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Behind the chef's counter: Ex-Pasture employees speak out

Former employees of Pasture, 2019's Restaurant of the Year, tell Metro they were underpaid for their time working in a toxic environment.

Behind the chef's counter: Ex-Pasture employees speak out

Sep 14, 2021 Restaurants

A row of chefs quietly work away behind the counter at Auckland fine dining restaurant Pasture, one eye on their prep, the other on their guests. The six diners curiously peer into the open kitchen, anticipating the next bite in their intricate, 22-course, $300 meal — the likes of carefully sliced pāua, a petalled lining of smoked pumpkin.

It’s quiet, hushed. But tension is slowly creeping in as the chefs notice that on the other side of the glass door separating diners from the back-of-house, Ed Verner, Pasture’s head chef and owner, and an employee are screaming at one another. Loudly. The employee has resigned and is owed money: his final holiday pay, which wouldn’t be paid out for months. Money, Pasture employees quickly found out, was not to be talked about with Verner.

Pasture is a small restaurant in Parnell that serves one tasting menu of between 17 and 23 courses to six guests at a time, charging $300 to $325 per person, depending on the menu; an optional alcohol pairing is from an additional $180 per person. Guests sit at the counter, where chefs handle cooking and plating alongside front-of-house duties. It is one of the most critically acclaimed restaurants in New Zealand and was internationally recognised by Food & Wine magazine as one of the World’s Best Restaurants 2020. Boxer, Pasture’s newer sibling, a chef-run bar next door, appeared on Condé Nast Traveler’s Best New Restaurants in the World: 2021 Hot List.

If a storm has been brewing at Pasture, issues of pay and money have heavily underpinned it. Taking a role as a full-time chef at the restaurant over the past few years has entailed working at least 60 hours a week — and often more than 70 — and every one of the nine former employees interviewed for this story told Metro that they had been significantly underpaid for the hours they worked. At least six full-time chefs who have provided Metro with bank statements from the time of their employment were paid in the range of $717.79 to $818.23 a week, after tax. This would suggest gross pay amounting to slightly over minimum wage, between $21.25 and $25.72 an hour, if they’d been working a 40-hour week (minimum wage was $18.90 an hour prior to 1 April 2021, and $20 after). But no one ever worked just 40 hours. American Katie Riley, who worked at Pasture from July to October 2020, told us that 10am starts and 1am finishes were normal, five days a week. All the other ex-Pasture and Boxer chefs Metro talked to said the same.

When asked about how many hours she usually worked, Kely Tangarife Higuita, who was at Pasture for 11 months in 2020–21, said, “We never talk about that. Because it’s fine dining. In fine dining, you never have time. We start in the morning when you need, and you finish when you finish. That’s fine dining life … everywhere. But I was thinking, I know it’s impossible, but maybe I could have a better salary? Because the thing is, if you move to a country like New Zealand, where the rules are super-complicated, and you can’t get a tourist visa, you’d imagine you’d have a better life, no? Like the quality. And it’s bullshit.” Tangarife Higuita was initially paid $180 a week as a “stage”, a fine dining intern. This was increased to $380 a week before she started receiving what she called “full wage” in August 2020. But the full-wage figure was based on a 40-hour week. She always worked much more than that.

Asked to comment, Verner rejected these accounts, saying of his current arrangements: “My chefs are contracted to work 50 hours per week. If they need to work overtime, they cannot work more than 60 hours total … They are compensated for every hour worked.” He adds, however, that in the past, “there were large amounts of time when I wasn’t at work in the morning or evening. I expected my sous-chef to be efficient and mindful of time worked.”

For many of the employees, the level of their remuneration was unsustainable. “I’d be rich. I’d be rich if he was paying me properly on the hours I was doing,” another employee said.

Only one employee talked to for this story ever received payslips from Pasture or Boxer. One reported asking Verner multiple times to supply them. In response, Verner denies withholding payslips when employees asked for them: “We have always provided hours and wage information to any employee upon request, in accordance with our legal obligations.” He says the accountancy firm he hired in June of this year provides employees with payslips.

