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The Wave is setting a refreshing example in Bristol's food industry

The issue of toxic work environments and staff mistreatment in the food industry is getting more attention now than ever. Saiba goes undercover to investigate how Bristol’s own 'The Wave' is a leading example in dismantling this industry standard.

By Saiba Haque, The Croft Food Editor.

The food and hospitality industry has always been notorious for its toxicity and abuse. Over the past year, TV shows and films such as The Bear (2022) and The Menu (2023) have contributed towards a serious discourse shedding light on this alarming issue. It’s safe to say that the issue of toxic work environments and staff mistreatment in the food industry is getting more attention now than ever.

However, talking can only do so much, and efforts certainly cannot stop there. Bristol’s own The Wave, located in Easter Compton, is working hard to actively subvert and dismantle the normalised toxic standards in the industry. Their kitchen team sets a leading example of how the food industry should and, in the future, could operate.

Chef Dan at The Wave | Epigram / Saiba Haque

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Busker’s Banquet Food Review featuring Chef Dan Ashford, who works at The Wave. I was fortunate to have a brief conversation with Chef Dan, in which we spoke about his worldly experience in the culinary arts, his passion for food, and his disdain for the pompous and unsustainable ‘style over substance’ ideology in fine dining. He also discussed the food and hospitality industry’s ugly reputation of toxicity and abuse, and the damaging impact this is having.

‘We, as a part of the industry, are trying to change this bad reputation by setting a better and more positive standard. The place where I work, I believe, is a great example of that! It’s up to us to make good changes for the future of the industry.’

I was immediately intrigued. With the notoriously poor reputation of kitchen environments, Chef Dan’s claims were hard to believe. But I was curious to see exactly how his place of work was implementing positive changes. At the beginning of March, I visited The Wave to gain an understanding of how their kitchen team operates, and was pleasantly surprised.

The Wave Bristol is described as ‘a slice of the ocean inland’, where visitors can surf and bodyboard on consistent and safe waves every day of the year. It is one of the only operating inland surfing venues in the UK, and has been almost ten years in the making. The venue’s amenities include a gift and equipment shop, a restaurant and café, as well as a campsite with cabins for overnight stays. People can relax, surf and eat amazing food, whilst reaping the benefits of ‘blue wellbeing’.

Chef Dan explained the inner workings of the establishment. It is he, alongside his senior team of chefs, who work on most of the food and recipe development, rather than the establishment deciding on the final menu. This allows the chefs to exercise their creativity while developing recipes, whilst also catering to customer demands.

I got the opportunity to witness The Wave’s inner workings first-hand when visiting the establishment for the day. In order to gain a more authentic perspective of the kitchen environment at The Wave, Dan and I decided that I should go undercover for the first half of the day. Posing as a prospective Commis Chef on a trial-shift, I assimilated into the environment by working with the team in the kitchen, following the established French ‘Brigade’ system.

Food Photography by Saiba Haque
Epigram / Saiba Haque

‘In the kitchen, we work using the French system "Brigade",' explained Chef Dan. “We evenly distribute the roles each day, but change the roles around so that everyone in the team can have a chance to experience and cover different areas in the kitchen. This also keeps the morale up as people in the team feel equally respected. There are days where I am front-of-house and there are days where I wash dishes.’

I put on my chef jacket and apron, and Dan introduced me to the team before things kicked off for lunch. Everyone was welcoming and patient, repeatedly letting me know where the kitchen utensils and equipment would be while I was on dish duty. When asked about their experiences working at The Wave, most responded with relief that this is the best hospitality establishment they have worked in.

Staff member after staff member attested to the grace and respectful communication exercised in the hectic environment. The kitchen employees are also allowed to surf whenever they please during their break days, and The Wave offer employee discounts on food.

Chef from the Wave Bristol
Chef George | Epigram / Saiba Haque

In fact, Chefs Tillie and George both agreed that the operation of The Wave’s kitchen differs from any kitchen they’d worked in previously, in the best way possible. I witnessed this even at the busiest times of our shift, while working with Tillie in the fry station. Even on the occasion that something unexpectedly went wrong, everyone maintained their composure and no one was insulting, demeaning or disrespectful. As someone who has previously worked in kitchens, even I was pleasantly surprised.

Dan and I eventually revealed, with a heavy heart, that I was only a temporary addition to the team. And I mean it—their team was the most organised and respectful that I’ve ever worked with, and I would gladly return should the opportunity arise. The food and hospitality industry indeed has a lot to learn from The Wave, and the sooner the better.

Even though Chef Dan and The Wave kitchen team are doing tremendously well to subvert the industry’s poor reputation, the world of restaurants is suffering from record amounts of disinterest in joining the industry.

Kitchen team at the Wave Bristol
Saiba Haque with the team at The Wave | Graham Douglas

‘We are currently dealing with very low interest in kitchen positions, and understandably so. There’s a lot of damage that has been caused by the previous generation that we’re trying to undo by putting wellbeing and respect first!’

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The Wave is open to hire anyone willing and interested in honing their kitchen skills, as their entry requirements do not require previous kitchen experience. This is eliminating another big entry barrier into the industry.

From what I have experienced in many other kitchens, I too would be reluctant to return to working in such a toxic environment. But I can say with confidence that The Wave has altered my perception. I will definitely be back to say hi to the team, enjoy the amazing food and (if I ever learn to swim) give surfing a go.

Featured Image: Epigram / Saiba Haque