Inside The Book

How do restaurant workers live on some of the lowest wages in America? And how do poor working conditions—discriminatory labor practices, exploitation, and unsanitary kitchens—affect the meals that arrive at our restaurant tables? Saru Jayaraman, who launched the national restaurant workers’ organization, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, sets out to answer these questions by following the lives of restaurant workers in New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Detroit, and New Orleans. Blending personal narrative and investigative journalism, Jayaraman shows us that the quality of the food that arrives at our restaurant tables depends not only on the sourcing of the ingredients. Our meals benefit from the attention and skill of the people who chop, grill, sauté, and serve. Behind the Kitchen Door is a groundbreaking exploration of the political, economic, and moral implications of dining out.

When you work in restaurants you think the industry is everything. It’s being outside, talking to people, serving people. You feel like you’re part of something good. People mostly go out to eat for good stuff-proposals, weddings, birthdays-not to fight. You’re part of someone’s proposal-you bring the ring in an ice cream cake, you watch her reaction. You feel like you’re part of their experience, their special moment, even if the people don’t care who you are-you’re just the server.

- Restaurant worker, 17 years

Sustainability is about contributing to a society that everybody benefits from, not just going organic because you don’t want to die from cancer or have a difficult pregnancy. What is a sustainable restaurant? It’s one in which as the restaurant grows, the people grow with it.

- Restaurant owner

Free-range poultry, cage-free hens, grass-fed cattle, hogs allowed to wander outdoors and wallow in the mud, have all been championed as crucial elements of a healthier, more humane food system. But the food movement thus far has shown a much greater interest in assuring animal welfare than in protecting human rights. You would think that, at the very least, the people who feed us deserve as much attention and compassion as what we’re being fed. The abuses endured by American farmworkers, meatpacking workers, and restaurant employees violate even the most watered-down, corporate flavored definition of “sustainability.” Our food system now treats millions of workers like disposable commodities, paying them poverty wages, denying them medical benefits and sick pay, and tolerating racism and sexism on the job. The hardships of farmworkers and meatpacking workers have been well documented. This book eloquently reveals what is happening behind the kitchen door not only at chain restaurants, but at some of the most expensive restaurants in the United States.

Today it’s not uncommon for celebrity chefs to earn millions of dollars a year, while the dishwashers and bussers in their kitchens get a wage of $2.13 an hour, plus a meager share of the tips. The typical restaurant worker makes about $15,000 a year, roughly one-third the annual income of the average American worker.

For more than a decade, Saru Jayaraman has been defending the rights of those who work hard but nevertheless find themselves at the bottomof the food chain. The organization that she helped found, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, doesn’t just represent workers. It seeks to empower them, gain them respect, and give them a voice in the workplace. Behind the Kitchen Door describes how Jayaraman got involved in this struggle, places it in a larger social context, and tells stories about individual workers that convey, more powerfully than any statistics, why we must not tolerate these injustices. Too many of our meals are now brought to the table by the misery of others. The problem can easily be solved, once people become aware of it—and that’s why this book needs to be read.

- Excerpt from Foreward by Eric Schlosser, best-selling author of Fast Food Nation