a contract. As a result, for almost four years I worked in over 150 places related to gastronomy in London – from the city centre to the most distant zones, from high-class restaurants to the worst bars. Having unregulated working hours, which I arranged for myself, taking into account the state of my finances and my creative work in translating, writing and publishing, I “wandered” from place to place on the London map of gastronomy, depending on which agency sent me where.

The first job in London was a so-called “shitjob” at the Edler’s Patisserie in Wimbledon – a factory producing biscuits, chocolate bars, and other sweets. No health and safety or hygiene regulations were observed. There were fights and quarrels between racist women from Poland and women from Africa. Dirt and mess reigned, supervisors were mostly from Central European countries, and the English managers didn’t give a damn about anything. Just to go home quickly. Marek, a Polish supervisor was suspended from his duties for his racism. Before that, he fired my girlfriend from work for standing up for African women against racist attacks by Polish workers. The company merged with another one to increase profits as demand was rising and they moved the factory to Chichester.

London restaurants. Tourists from all over Britain, Europe and the world come to the capital of capitalism and pop culture to eat well in bars serving almost every dish in the world. Do you really want to eat there? Let us listen to some chefs who have spent the last 10–15 years in London restaurants, starting from the position of kitchen porter and ending with a chef’s position.


If you look “under the carpet” there are tons of things that go against any work ethic. We had a mouse infestation in two of the places where I worked: Benugo at the Bishopsgate Institute and J&A Cafe at Farringdon. I was forced to kill 3-4 mice a day because the manager left glue-traps at night, and I was the first person to open a restaurant in the morning, so I was forced to kill, remove, and clean dead mice. Why should I have to do it, not some cleaner or ratcatcher?

I have also personally witnessed many anomalies in the workplaces I’ve been to, including dirt and dead animals. In the heart of London, hotel restaurants boasting a high standard of cleanliness had kitchens full of rats or mice, cockroaches, flies, and all kinds of insects. Not to mention out-of-date food (“so that nothing is wasted”) or semi-finished products imitating “real” food.


The entire place was cross-contaminated by mice. The company prided itself on having everything fresh. Vegetables and fruits were kept outside, which had not been kept in refrigerators overnight, and were nibbled and pissed on by mice. Nobody washed anything there, neither vegetables or fruits – nothing. Of course, the nibbled items were asked to be thrown away (“hide it somewhere for a health and safety inspection”) and that’s it. It was in Benugo on Bishopsgate.

I met Michal at J&A Cafe in Farringdon where he worked as a chef de partie and I was a kitchen porter for three months.


J&A Cafe was a private business run by Aoife and Johanna Ledwidge, two Irish sisters in Farringdon, London. This place was totally decimated by the mice that were on every level of the three-story building to the point where the vendors who came to us with food (such deliveries are delivered at 5-6 am), who had the keys to the building (some vendors leave it at the door, and some have the keys and leave those deliveries inside) were thrilled by this fact. One of them took me aside and said, “You have a plague of mice here. I don’t know where to put these supplies in, because you’ll have everything gnawed by them”.

Darek, the head chef, over 10 years in London restaurants:

When it comes to hygiene, it was, well, rather strange and creepy sometimes. In the backyard, just behind one of the bars in Hackney, a piece of pavement collapsed and a tunnel full of rats “opened up”. The pest control man said the yard was “full of rats”. I could imagine what was happening underneath all these buildings there and all over London. We had a storage in the basement which was nicknamed “where it smells like a dead rat” – there a dead, rotten rat was found between the floor and the ceiling. One pest control man told me that he “stopped eating meat because he saw ‘a lot’ in London restaurants.” They saw so many creepy things that if you would even try to cheat them, you won’t cheat them anyway, because they really, really saw “a lot”.

Working conditions in many restaurants not only violate all health and safety regulations. The physical and mental health of bar and restaurant workers is often at risk. At J&A Cafe where I worked with Michal, we were crammed into literally a few square meters, where 3-4 chefs and a kitchen porter worked. The temperature during cooking and washing with the ovens and dishwasher on, reached several dozen degrees Celsius. In these inhumane conditions, kitchen workers were often drunk or under the influence of drugs, which the bar management paid no attention to.


