Bright, crisp lights. Spotless countertops. Flourishing indoor herb gardens. A back of house staff operating without a hitch. Servers gliding in and out of the kitchen. Everyone moving perfectly in sync like gears in a Swiss watch. And a hotshot chef orchestrating it all.
This is one of the fantasy versions of the restaurant industry that many movies and TV shows create, glossing over the harsher, messier realities of restaurant life. Even “reality” shows like those on The Food Network take place on artfully-constructed sets, with any misfires or messes usually the product of a crafty producer.
It’s interesting to think that many of the people who create these movies and TV shows have actually worked in restaurants — just think of how many actors, producers, and writers spent time working as a server or even a cook while working towards their dream job.
Of course, movies and TV shows usually aren’t aiming for raw authenticity. They’re produced for mass entertainment, and a viewer’s suspension of disbelief is necessary for that kind of enjoyment. But is glamorization good or bad for the restaurant industry?
Turns out it’s a mixed bag. Let’s dig into what movies and TV shows get wrong — and sometimes right — about the restaurant industry.
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The Pros and Cons of Glamorizing the Restaurant Industry
Ryan Egozi is the Director of Operations for SuViche Hospitality Group, and he believes that a certain level of glamorization can actually be positive for the industry. He shared, "I don’t mind that movies and TV might glamorize the industry. I love the idea that somebody who previously thought nothing of my industry or thought it was undesirable would have a change of heart or see it in a different light."
But glamorization also has its setbacks. Garner Blume is a former restaurant owner and consultant, and he previously worked as Director of Operations at The Townshend and Executive Sous Chef at Barbara Lynch Gruppo. His feelings are less positive, telling us, "I think movies and TV that might glamorize the industry are not necessarily dangerous, but predatory. There are a lot of people who dream of going to culinary school who have zero idea that their degree will often set them on a path to land a minimum wage job for the first 12-36 months of their career, depending on their location and desired career path."
The romanticization of the restaurant industry we’ve come to expect from movies and TV shows is a double-edged sword. Movies and TV shows are great mediums for inspiring people to want to be a part of the restaurant industry, but they typically fail at presenting the hardships of the industry, particularly when it comes to the long, challenging road to any level of financial success. As Egozi tells us, “Things can get really hard and nasty before you’re the next Emeril.”
Where Movies and TV Shows Miss the Mark
It makes sense that movies and TV shows would overlook the details and less flashy tasks of restaurant life. Is there a market for viewers who want to watch kitchen staff chop onions for hours or watch someone spend a Friday doing employee payroll? For all we know, there could be, but movies and TV shows avoid depicting the full truth of the industry, with its many hardships and challenging realities.
Tania Peterson is a Pastry Chef at Artistry on the Green, and while she notices and can laugh at the little things movies and TV shows get wrong, there are larger misses that are more glaring. She tells us, "I think the industry is attractive to many people who don’t quite fit into a mainstream environment. Mental illness can be masked by the pervasive restaurant culture of aftershift drinking and partying. Many people who suffer with substance abuse are tolerated, if not permitted, to continue with self-destructive behavior. The job’s intensity, stress, 70+ hour work weeks, missed family time, meager salaries, and grueling physical demands are often glossed over in films and TV."
Hollywood often shields viewers from the kinds of challenges that Peterson touched upon, ones that are so prevalent in the industry. And it’s not just in fictional media. Peterson also notes how the challenges shown in reality programming are a far cry from those that stand in the way of success in the industry.
Beyond failing to address some of the very real challenges of the industry — from addiction to labor shortages to struggles with mental health — movies and TV shows also tend to gloss over the real moments of joy restaurateurs seek out. Blume tells us, “Movies and TV shows miss the things that matter most to chefs, owners, and other members of a restaurant’s staff: delighting guests, creating incredible moments of hospitality, and improving their communities.”
Where Movies and TV Shows Succeed
Many movies and TV shows miss the mark in depicting the realities of the restaurant industry, but there are bright spots, too.
A big favorite among restaurant staff across the board is the 2005 comedy Waiting… Egozi himself is a fan. He tells us, “Waiting is very accurate as to the various tried and true ‘types’ of workers and customers you encounter working in a restaurant. Even the scenes at the coffee shop in a show like Friends are pretty accurate: the server and his attitude, the way the regulars are treated, the way the regulars treat the staff. Every restaurant and business is different, but I feel where movies and TV shows succeed are in their depictions of team dynamics and relationships with guests.”
The number of movies and TV shows that get it right while also still being fun to watch appears to be growing, too.
The 2014 film Chef comes up as a consistent favorite. Peterson tells us, “[Director Jon Favreau] gives the audience an entertaining yet realistic portrayal beyond the (literal) blood, sweat and tears. It deftly shows us the passion, ego, creative ebb and flow, camaraderie, stress, parenting, and pressure on relationships that many chefs experience.”
Blume and Peterson are both big fans of the Netflix boom of food and restaurant documentary series. Blume finds series like Chef’s Table and Ugly Delicious particularly relevant to people who have worked in the restaurant industry.
Movies and TV shows may not always get everything right — and there is certainly work to be done in educating the public on the challenges and realities of restaurant life — but they can succeed in a number of ways.
They’re capable of inspiring and helping people see the industry in a new, perhaps more positive light. They bring moments to life that any restaurant worker can empathize or laugh along with. And sometimes, in their storytelling and craft, they can match the unforgettable nature of the restaurant experience. As Egozi tells us, “While movies and TV shows aren’t always 100% accurate of the ins and outs of the industry, sometimes they mimic the unforgettable experience I strive to create for my guests. That’s what I like to see.”