Kitchens’ Reflection Table #2– Report

This is the report of the conversation we had, for the introduction text, see here

Escaping the service dynamics: what to do when people see you as a service and not as a collective effort?


The modern city is full of restaurants and other places where food gets commodified and inserted into capitalist dynamics. This dynamic is both exploitative towards the workers, and exclusive towards those who can get access to this food: every restaurant has its cooks, waiters and dishwasher, doing mostly low-paid, pressuring and alienating work for the few people that can afford to eat out.

VoKus (VolxKüche, people’s kitchen) are an attempt to get the meal and its production out of these twisted, capitalist dynamics and make a good, vegan meal accessible for everyone. These kitchens have existed for long and can be found in many squatted or social spaces in the Netherlands. They are collectively run and do not perceive themselves as a service which can simply be ordered from the menu. Still, in a city where the concept of ‘eating out’ is mainly perceived as a service and dominated by restaurants, it’s difficult for VoKus to not automatically be seen as a restaurant too.

During this reflection table, several VoKus in the Netherlands came together to talk about being perceived as a service, how to escape this dynamic and, most importantly, how to get people into collective cooking.

Part 1: the Hotspot
Being perceived as a service: experiences from the various kitchens.

Most VoKus in the Netherlands cook vegan. As the vegan diet became more popular among the big-city dwellers, so grew the attention towards spaces that provided the left-wing movement with a cheap, vegan meal. Several VoKus at the table noticed a change in their usual crowd, more and more ‘yuppies’ came to visit the space and the word spread quickly. With the new crowd, came a new dynamic: people visited briefly to have a cheap meal, without making any connection to the space nor the kitchen group.

One VoKu figured out they were listed on a popular blog for vegan hotspots in Amsterdam, without any further notice from the blog editors. They were simply described as a cool and alternative, yet a cheap and vegan place to eat. The next question was whether to stop this commercial development and remain safely within the left-wing scene, or whether to accept the new ‘customers’ in and ask for a price for the meal, to start a solidarity fund from that money.

Not all VoKus agreed with the pricing-plan, but more VoKus did share having to deal with the same question: are we staying within the movement, even though spreading the idea of cooking collectively would benefit a larger crowd, or are we accepting the new visitor in and hopefully getting them into collective cooking, while also running the risks of being co-opted?

We started to share some of the small steps people from different kitchens took to convey the message of not being a restaurant towards their new crowd. First and foremost, the kitchen groups simply started to talk to the people. Inform everyone: tell them that we’re not a restaurant and tell them how collective cooking works. This was either done with one-on-one conversations, or during the announcements before dinner. Some kitchen’s also mentioned examples of having a clear, written a statement about the topic in your restaurant, for example on the door through which people enter. Also mentioned was being conscious of what words to use: how to describe your collective in a way that doesn’t imply a restaurant hierarchy. Some actively avoided the word ‘helping’: say “we need cooks”, don’t say “we need people to help the cooks”.

Another tactic that was discussed, was to blur the division between volunteers and non-volunteers. Several VoKus brought in very practical steps to do so: set up a dishwashing station, have a clear and visible sign-up sheet/board or ask people from the crowd on the spot to do something (“we need 3 more people to serve the food, we need 5 more people for dishwashing…”). These actions show that anyone can join the kitchen at any time and that there is not a ‘fixed and exclusive group’ that is always running the kitchen. Having the kitchen visible in the space was also seen as a big plus: people who came for dinner could actually see the labour that was put into the meal. Some people working in a kitchen space that is separated from the space were people came for dinner, talked about how they sometimes struggled with making the kitchen work more visible. They felt that because their work is invisible, less people coming to dinner saw the need to lend a hand with doing the dishes or with cooking.

Another kitchen mentioned their concern about creating a space where people feel forced to do something. They agreed with blurring the lines between volunteers and non-volunteers, but they also emphasised the importance creating a setting where people feel free to relax. They wanted to avoid the idea of “if I come for dinner, I must…”. People should feel free to come and help out, the kitchen can’t force people to do stuff if they don’t want to. Some people volunteering in kitchens struggled with finding the balance between the feeling of being taken for granted, and on the other hand not judging the people who don’t want to help out. They realised that even if people are not involved, it didn’t mean they are unthankful for the food. It also meant becoming more carefree themselves, instead of becoming bitter or hostile to others: if I volunteer in a kitchen, I should focus on what I want to give, not what I’m expected to do.