I worked in a bar-cafe in Soho with vegan food. I have experienced first hand what it is like to work without a kitchen window. There was a terrible problem with the air supply, buildings in Soho are side by side. There I experienced a hot summer and it happened to me that after entering the kitchen after 5 minutes, after turning on all the air vents, turning on the stoves and starting cooking you just poured litres of sweat.


I worked in a top restaurant in central London, where after work the employees would drink until around 2 am and the next morning they went to work again at 6-7 am and came still drunk. I’ve been working with people who just staggered on their feet,drunk. A colleague of mine witnessed a guy getting so drunk during the service that he pissed under himself. And he was cooking non-stop, all the time! I worked in places where the owners knew perfectly well that the employees were like that. The head chefs do the same – they also drink a lot, they also come to work with a heavy hangover. We worked in a place where the owners, that is, the people who owned this business, who paid us our salaries, who should take care that our clients had fresh food delivered, who should take care that the workplace was safe, they didn’t really care about any work standards at all. They ignored it completely. We worked with our colleague who was drinking brandy while he was working: he drank a bottle of brandy and continued to work. We worked with people who drank a dozen beers until 3 in the morning and came to work in the morning, snorting a dash of cocaine on their way to work to somehow stay on their feet.

The normal thing in restaurants is to shift responsibilities and increase duties without any chance of winning a raise in salaries. Each question about a salary raise usually ends with the dismissal and employment of another person who “will not cause problems.”


In a cafe on Hackney, I asked for a salary raise. The entire management gathered to debate my obvious request. I told myself that if it was less than £ 1 more I would quit my job. They sent me an email saying they would give me a 50p raise. I didn’t even write back to them. The head chef and most of the employees had already left. On top of that, they wanted my own recipes for gluten-free and vegan dishes that I had proposed for this restaurant. Moreover, they wanted to pay me in… overtime! Eventually, the cafe was closed by the owner of the tenement house. It was an interesting place after all and interesting people working there, interested in art and culture.


On my job as a chef, the only one who earns proper money is the owner of the premises. Anyone who is “under him”: head chefs, executive managers, waiters, kitchen porters have no proper profits. This is bloody hard work in damn hard conditions, from which, despite some financial benefits, you have no other gainings, because it’s hard to distance yourself from this type of work. This is a job that is “taken home” with you. French labour law protects the employee so much that during your day-off no employer has the right to send you an email or text message related to work, and shifts for employees are scheduled long in advance to be able to plan something. Just compare this situation to London, where I finished a shift at 11 pm and didn’t know my rota for the next week, which started in an hour!

I myself experienced a similar situation while working at Vinoteca in Chiswick as a kitchen porter. When we arranged the rota with the other kitchen porter, and I passed it on to the head chef, that kitchen porter for some reason unknown to me forgot about it. In February 2020 I went on a short holiday – the first one since August 2019 except Christmas break. On the first day of my holiday, I received complaints on the shared WhatsApp list from a Russian woman who worked in the kitchen for not cleaning a pot, and the other kitchen porter was sending me abusive messages on Messenger, threatening and insolently lecturing me. My one and an only short holiday in six months were destroyed by nasty restaurant employees, probably incited by the venue manager, Sandro, an alcoholic with “swinging moods”. Snitching on, grassing up, creating intrigues and gossip, fomenting division among employees is normal in this business on every level, no matter if it’s a high-class restaurant or a dive-bar.


During 10 years of work in gastronomy, I have worked with many chefs. I met about 150-200 people in various restaurants, both people with whom I worked regularly, that is, a year or two in one kitchen, also people I met at events or on agency shifts. On the fingers of one hand, I can count those who have arranged their personal lives or some standard of living with which they are satisfied. 99% of the people in this business are lost: they are people who drink, take drugs, are damaged, exhausted, stressed, have damaged nerves, shattered personal lives. I know people who worked 100-120 hours a week for Michelin Star restaurants, some of them having to do cocaine several times a day to keep up the pace and function normally.