In addition, we heard about instances like Tangarife Higuita’s, in which Verner and his then-employees agreed on informal work arrangements that meant they were significantly underpaid for the hours they worked (and would still have been underpaid had they worked only a 40-hour week) for a certain period of time, before being moved onto a “full wage”.

Australian Nickolas Alba, who worked for six months, primarily at Verner’s chef-run bar Boxer, says Verner told him he couldn’t be officially hired until Boxer opened. Alba agreed to work in the meantime at Pasture for a minimum of $350 for a four-day week, an arrangement that lasted for a month before he was moved to the “full wage”. During this month, he worked at least 60 hours a week, and his after-tax weekly pay ranged from $379.10 to $307.05, a figure below the agreed minimum. “It’s a sad truth that you could earn more working at McDonald’s than working at the best restaurant in New Zealand,” Alba said.

Riley, who’d previously worked in numerous fine dining restaurants internationally, told us: “My entire career I’ve been paid less than the minimum wage; my entire career I’ve been yelled at. All of those things I swallowed because I thought that was what’s necessary. But with Ed, it didn’t feel that way.”

American Joseph Smith was a stage at Pasture from January to June 2020 and considers he was working a similar number of hours as fully employed chefs, as well as doing similar tasks. He told us he was paid only enough to cover rent the entire time. His story, too, feels familiar. “The first thing he [Verner] said to me was that he already had one person lined up to get a contract, to have full pay here, and he could only pay two people at full pay because the restaurant doesn’t make a whole lot of money. But he said as soon as Boxer opens up [which was initially scheduled for March], he’d be able to pay me the full wage.”

Smith was initially paid $175 a week, before tax, which was then upped to $190. “And since rent was $170, or something like that, we basically didn’t have money to pay for our food.” In order to make ends meet, Smith woke early to clean and make beds at the hostel he was staying at so $25 would be knocked off the rent, which he then used to buy groceries.

Most past employees of Pasture are not New Zealand citizens, but moved to the country specifically to work at the restaurant. Their visas often specifically tied them to Pasture and this, as well as social isolation, exacerbated the power imbalance between Verner and his employees. Workers felt forced to stay in Pasture’s employ, and this promoted a sense of obligatory gratitude. “The only reason I stayed at Pasture so long was because I didn’t have a backup,” Riley told us. “Pasture is the only place in New Zealand, full stop, that has that level of fine dining and that level of prestige. So you go there and you work there, because there’s nowhere else to work, and you see that people get treated terribly, and you have no money, and you’re like, what else am I going to do?”

In fine dining, working for free is, inexplicably, entirely normal. It’s called “staging”. Chefs near the beginning of their career agree to work in the kitchen, unpaid, often carrying out rote, labour-intensive jobs, in order to gain experience and mentorship from the people around them in high-performing, well-regarded restaurants. Many of the world’s best restaurants attract hundreds of “stages” to their doors: chefs keen to get a foot in. These unpaid roles often last months, and people who enter these arrangements have a very straightforward goal: they want to learn, and the trade-off is worth it. According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s position statement titled Work In A Business Operation Without Payment of Wages, indicators that unpaid interns (such as fine dining stages) are in fact employees and should therefore be paid at least a minimum wage include: being paid for their work, including rewards such as free accommodation or food; performing work that is integral to the business; doing work that an employee would ordinarily do; and having their work hours controlled by the business.

Unfortunately, this was the experience of many of the stages at Pasture. They considered they were doing indispensable tasks, working long hours and gaining little in return except a line on their CV. “Everything I learnt there, I learned from [other Pasture employees],” Alba told Metro. In his view, “Ed’s not interested in teaching any of the staff anything.”

“Staging is a standard part of the industry,” Verner says in response. “I have … allowed people wanting a career as a chef or in hospitality to shadow my chefs in the kitchen as a voluntary learning experience.” He believes he is exceeding standard industry conditions, saying that “contrary to industry standard I have in the past paid for a stage’s accommodation costs”.

