Hero worship: the toxic founder myth we fell for

Comparing founder & hero worship in the tech world to the food world

Think of a chef. You are likely imagining a rough and tumble sort, tatted, gruff. There’s a deep forehead crease no amount of Botox could fix, and they might have just snapped at a line cook for overcooking the sirloin.  

Think of a tech founder. You might be thinking of a white guy in a hoodie, preoccupied, rushed, looking at their phone. They might have just snapped at a junior engineer for using tabs versus spaces. 

The outfits are different, but the stereotypical attitude is the same. A swashbuckling, “you can’t tell me what to do,” “i’m in charge,” captain of the pirate ship mentality. We know there’s some toxicity going on, maybe some anger management to work out in therapy, and yet, we worship them. 

The tech startup world and the food world are united in this key sense: there’s a sense of lawlessness, of being badass, not conforming to the ivory tower of academia, law, or consulting, and swashbuckling your way into creating your own success. Chefs, like tech founders, invent their own products and deliver experiences that engage all of our senses and release dopamine in our brains. 

The mythology of the entrepreneur, whether it’s a tech entrepreneur or a food entrepreneur, is so strong. We in America are so obsessed with someone who brims with confidence, who knows exactly what they want to do. Someone who conceives an idea and by the force of their personality ushers it to existence. 

But, there have been so many high profile cases lately in the food world where our “founders” - the chefs, recipe developers, and food thought-leaders who have defined how we eat in 2020 - have been exposed for questionable worldviews; outright harassment; cultural appropriation; and violations of kitchen health and safety laws, that it’s made me stop and think about who we are worshiping and why. How did we get here? 

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Steve Jobs, the inventor of modern founder mythology, founded Apple as a young man in a garage and famously eschewed rules/competition/laws to create software and hardware that changed how we interacted societally. We all know that he was run out of the company, but later returned to Apple to save it from near-bankruptcy. Despite knowing his toxic behavior - a notoriously mean and vicious boss who intimidated employees - we continue to worship him, recognizing Jobs as a complex genius with issues, but a modern Da Vinci. His narrative cemented the idea that founders are the just and correct steward for a company. 

Steve Jobs also famously advocated for Apple’s corporate culture to be more like a “Pirate ship” than “the Navy.”

This mythology of a tech company as moving fast and breaking things, working and playing hard, and bringing things into reality by the sheer force of your personality, with the constant threat of failure always motivating you, is a template for tech startup culture to this day. 

Pirate culture is fun. There are no rules. Tech startups have a high failure rate, but despite the imminent threat of insolvency, it’s thrilling: you’re working incredibly hard, have your hand in 50 projects, and take shots with your coworkers when you’re still at the office at 8pm. 

For a tech founder, too, the reward can be ego boosting -- glowing media profiles of your origin story, invitations to speak on panels, a tale spun about your genius. Until recently, much of tech media played the role of “mascot” versus “watchdog” -- helping to evangelize technology as a good thing for society. Tech was so exciting - and stories about these founders clearly drove traffic and revenue - so publishers continued to ask for these stories.

However, it’s a crisis that thrusts a tech startup from pirate mode into Navy mode. From my experience working in tech since 2011, in 2016, I started to see a shift in how people perceived and media covered the tech industry. Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 election showed how data was flowing in an incredibly unregulated and unethical manner. AI started to seem scary. Founders started spewing worldviews (see: Elon Musk) that demonstrated a close-minded and privileged worldview. 

The veil of “let’s make the world a better place” was lifted and the capitalistic truth of “we have a fiduciary duty to our shareholders” became the real motto. Our trust of tech and tech startups faltered. The pirate ship started to sink. 

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You know who else compared their workplace to a pirate ship? God rest his soul, Anthony Bourdain, in the book Kitchen Confidential.  

In the intro to Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain states to readers, “I'd like [you] to understand what it feels like to attain the child's dream of running one's own pirate crew-what it feels like, looks like and smells like in the clatter and hiss of a big city restaurant kitchen.” 