When I was working at Brick Lane, we were given a lot of responsibilities. If the health and safety regulations should be followed, some things would be almost impossible: deliveries that arrived at night were left under the building, at the emergency exit, which we brought to the bar in the morning before the shift began. Once, when a health and safety inspector visited us, he ordered us to throw everything away, because according to British law, we cannot keep food like that. As it was very busy, there was no time to clean the dishwasher, so in a short period of time, several hundred plates were rinsed in the perpetually dirty dishwasher (we called it “mud rinsing”).
After 4–5 years of this work, I was fed up with working in large companies. There I had to work with meat, even though I indicated that I am vegan and I don’t want to do it, but that was over ten years ago and it was hard to find strict vegan restaurants back then. Working in a restaurant is often long working hours, there is no time for private life. I used to come in at 10 am, but I finished very late at night and missed a lot of things: concerts, meetings, parties, it’s hard to enjoy London life then.

I have not had proper training in any of the restaurants where I worked as well. Usually, I had to guess what to do, and often, driven to irritation due to the stupidity and ignorance of managers, I would get into arguments and slurs. When I was working for the agency, a few times I just walked out in the middle of the shift, saying goodbye with vulgar words. Employment agencies also ignored it, because they knew perfectly well where they sent their employees, so the advantage was that I didn’t have to come back to some places again. In one of the production kitchens, I had to regularly hear and watch vulgar slurs from the head chef towards the other chefs. Harassment, insults, aggression, hostility – this is an integral part of work in London gastronomy.


I had one of the jobs on Old Street, where the owners wanted to combine a cafe with a bicycle service. The downside was that I was still traumatized after working in the bars in the City and I didn’t like the fact that during the lunchtime it was packed with people, terribly overloaded. The people were great because they hired young people, hipsters, but we got along well and there were interesting people to go for a beer, a coffee with. It was fair that we changed positions: everyone worked as a chef and as a kitchen porter. But the kitchen was very badly arranged. It was similar when the same owners opened a second bar in Hackney. It was also very busy there, some people couldn’t bear it mentally: one girl cried because someone didn’t come to work once and she had to work for two people. One of the owners was choleric which was terrible for the staff. He often had outbursts and “swinging moods”.
With the owners, I often talked about bad training of new employees, who were often put into a new position without proper training. It irritated me that I had to take care of the kitchen at the same time when taking care of the delivery goods – which usually took me an hour – and on top of that training new employees, explaining all the nuances to them, and above all, to completely clean the bar before the service. Often, new employees were surprised by my attitude. When you work with people who already have some experience, 3-4 years in different places, you can see immediately what kitchens they have gone through, since they cannot maintain the correct standards. Starting from not washing your hands, to ignoring the ‘no cross-contamination’ principle, and even not knowing the colours of the boards. Most people didn’t even know how to keep food in refrigerators and not mix vegetables and meat, for example!

Managers, especially guys with hang-ups and frustrations, are very often pushed into managerial positions by business owners so that those at the top have “clean hands” because the dirtiest job is done by those who are in the lower ranks of the power machine. They often exceed their competencies and use their power to unload their problems on employees. At Vinoteca, I had a constant war with a venue manager. Once, when we were returning from the smoking area, he closed the door and refused to let me into the restaurant, and another time he wrongly accused me of giving him dirty cutlery – on that day he had a huge hangover, he told everyone about it in the morning. When I protested in this regard to prove him wrong (“the manager is always right, because he is a manager”) as a “revenge” he threw a small saucer of olive oil into a container with clean plates. Of course, I didn’t hesitate to take a beautiful “artistic” photo of this dense green mud by my phone and post it to social media as an example. One evening, out of his laziness he did not want to put a fork into a box of dirty dishes, so he threw it from a distance aiming at my head. He could clearly see the fork bounced off my head and landed under the cupboard. He couldn’t do too much, because as a kitchen porter, I was under the aegis of the head chef, a nice young man just starting a career in this dirty and rude business. It was only thanks to him that this job was bearable because as a beginner he was still idealistic about his profession and tried to be fair to everyone. It wasn’t about the venue manager doing everything he could to get me fired but his lack of understanding, the excess of alcohol drinking and too many duties prevented him from creating an intelligent plot. I even witnessed a random conversation between him and other restaurant employees when he made threats about me. The lockdown during COVID-19 came to his help - and for me.

