The Cult of Restaurant Dining

Some recent pieces of pop culture have us wondering: Does the restaurant industry qualify as a cult?
The Cult of Restaurant Dining
Illustration: Karl Gustafson
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If we’ve learned anything from the past few years of true crime docuseries, it’s that cults are all around us. Some, like NXIVM and Scientology, pose more obvious danger to their members (and society) while others, like LuLaRoe and Peloton, take a little more analysis. But one thing we’re not always conditioned to view as a cult is—stay with me here—the restaurant industry.

Amanda Montell, author of Cultish and co-host of the podcast Sounds Like a Cult, argues in her work that extreme fandom of anything can engender a cult around that thing. Knowing the extent to which we wear our fanaticism on our sleeve, it’s easy to see how anyone can fall prey to a social structure that seeks to capitalize on it.

On the most recent episode of Sounds Like a Cult, Montell, along with co-host Isa Medina and comedian Jade Catta-Preta, applies this logic to Starbucks.

“Starbucks is about so much more than coffee; it’s an identity, a community, a culture,” Montell says. The company invented its own language (both for customers and workers), encourages ritualistic behavior, and offers incentives for loyalty that creates die-hard fans while cultivating negative working environments for “partners” (Starbucks’ word of choice for low-level employees). And it’s not just Starbucks, either: The “cult” label is one that can apply to the entire restaurant industry more easily than we may think.

Classic indicators of a cult

Cult expert Steve Hassan, a mainstay talking head in the onslaught of recent cult documentaries, created the Freedom of Mind Resource Center to provide information for people who think they might be experiencing “undue influence.” On the site, Hassan encourages people to ask some key questions before joining any group, whether it be religious, political, commercial, or otherwise. Using the BITE Model (oddly fitting when applied to the food industry), you can assess any situation:

  • Behavior Control: Are rigid rules and regulations imposed? Is there financial manipulation, exploitation, or dependence? Is individualism discouraged over group think? Is there permission required for any major decisions?
  • Information Control: Is there deception? Is information compartmentalized into “insider vs. outsider” doctrines? Is spying on other members of the group encouraged? Is there extensive use of documents, newsletters, videos, etc. created by the organization?
  • Thought Control: Does the organization require members to internalize the group doctrine as truth? Is there use of loaded language that reduces complexity into buzzwords? Are critical questions about the leader or policy discouraged or even forbidden?
  • Emotional Control: Is your range of feelings being narrowed or manipulated? Are feelings of guilt and fear instilled for going against policy? Are there extremes of emotional highs and lows like berating and love bombing part of regular interactions?

Of course, it’s the abusive, violent, dangerous cults that we most often associate with the word. But the manipulation measured by the BITE model can be found in more mundane places, too—settings that can inflict their own kind of harm. In the world of dining, many chefs end up manipulating others to their will, and the BITE tactics come into play to keep diners coming back and to keep workers in line.

The cult-like restaurant industry

Two pieces of beloved pop culture from this year illustrate this theory in action on both sides of the cultish dining coin: The Menu and The Bear.

“Essentially, [The Menu] is a movie about a personality cult, and anyone who’s gone to Noma or El Bulli has to say that they’re personality cults too,” New York magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt tells Vulture. “[Chefs] have these teams that will literally run into fire for them, to a certain extent. They are philosopher kings. They’re like high priests of their own religion.”

In The Menu, both the act of preparing the dishes and the act of eating them are presented like rituals within a religious practice (indeed, “religious experience” is a phrase often used to describe the most exceptional of meals). Religion, after all, is the original cult, and in this 2022 horror-comedy, cooks and guests alike end up replying in unison to Chef Slowik’s prompts, eating his increasingly dangerous dishes without question. By the end, the guests appear to be so brainwashed that they willingly pay an exorbitant price in more ways than one, just to bask in Slowik’s genius.

In the case of actual restaurants, nothing is quite as violent or dangerous as what The Menu portrays, but there are similar initiation rituals, rules for participation, and culinary dogma. Think about it: How many dining experiences have you been a part of that start with some semblance of the phrase, “Here’s how we do things here”? At a fancy enough establishment, you might even feel discouraged from asking a clarifying question or ordering something “pedestrian,” lest you be seen as a low-status buffoon with no taste.

In the back of the house the cult is just as fervent, if not more so. Working in the restaurant industry can feel like exile from the life you once knew, a choice to make sacrifices and dedicate your life to realizing one chef’s singular vision. In The Bear, we see Carmy go from follower to leader: As a chef in a high-end restaurant in New York City, he is held to an impossible standard of perfection, berated and psychologically abused to the point of emotional collapse. As a head chef at a shabby beef stand in Chicago, he becomes the leader, but not necessarily a better one than he had—he tries to exert over his own brigade using many of the tactics that drove him out of New York in the first place. Unlike Then Menu, The Bear’s depiction of this dynamic stays very true to life.

Anyone who has worked in any corner of the restaurant industry can attest to its demands: the long hours, the inane dialogue with customers, the expectation that you’re always “on.” The refusal to buy into a restaurant’s culture can result in punishment in the form of fewer or less desirable shifts, or even a verbal pummeling. While we are collectively turning away from toxic restaurant culture and slowly, slowly phasing out some of its worst tendencies, there is still a level of blind acceptance of the way particular dishes must be created and consumed that will remain.

Ultimately, the cultishness of the restaurant industry isn’t on par with, say, the Manson Family. Still, we should acknowledge and recognize the signs before we’re in too deep. Instead of signing your life over to become a member of a VIP restaurant that doesn’t even tell you what’s on the menu, maybe just seek out a really, really good sandwich someplace, and show an appropriate level of gratitude toward the person who made it for you.