Complaints about tips threw more fuel on the fire. Since tipping at Pasture was done mostly via the eftpos machine, there wasn’t transparency as to where exactly the tips were going. “There would be nights where we’d get $500 in tips from one customer, and you’d get your pay and it’d still be $760,” Riley told us. “Or you’d get your tip payout and it’d be $80 for three weeks, which is not possible.”

Another past employee, Flor Camorlinga from Mexico, who worked at Pasture from February to June 2020, says her contract stipulated her remuneration would be made up of salary as a base, plus tips on top. She didn’t receive any tips in the six months she worked there. Said Tangarife Higuita: “You know the worst thing is, sometimes the customers would ask us, ‘I would like to give you some tips, but you’ve got to be honest with me: do you receive your tips?’ I couldn’t say ‘no’, I needed to say ‘yes’ even though I knew we never got tips. I was working for 11 months, and I got tips twice: one day $250 and one day $180.”

In response, Verner says that “tips at Pasture and Boxer are given in full to employees”, distributed “as soon as the amounts were meaningful enough”.

“Any change in that process was largely due to the impact of Covid on a struggling business. It was discussed in advance with the team, who accepted it, as a better alternative to having to let employees go.”

Pasture opened in 2016 as a 25-seater restaurant that served diners from noon, offering sourdough and plunger-only coffee by day, and a small, seasonal set menu by night. It was opened by Verner and his then wife, Laura Forest; both of them worked at the restaurant, with Forest, a photographer by trade, at front-of-house. It steadily earned acclaim from critics, including a review a few months after it opened from then Metro editor-at-large Simon Wilson, who called it “brave and very exciting”. Despite this, the restaurant consistently struggled, with financial and staffing issues steamrolling into big blowouts internally, including an incident that became infamous within the Auckland hospitality industry when the entire staff quit in the middle of service.

After Verner and Forest separated early in 2019 and Forest left the restaurant permanently, Pasture went through a rebirth. Verner slimmed it down to the current chef’s counter, with one seasonal tasting menu. There would be two seatings a night (in October 2020, this changed to three), with six people dining at one time. Shortly thereafter, in August 2019, Pasture was named Supreme Winner at the Metro Peugeot Restaurant of the Year Awards, and Verner won Best Chef.

In the five years that Pasture has been open, Verner has gained a reputation for being hard to work for, frequently admitting to the media and in his own social media posts that he struggled with being a boss and managing his employees. He told Metro in 2019: “I know people don’t say great things about me, but I don’t feel it’s because I treat people out of turn, or badly, it’s just because I’ve got my head down, going so hard, I’m not managing or looking after things I should be, and then people’s wheels start to come off. It makes me sad.”

Despite this, he has been painted positively in the media as exacting and uncompromising, with a singular commitment to perfection. While publications described Verner as a genius, write-ups on Pasture tip-toed around the obvious elephant in the room: at what cost?

A chef who was working at Pasture when it won Restaurant of the Year in 2019 told us: “Every day I would come to work and I’d have the feeling that everything I was going to do would be wrong, would be dogshit. That was his [Verner’s] favourite word to use. Anything you do, he’d be like, ‘Oh, this is dogshit, throw it in the bin.’ I was really disgusted by his behaviour. Even though I worked with lots of fine dining chefs that weren’t always easy characters, I’d say he was the worst out of all those I met.”

This chef worked at Pasture for less than a year, packing up their life in their homeland to take a chance on a small, innovative restaurant in their dream country of Aotearoa. “He described the work as four days a week, work- ing about 12 hours a day. But from the moment I arrived, it turned out I have to work 16 hours a day, five days a week. I started at 10 or 11 in the morning, but we would never finish before 2am. Through all that day of work, which was about 14 or 16 hours, we would briefly have five minutes to eat dinner or lunch. I don’t even know if we had time to sit down. Even if we did, it would be brief, like sitting down on the stairs.”

