Richmond, Virginia, chef and restauranteur Mike Lindsey’s first taste of toxic kitchen culture began with cheesecake—thrown at him. “I was working pantry and doing salads, desserts. I messed up a cheesecake. The chef gave it back to me. I messed it up again. And he threw the cheesecake at me; he hit me in the chest with it.”
But rather than react with anger and potentially lose a job he needed, Lindsey checked himself. “From that point on, it was about me proving to this dude that I’m the best person in the building.” And he did just that.
Today the professional chef and entrepreneur co-owns the Lindsey Food Group with his wife Kimberly Love-Lindsey. The fast-growing empire of restaurants in Richmond serve up cuisines that span from burgers and fried chicken (Bully Burgers, Buttermilk And Honey) to steaks (ML Steak) and southern comfort food, seasonal fare and cocktails (Lillie Pearl, Jubilee).
Built For the Culture
Looking back, Lindsey admits the cheesecake-hurling incident was not out of the ordinary in the professional kitchen. “It’s crazy. It’s high energy…It’s yelling, it’s cussing,” he describes the culinary cooking environment. And it’s a hierarchical image reinforced in popular culture via celebrity chefs with mercurial personalities on reality TV cooking shows and within culinary history. At the root of it: control and organization to produce high-quality food.
“The type of work, the physical part, and of course, the perfection piece of it has to be at a level that is controlled. I always say being the head chef is [similar to] the culture of an NFL football team. A lot of people will also say the military because they call them [kitchen staff] ‘brigades.’ So they’re both based off very strict, harsh, hard, commanding environments or structures. The hierarchy, that control of the way things have to be done, organized, accountability—I think that structure works,” relates Lindsey, who played football in college.
“I was almost built to be in that kitchen environment and thrive in it because I could take someone yelling at me. It didn’t bother me. It was like they pushed me to be great…Fortunately, looking back, it was the key for me to be successful in this business.”
Pressure Cooker Environment
Yet for others, admits Lindsey, the demanding pace and demeanor of a pro kitchen can be toxic. “It creates this very unjust environment where you’re scared to answer questions. People quit or put their heads down,” says the entrepreneur, who recalls in the beginning of his career, the rarity of finding other Black culinary pros in the kitchen.
“It can definitely be a demeaning thing. And when you think about the ‘old’ way of doing it, people accepted what it was because that’s what it is,” he relates. “We can’t do what we’ve always done.”
The Change Within
For the Pollocksville, North Carolina, native, the revelation a change was due in the kitchen environment hit close to home. Back in 2021, area executive chef Gerald King, a longtime associate, revealed what some employees were saying about Lindsey behind his back.
“You push people, you drive people. You’re the best chef I’ve ever worked for because you really care about your people. But when new people come in, and they don’t understand who you are yet, they want to quit because you could be cussing me out or whoever is here. And even though you aren’t cussing them out, they’ll say, ‘He’s mean,’” recalls Lindsey.
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The chef took King’s comments to heart and began implementing change in himself. “I basically went online and found seminars/coaching, read things about how to treat people, and even went back to some old-school management books I read a long time ago to try to energize my thought process,” he shares. “I still get pissed. I still will hit you with that ‘dagger’ [look], but that only usually happens with upper management. You’re never going to see me do that on the restaurant level.”
Everybody in the Kitchen is Homegrown
Today, the Lindsey Food Group restaurants run like beautifully choreographed productions—as can be seen on display in the open-concept kitchens present in most of their food establishments. Thanks to a three-step approach implemented by the husband and wife team, restaurants and staff are thriving.
“We open up a lot of restaurants in a short amount of time. And one of the reasons we decided to do that is so that we can actually afford to pay people what they deserve,” says Lindsey, who eventually hopes to add employee perks like a 401K, vacation time and sick day coverage.
The other key is to hire aces, as the chef puts it. “We want to hire people that are passionate about the business…The goal is to identify these gems and work with these people. Push them up.” And mentoring is part of the recipe. “That’s the backbone of our business. We’ve hired three external people and they’re all front of the house. Everybody in the kitchen is homegrown.”
And finally, it’s about a mental shift in his kitchens. The demanding language and the harsh environment normalized in “old-school” culinary culture have been banished. “We have a high level of accountability. If there’s a level of disrespect, we handle those things in the moment and have a conversation. We make sure everybody gets an orientation and understands what we’re about. We do not tolerate any sexual harassment in any form—male or female. Everybody in this kitchen is welcome. We are all respected. We’re learning as we do it, and we’ve been very successful in changing that…getting the poison out.”
Inspired to learn how to change the culture in your business? You can follow Chef Mike Lindsey on Instagram along with Lindsey Food Group restaurants @lillie.pearl.rva @buttermilkandhoneyrva @buttermilkandhoneyongrace, @jubilee.rva @bullyburger.rva and @mlsteak.rva.