The picture above is of a grotesquely exploitative institution; a living hell, where serfs labour daily and are fleeced of their wages. The presiding overlord, Michel Roux Jnr, should be dragged through the doors and burned at the stake in nearby Grosvenor Square before a braying mob. For good measure I should be tied up next to him.
That, in summary, is my Twitter feed these passed 12 hours or so after I decided to post something supportive about a man I have known for a while, have worked with and like very much, and who has been criticised over his working practices. The reception was not, shall we say, positive.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Twitter is not a place for nuance. It is about black and white. They’re a saint, he’s a sinner and so on. (If you’re interested in the subject of Internet rage try Jon Ronson’s brilliant book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.)
The real world, the one outside Twitter and, dare I say it, newspaper headlines, doesn’t work like that. It’s full of murky, smudgy greys; its not just black and white. And personally I think we’re all smart enough to deal with a few of those. So I’m going to give it a go with this story.
Last month the Guardian reported that some of the kitchen staff at Le Gavroche had been paid less than minimum wage. I was head-in-hands when I read this. The month before I had published a column about this precise issue, pointing out that restaurant goers whinge about the cost of eating out while young cooks get paid criminally low salaries. What’s more I had used Roux as an example of a good employer; one who was actually reducing the working hours of his staff to help retain them and improve working conditions. And now…
Nobody should ever be paid less than the minimum wage. I’d go further and say nobody should be paid the minimum wage, but that’s a bigger battle. Roux put his hand up, admitted it had happened in a very small number of cases and that he was making sure that they would be seen right.
Was Roux in the wrong? Yes.
Was it a valid story for a newspaper to cover? Absolutely.
Was Le Gavroche the right target? I don’t think so.
Which is where the shades of grey kick in. What happened at Le Gavroche, if you take Roux’s word for it (which I do), was small scale and accidental. However in restaurants all over Britain it’s systemic. Head chefs give their cooks contracts for 40 hours then rota them for 68 hours knowing they’ll never be paid for it. My email inbox was full of terrible stories when I wrote that column. Note the massive glaring silence from the rest of the industry. They’re all terrified of being found out. No, that does not excuse what happened at Le Gavroche. At all. But if you make Roux the target you’ll be missing the real story, which is an industry full of much worse practices.
Which gets us to the second story: the news that the service charge on the bill at Le Gavroche does not go direct to the staff. The Twitter response is clear: if it’s a service charge it MUST go to the staff and if it doesn’t it’s theft. I have an awful lot of sympathy with that as I made clear when I wrote this piece calling for all service charges/ tips etc to be wrapped up into the bill, as it is in France, Japan and Australia and where the system functions brilliantly. Then staff can be paid a proper wage.
I’m going to put the next bit in caps because people seem to ignore it, almost wilfully: THIS WILL MEAN THE COST OF DISHES ON MENUS GOING UP SO STAFF ARE PAID THAT PROPER WAGE AND ARE NOT DEPENDENT ON OUR MOOD FOR HOW THEY ARE REWARDED. IT REQUIRES A HUGE CULTURAL CHANGE. Please read the whole tips piece linked to above.
What’s clear is that diners have no idea what the term ‘service charges’ means, and who that money goes to. Roux’s argument is that it’s all revenue from which he pays salaries ie that in the end it DOES go to the staff, that he wasn’t robbing anyone. Indeed he’s now going to change the system so the menus say ‘service included’.
The Twitter mob may not like this explanation. As I’ve said repeatedly the whole damn service charge thing is as clear as mud. Could it have been clearer to diners? Of course. But I also have to say this: while I do not know how much Le Gavroche pays its front of house staff, I do know that they have had many who have worked there literally for decades. In a booming restaurant market there are choices and they’ve chosen to stay there. Which is where those shades of grey kick in again. We know that there are restaurant operators who are much, much worse than Le Gavroche, who are systemically ripping off their employees.
But Le Gavroche, being an extremely expensive restaurant (though the lunch is still one of the best value for money in town), is a very easy target. Everyone can vent their fury in 140 characters at a joint that charges £200 a head and feel a smooth burst of rightful indignation. But that’s not the same as hitting the right target.
As I said in one of my tweets that aroused such indignation, I know Michel Roux Jnr to be a good employer. That doesn’t excuse the cock up over low wages or confusion over service charges. But I really do think there are better targets out there. And I decided to be supportive to a mate, because I know exactly what it’s like when the Twitter mob descends. If you disapprove of me for that, I’ll just have to live with it.
Full disclosure. I have been fed for free twice at Le Gavroche. Once in the early naughties by Michel’s father, Albert, when I was writing a history of the restaurant for the Observer, and once a few years ago at a private party. I have paid for every other meal there.