Verner agrees, saying that “fine dining has traditionally featured long and intense work hours” and that “time is of the essence” in the hospitality business. “I trust my staff and sous-chef to take the breaks they need and have always encouraged them to do so.”

For a number of past employees, disappointment came in another form: inaccuracy about ingredients. While Pasture has been hailed for its commitment to sustainability, nose-to-tail eating and buying from local suppliers, many of the workers found this more complex in reality. The employee above who worked at Pasture in 2019 said she was instructed to say things to diners about the ingredients that were not always correct. “I felt like it was crossing a border, especially if you’re asking people to pay this amount of money — people are paying for honesty about what ingredients you’re using. I remember the bread course, for example, and I’d have to tell diners the bread used wholemeal and rye flour, milled by us, on site. In fact, the flour is the same you can get from the supermarket, and the grains don’t even come from New Zealand; just the rye, which makes only five percent of the dough. I had a really big problem with that.”

Stories of customers being given inaccurate information about ingredients were repeated by at least four other employees who worked at Pasture after this chef.

Employees worried about waste, too, feeling it was excessive for a set menu where you knew exactly how many guests were dining each week. “When we got the whole cow in, do you know what percentage of that beef was actually used? Probably 30 percent,” says Riley. “We’d have to take large pieces of beef bones and shove them in trashcans on the sidewalk because ours were always overflow- ing with trash and waste.” The fish frames hung up on the open hearth — images of which became a Pasture icon — were often thrown away rather than used in fish stock as guests were told.

In response, Verner says: “We are very proud of all of the suppliers and producers we get to work with and we always strive to find the highest quality possible. … There are over 800 elements that go into your dinner at Pasture and it is not always possible to use every one, every time.”

“Pasture is more than a restaurant, it’s about theatre, experience, and performance. We will often learn a script to make it easier to recite as many of the ingredients as possible. … I am disappointed that on occasion there has been an inadvertent lack of attention to making changes in detail to the script when ingredients have changed such that some items have mistakenly been misdescribed.”

Compounding the problems of low pay and issues of integrity, more-common hospitality issues also abounded at Pasture, contributing to a sense of workplace toxicity. Hospitality is known for its drinking culture; there are high rates of alcoholism, substance abuse and mental-health issues within the industry. “The biggest thing for me was the drinking,” Alba admitted. Verner often drank during service to the point of inebriation, Metro was told. This affected his staff’s ability to carry out their work, due to lack of support from him and resulting knock-on effects.

A number of the past employees we talked to cited Verner’s excessive drinking as a huge issue at Pasture. “The week that Boxer opened, it must have been the second or third day, he literally was so drunk he fell down the stairs and had to go home and take a nap and come back after service started,” one past employee said.

Alba added, “That first night [Boxer opened] was so crazy. He was so drunk that he was in the Boxer kitchen, which is tiny, two square metres easy, and he’s just there, leaning, almost passed out. I asked him if he could help me out and he’s like, ‘No, I’m the fucking head chef, mate, I’m not helping you.’”

Verner does not recall this incident, saying it seems “uncharacteristic”. “I have never been intoxicated while working,” he says.

Several past employees told Metro that when Verner was drunk during service, he was frequently aggressive, shouting and yelling at them in front of dining guests. “It would happen at least once a week. Once or twice, depending on the week. I remember one time, he called us all in during service, looking really pissed, and one of the diners said, ‘Are you all getting fired one by one?’”

Verner admits that “in the past, I have shouted at colleagues in the heat of the moment and that is something that I regret.”

Another past employee commented: “He had no emotional control; no responsibility for how it affects the diners’ experience. At a bare minimum, people don’t enjoy watching other people being yelled at. And then you’re having to execute this very complicated, very time-sensitive menu after being yelled at, and play the smiley face.”

