I am a Westerner, a European from Germany. From growing up in that culture I was conditioned a certain way, especially in the kitchen. My first years as an apprentice shaped my behavior and determined how I dealt with certain situations. That was learned behavior to some extent.
In Malaysia, 2009
As you already know, the tone in the kitchen can be rough. Some chefs are not emotionally intelligent, there is no question about that. I was one of them. From spending time almost every day with my colleagues I thought yelling and shouting was a normal way to manage a kitchen. I hated it though, when someone was shouting at me, especially my boss.
When I finished my traineeship in Germany in 1996, I swore to myself two things. Firstly: whenever anybody treated me like that again (shouting at me), I would quit the job on the spot. Secondly: that I will treat people differently and with more respect. That was a nice realization, in theory. But that was not the way I eventually conducted myself in the kitchen for many years to come.
I took it to the extreme many times later. When you interact with someone in Germany, the approach is most of the time very direct. German people communicate straight. If I liked something, I said it. If I did not like something, I’d let you know right away. Raising your voice was normal in Germany.
The time came when I moved to Asia. Asian society and culture are all about “saving your face”. People are more conservative at least on the outside. Asian people are “de confrontational”, as I call it, they like harmony. You notice this very quickly in your day-to-day operations. When I worked in Hong Kong, I had difficulties in understanding and adapting to this kind of culture. For Chinese people, saving face is especially important.
I will give you an example. Let’s say a cook makes a mistake and overcooks some vegetables. In Germany you would very directly point out the mistake and probably even scold the person. That is how it was handled during my time in Germany, not all the time, but usually.
In Asia you must learn a radically different approach. Here it all comes down to showing respect towards each other. You can point out the mistake, but you should never scold.
Scolding people, especially in public, is an awfully bad thing in Asia, as people then lose their face and feel ashamed.
I guess everybody would feel the same, no matter what culture you are from, right?! There is another interesting thing I have noticed and learned when living in Asia — admitting mistakes. Asians have tremendous difficulties in admitting mistakes. If you admit a mistake you lose face again. And you don’t want to lose face. That makes it even more difficult to communicate with your team.
They are basically hiding information from you — which is not good— as they are in self-protective mode. Even to this day, I encourage all my team members to engage in open and transparent communication. Trust plays a crucial role. You will always have people who have difficulties in being open an honest to you. I am not saying that people in Asia are dishonest, don’t get me wrong, I am just saying that people there have a very strong tendency to cover up their actions.
Culture in Asia is about de-escalation — whereas Western culture is more direct and aggressive, but please keep in mind that I am generalizing here. Employees in Asia are in general much more sensitive and take things to heart very quickly. You must watch your mouth and tone of voice. Yelling is a no-go, especially in public.
When someone yells at you in Germany, it is not uncommon for you to yell back. In Hong Kong it happened that I yelled at one of my chefs. He did not apologize or walk away with a serious face, but suddenly he started smiling. Can you believe it? That made me even angrier, so, I snapped at him again and I became more upset because I thought he was making fun of me.
But that was not true — he’d just tried to protect himself by smiling. He’d tried to protect his face. He did not want to lose his face in front of me or others. Over the months and years, I learned to adapt to this mentality. Wherever I went, I faced similar experiences be it in Beijing, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam, or Indonesia. Even today after so many years of living in this part of the world, I sometimes face difficulties in dealing with this mentality.
I am a Western guy with a Western approach, that is just how I am. The Western mindset has some advantages. We are straight forward and to the point. No matter whether we like or don’t like somebody or something, we tend to express it immediately. That usually leaves no room for confusion. Western people are also more solution oriented, in my opinion. I am writing from my own experience and perspective, of course and other people might have had other experiences.
I also find that the Western mindset is more flexible, creative, and kind of out of the box in finding solutions. I have many examples that can prove this. It probably has to do with the way we are raised and brought up in Western cultures and countries. I am not discriminating here, please understand. I just share what I have experienced. This is my opinion.
Keep in mind that I would never ever have been so successful in Asia if I had been full of discrimination and judgement of my coworkers there. The opposite is true, Marcel Riemer is the most tolerant chef there is. In contrast, Asians are more reserved, almost shy. As a matter of fact, many people there are very shy, especially females. People are more conservative and closed-up. They’d rather wait to be told what to do than start things on their own initiative, which is frustrating at times.
Some staff play it smart, for instance, using their lack of initiative as an excuse to not think at all, claiming that that is the supervisor’s job. In my kitchen I have always valued and promoted being proactive, responsible, caring, thinking independently, punctuality, taking initiative and most importantly communicating openly.
Have a good one!