Countertalk: taking a stand against toxic kitchen environments

Countertalk: taking a stand for staff wellbeing

by Ravneet Gill 1 April 2020

A few years into her kitchen career, Ravneet Gill found herself on the edge of burn out thanks to toxic kitchen environments. A role at St. John brought her back from the brink, and inspired her to found Countertalk – a community that helps chefs and front-of-house find happy, healthy workplaces.

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Ravneet Gill is an author and pastry chef, and founder of Countertalk – a job service and community that promotes healthy work environments in the food industry.

Ravneet Gill is an author and pastry chef, and founder of Countertalk – a job service and community that promotes healthy work environments in the food industry. After several years working in difficult kitchen environments, Ravneet took a job at St. John, and discovered a kitchen that nurtured chefs and gave them space to enjoy their work and their life.

Her experiences inspired her to start Countertalk – a community of people all determined to create and promote healthy, happy kitchen environments. Countertalk is also a job service, where front and back-of-house professionals can look for jobs, knowing that the employers have all been vetted beforehand.

In addition to running Countertalk, Ravneet launched bakery pop-up Puff in 2020, and has also released her first book – The Pastry Chef's Guide: The Secret to Successful Baking Every Time.

I’ve been a chef now for just under eight years and I absolutely love it! In fact, I couldn’t imagine my career any other way. The kitchen is where I feel most at home – especially when it’s the right kitchen environment.

As all of us who work in this industry know – kitchens can be really tough places to work. Long hours, disagreements, low pay, no breaks. My salary and long hours meant that I was often working for less than minimum wage. I spent a few years in a circle of being overworked and feeling unsupported, and it drove me to a point where I was ready to give up on my career.

Fortunately, I found the right kitchen at the right time. When I joined St. John it was merely a stop-over – a temporary job in pastry that would tide me over whilst I looked for another role outside of food. A few months later, I realised I had found the kitchen I had always been looking for. I had no idea that kitchens could be beautiful, respectful and totally enjoyable environments. At St. John we sat down for a staff meal twice daily (if you were working a double shift), worked six shifts a week and were able to send in rota requests weekly. The respect with which we were treated at work allowed me to get some structure back into my life and as a result, I started to really enjoy being a chef again. I left after nearly two years, reinvigorated and optimistic, but I soon found myself back in the familiar kitchens of old. I had almost forgotten that places like that still existed.

I flitted from job to job wanting to find an environment like the one I had at St. John and though I stumbled across a few gems here and there, too often I found myself in the same old dysfunctional kitchens. In one place, the head chef didn’t have time to write a proper rota so we all just worked all-day, six days a week. You’d have a break in the middle of your double shift, but it wasn’t enough time to leave and there was nowhere to sit, so we’d just sit on the floor outside the staff toilets. These situations aren’t always toxic – this one was just caused by a massive disconnect between upper management and staff – but they’re no less culpable for affecting people’s happiness and mental health.

Ultimately, I created Countertalk because I was fed up of working in broken kitchen environments; I knew there were good kitchens out there, and I wanted to create a platform that highlighted them, and helped people find their way into healthy, happy workplaces.

We started with a few educational events and one-on-one advice-led coffee mornings, designed to promote healthy work environments and the people in them. After a year of match-making people into jobs through Instagram, we decided to create a more structured employment platform where companies could advertise for roles via Countertalk. As part of the platform, we vet employers about specifics of their business: how long is a trial? Is it paid? What is the gender balance of your front and back of house teams? Do you actively work to employ without bias? What is the pay per hour for the job? Through our website, prospective employees can look through the roles and apply directly, knowing that every employer on Countertalk has been thoroughly checked out.

Ravneet Gill founded Countertalk in March 2018, as a way to bring together people who cared about creating happy, healthy work environments in food
Countertalk hold regular workshops and supper clubs, for anyone to come and attend
The community is a great way to network and meet likeminded chefs and food professionals!

We also try to cultivate a really invested community of people who all care about creating better work environments. In the past year we’ve run open events on staff retention, managing insecurities, leadership techniques, starting a food business and more. We run industry nights for people to network and get to know one another, and we send out weekly newsletters with job alerts and helpful information.

Our educational food-based events have also proved popular – we subsidise the ticket price so it's affordable for people in the industry! We’re lucky to have many very talented chefs as part of the Countertalk community, and we’ve run workshops on bread, pasta and ice cream in the past, with lots more planned for the future. Whether you feel stuck in a workplace that doesn’t support you, or you just want to join us for our next event, please do come and check us out!