All of it — the low pay, long hours, complicated menus, lack of financial transparency, verbal abuse, absence of career development and support — tangled together into one giant knot. For the employees, it just felt impossible. “All these little things make you sad and you feel bad and feel shit about yourself,” says Roberto Giampaolo, another past employee who also worked at Boxer. “It’s something you take home to your partner. It’s something you’re thinking about in bed, after service. You’d do your best, 15 hours a day for him, and you don’t have time to do what you need to do, because there’s so much, and he’d come to you and be like, ‘This is not good enough.’ That’s one of the things that made me like … my God, I’m so angry. I give you everything I can and do my best … for you. Because it’s not for the money. It’s not for glory. You won’t teach me anything. So it’s for you.”

There have always been discussions, both within the industry and in the media, on how underpayment, toxic kitchen environments and systematic abuses of power are perceived as an inevitable part of working in a restaurant, particularly within fine dining. It’s not new, and neither is the romanticised image of the difficult yet charismatic chef (see: Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White). There is a general, normalised understanding that in order to execute these boundary-pushing, visionary concepts, some- thing, somewhere along the line has to give. But in the last year, the pandemic has forced further examination about whether such exploitation is necessary. It’s become clear that abuse, mistreatment and unfair remuneration are not, and never were, worth propping up high-profile chefs. The fact that this treatment is viewed as inevitable mostly boils down to the never-ending cycle of, well, it’s just the way things are. “When you’re saying, ‘This is how I was treated, so this is how I’m going to treat you,’ it is just perpetuating a really old-school hospitality chef mentality,” Alba says.

In the past year alone, increased organisation of restaurant workers and a collective readiness to speak up on abusive workplaces have resulted in several investigations into restaurant kitchen conditions, such as the report by the New York Times on Willows Inn, a renowned establishment in Washington state, and the investigation by Grub Street into the kitchen culture of celebrated New York eatery Mission Chinese. Both revealed the hypocrisy between what was presented to the public and what was occurring behind the scenes. Other high-profile chefs, like René Redzepi of Noma and David Chang of Momofuku, have acknowledged past abuse and made promises to overhaul their own behaviour and the culture at their restaurants.

New Zealand hospitality is not exempt from the serious, often traumatising, issues and conditions that have been revealed in these investigations overseas. It is happening here. Last year, RNZ reported numerous allegations from past employees of Christchurch’s C1 Espresso, including workplace bullying and labour law violations (including not providing breaks or paying out holiday leave). In 2018, it was reported that a third of all labour complaints the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment receives in New Zealand are from within the hospitality industry — a staggering amount.

Verner says he has sought to improve the intense working culture and long hours at Pasture as he’s “grown and matured”.

“Towards the end of June 2021”, he says, “an employee came to me with a concern that, equating pay to hours, his pay did not equate to minimum wage. I immediately increased his pay, reduced his hours and provided him a parking spot (which I understand saved him $6000 per year). After this, we hired a third-party accounting firm to ensure no repeat issues could occur.”

He says “no workplace is immune to having some number of team members leave with a negative view”. Recently, it seems, he has been working to rectify grievances held by some chefs who have left. “I was recently made aware of an Instagram post that included past employees who appeared to be upset. I immediately reached out to previous employees to find out if there was a problem so that I could solve any issues or fulfil any legal obligations that unbeknownst to me may have been outstanding. No one responded with any identifiable issue. It is always my desire to be fair and live up to my obligations as an employer as the employees are what makes up Pasture.”

If he has made mistakes, Verner says, he’d be keen to make things right: “If I have not fulfilled an element of my legal obligations as an employer (which I take very seriously), I would want to know so that I can immediately correct any mistake.”

The question remains, however: if workers must be grossly exploited in order to make ‘fine dining’ operate at the level it aspires to, is it worth it?

“The food is great,” one past employee admits, “but is that enough to justify everything else?”

Note: Kirsty Fong was employed as a dishwasher at Pasture from November 2020 to February 2021. She is not one of the nine former employees whose experiences this story is based on.

This story was published in Metro 432 – Available here in print and pdf.

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