We started to discuss the definition of ‘service’. Is ‘service’ inherently a bad word, a word that implies an imbalance? Some kitchens disagreed: service does not mean slavery. Giving a service doesn’t have to mean you are giving something against your will or being exploited by. The risks is doing stuff in the kitchen you don’t want to do, doing more than you can take on, or expecting something in return that you won’t get anyway. As long as you avoid those three things, providing the service of cooking a meal doesn’t have to be an imbalanced action. For some it worked even counterproductive to be afraid of the word ‘service’. It’s important to have a clear understanding of what you want your definition of ‘service’ to be, and therefore to set clear boundaries for what you want to do in the kitchen and have realistic expectations as a VoKu. Some people suggested to replace the word ‘service’ with ‘creating an infrastructure’: within the radical-left wing movement, some people are doing the front-line work, other people are working behind the stage. We all need these tasks to be done, we need this infrastructure to be in place, whether it’s organising actions, doing the legal work, cooking the meals or printing the posters, and they are all equally valuable.

Part 2: Getting people into the kitchen.
How to move away from the kitchen as a professional space, and move towards a kitchen as a communal space?

We moved on to talk about getting people into the kitchen and how to cook collectively. One of the first things that came up, was that a lot of people felt that the kitchen is being perceived as a professional place, as space that demands certain cooking skills and already some work experience from you. If they invited people to come cook in the kitchen, they saw some uncertainty coming from them: could they work in a big kitchen, even though they’re not really good at cooking? Two tactics to counter this were mentioned: 1. let people clearly know what you want from them and 2. letting go of getting a good product.

The first tactic came hand in hand with a discussion about kitchen hierarchy. In the commercial restaurant, the kitchen is a highly hierarchical space, with chefs and sous-chef, people doing the ‘mise en place’ and cleaning the dishes. Working in a kitchen where this hierarchy is suddenly missing, can be quite confusing and even off-putting for someone joining for the first time. For some people it was therefore important to have some clear expectations mentioned. These don’t have to be phrased as “I want you to do…”, but they could be more suggestive, for example: “you can support someone with making a dish”, “we could use someone to make a salad”, “you can make your own recipe with these ingredients” or “you can chop those vegetables…”. One person phrased setting expectations as followed: “I want to give you the recipe, but I don’t want to be your boss.” Another person mentioned to still have problems with finding her role in the kitchen: “what are my structures when there is no traditional service dynamic?” Especially for people who are more shy, it’s something comforting to have someone to guide them in the kitchen.

We all agreed that it’s difficult to figure out how to work as a harmonic collective, when the service dynamic we all know, also made us forget how to cook for ourselves, trusting our own cooking skills and work collectively. Hierarchy in kitchens is easily established, some people take on more or have a more dominant voice or opinion. Some kitchens mentioned that they would rotate roles in the kitchen, to break the hierarchy. Other kitchens emphasised the importance of randomness: you never know who will join your kitchen for cooking that day and who will be taking on what task, that just happens during cooking.

The other tactic that was mentioned, was letting go of getting a good product. A traditional restaurant is a space where the staff should ‘deliver’ a good product. This expectation can be easily transmitted to any VoKu with a professional kitchen set-up. You have the feeling that you should deliver a three course meal, that the dishes should be complementary to each other and the flavours should be in balance. Always putting focus on creating a good product, might scare people away from cooking. They would think they can not live up to a certain standard and decide not to join the kitchen anymore or at all. Being less professional makes it easy for people to attend cooking, which also means letting go off the pressuring thought that you always have to make ‘a good meal’.

Part 3: Setting Expectations
Overcoming unrealistic expectations and disillusions and cooking happily, collectively ever after.

Escaping the service dynamic is not only about telling your crowd that you are not a restaurant and making the kitchen more open to everyone, it’s also about managing your own expectations. As mentioned above, letting go of always having the feeling to deliver a good product is one step in doing this. One kitchen group suggested to always have a moment of reflection before cooking for an event or a group. To start, think about the following: who are you cooking for? Are you cooking for the movement, or are you cooking for the out-group? What does this group already know about collective cooking, and what not? What message do you want give to this group about collective cooking and to which extend are you willing to amplify your voice and to which extend are you willing to give in? Will you fight anyone who sees you as a service, and if so, what will be your gain? The group also mentioned that when cooking for the out-group, they would always set clear and tangible goals, such as: “have 5 new people in our kitchen every day of the event” or “talk to 20 people about what a VoKu is”, and not: “getting everyone who partook in the event into our kitchen and spread our message”. Setting unrealistic goals would only devalue your efforts as a kitchen afterwards.

Creating a moment before taking part as a kitchen in a certain event, will help to escape the service dynamic. If your role and intentions as a kitchen in a certain setting is clear to you, you will stand stronger as a collective. When you have a clear objective of what you want to bring to the event or a place, you won’t fall in the trap of becoming the people ‘who cook nice meals for free’, which is a frustrating position we all want to avoid. Many kitchens said that having this early moment of reflection, would have avoided some of the mistakes kitchens have made in the past, mostly on cooking for people who did only see them as a service, or even losing kitchen spaces by being co-opted.

On that note we closed the reflection. We were surprised that many of the problems and frustrations around being seen as a service were shared among the kitchens. We valued the reflection moment to share or experiences and moreover, to share constructive thoughts and practical actions on how to overcome the service dynamic.

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