But let’s see the story of Michal who was rudely and unjustly fired from Mildred’s Dalston restaurant.


It seems to us that we have a piece of paper called a contract, but it is in no way obliging to anything because if someone wants to get rid of someone, they will get rid of them in one way or another. Any evidence can be fabricated afterwards. I was the victim of this “procedure” two or three times in London.

So was I. During the pandemic, at the behest of the venue manager, I was dismissed without cause. When I spoke to the head chef, I pointed out that after the pandemic I was ready to go back to work, although my initial plan was to only work until the end of July (The venue manager later claimed that on February 20th I gave a two-week notice, which is obviously not true, because there is no such thing as a two-week notice, but a month’s notice, and besides, during my conversation with the head chef we agreed that I would work until the end of July). In March and April, a secretary from Vinoteca deceived me with evasive e-mails. They probably wanted to collect ‘furlough’ for me from the British government without paying me anything. I wrote an email on several points, asking for a detailed description of the situation and threatening them with a lawyer, I demanded a P45. In 2 days I had a P45 and an email with fabricated evidence full of lies and distortions. And that was information, of course, from the venue manager.

Michał dispels my doubts as to notice:

A contract that you get also does not guarantee anything, because your notice period is twice as long as the employer’s notice period in relation to you, e.g. a pub has a notice period of 2 weeks, and you can give 4 weeks notice. The longer you work, the more this period becomes. British labor law favors employers, not employees because if you do not work in a given place for two years, you have fewer rights.
I had a situation when I was working in one of the top places, Nopi Restaurant in central London. The head chef wanted to get rid of me because my son was just born. I became an uncomfortable employee in the business. They were pushing me to work 65 hours a week. The head chef wanted to skip the entire grievance procedure and gave me a piece of paper to sign. I called the manager with a complaint, but I was mentally forced to leave my job. In London, if someone wants to get rid of someone from work, they are often overloaded with duties, or vice versa: you take all the duties off someone, that you then feel like a “redundant” person at work and you can clearly sense the negative energy that is directed at you . Nobody will help you at work either, because everyone is afraid for their ass. There is no longer any employee solidarity in the workplace, everyone is selfish and only thinks about their piece of cake, from which they can get something.
I worked from March 2019 to February 2020 at Mildred’s on Dalston Junction which is the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the United Kingdom. There was a change in the position of head chef and the new head chef suddenly began to cut my working hours drastically. I did not receive any complaint, no warning - neither oral nor written - during this year there was not a single complaint against me, not a single warning. Out of 4 shifts, the company cut it to 1 or even no shifts and I was left without any source of income overnight. I wrote to Sarah Wasserman, Head of Development, who informed me orally that I was fired and that she would not give me any more details about my dismissal, and only the people at Human Resources and Payroll would do. They obviously didn’t know anything, as well as the general manager for the entire Mildreds chain. When I wrote to HR, Payroll and the general manager, I got the reply that they didn’t know anything about it. After 9 months of very good service and work, I got kicked out just because I was asking about cutting my shifts. Only and solely because I stood up for my rights as an employee. I had to find out for myself why I was fired. All the evidence against me was fabricated after the fact.
I asked a woman from Human Resources about the grievance procedure and the employee handbook in an email. It turned out that the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the UK, in the 21st century, in London, in a country that fought for employment rights, has neither a grievance procedure nor an employee handbook, and the company cannot even fire you properly and you need to ask for it. My personal dignity and that of an employee have been trampled underfoot. People in the UK often say “work ethic, work ethic”, they like to wipe their lips with it a lot, but most employment relationships in the UK are against any ethics. This is a modern form of slavery.

Long after the interviews were done, Michal sent me an e-mail that can be a perfect summing up of the subject:

People in this dirty business love to explain themselves with “business needs”, “procedures” and in fact, it is an obvious lie and cover-up with the company’s image. They pretend it’s never anything personal – in fact, it’s just the opposite. The “face” of the company and its “needs” is a typical slogan that everyone wipes their mouths with when they want to fire you just to get rid of the moral ballast. You should point the finger at all bar and restaurant managers and say: you are all personally responsible for all this, not the companies.


Jacek Żebrowski

Jacek worked as a chef in London.