Like tech startups, restaurants have a high failure rate -- the cost of doing business is so high that oftentimes each weekend of the month’s revenue goes towards one thing, with little profit at the end of it. One weekend’s revenue goes towards rent, the 2nd weekend goes towards payroll, the 3rd goes towards taxes and the 4th goes towards cost of goods. 

But the feeling of being in flow state - of being a pirate on this pirate ship - when working at a kitchen is intoxicating. The sense of camaraderie that I’ve felt working hard and late with coworkers at startups mirrors the kitchen camaraderie I felt in restaurant jobs. I’ve never been a line cook, but I know that pirate-ship, wolf-pack mentality of “we’re doing amazing stuff right now and this is the only thing that matters” in a kitchen is potent.

The reward for the high-risk work of starting a restaurant for a chef is also reputational. Chefs from NYC, LA, SF, Portland and Seattle have the opportunity to become household names. Michelin stars and James Beard awards bring notoriety to the singular accomplishments of the head chef. NYT Cooking, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and other food publications regularly star chefs on their social media feeds and in their print magazines. TV shows like Chef’s Table, Ugly Delicious, and Street Food on Netflix, the Mind of a Chef on PBS, Top Chef on Bravo, and the entire Food Network focus attention on the individual achievements of chefs, often without serious criticism into the shortcomings of these people. 

Food media seems to be the only sector of media growing during the overall contraction in the news business, and it’s largely personality-driven. Chefs are our idols, our celebrities. Especially in the last 4 years, I feel like we worship chefs just as much as any other high profile celebrity. While there has been restaurant criticism for years, there hasn’t been food business criticism. Much of food coverage in my recent memory, similar to tech media pre-2016, has been mascot and cheerleader-esque. And this isn’t just to point fingers at the writer on the byline: the consumer demand for chef as celebrity content has been matched by a publisher's willingness to make these stories the headlines. There’s an entire ecosystem around this.

In the past 2 months, all that has changed. The jam is moldy. Food section editors (who have been on the TV shows I mentioned earlier!) are perpetrators of workplace harassment and are making questionable Halloween costume decisions. Chefs of buzzy NYC restaurateurs are outed for being terrible to work with. Amid a larger climate of economic uncertainty and precarity for the restaurant industry, almost due to its own actions, this pirate ship is sinking, too. 

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We consumers - consumers of technology, consumers of food - are complicit in this system. 

For “foodies” especially, we’re addicted to the next great meal just as much as we’re addicted to apps on our phone. We overlook the toxic behavior happening at tech companies and in the kitchen for far too long. We don’t want to lose the convenience of an app we love, or realize the disappointment of all the hours we’ve spent waiting in line for a sorrel pesto bowl, were both in support of such toxicity. We click on these stories!

It takes visceral imagery for us to rethink our relationship with the things that we are so attached to, but it’s often a smoking gun that reveals larger structural problems. The chef who seemingly reinvented California cuisine was scraping 3 inches of mold off of their jam and also obfuscating who invented what dish at her restaurant, resulting in the erasure of women of color’s contributions. The Boricua costume was just one visible instance of larger workplace diversity and inclusion issues at Bon Appetit. 

We’re so quick to stan. We’re social creatures, and a feeling of belonging with other people who like what we like gives us pleasure. We’re hierarchical creatures, and like to have heroes to set a bar for us, to plot our own journeys against. We also can see how risky these endeavors are - startups, restaurants - and we instinctively want to root for and reward the people taking this gamble. Media who criticize these very-hard-to-succeed-at ventures are seen as “haters.” And, higher-ups at publishers and media companies know what we like, and feed us content that meets these demands.

But we have to do better. 

The same way that technology media shifted in 2016/2017 to be much more critical and less hypeman-esque towards the startup world, so too should food media now. 

I’m not a professional food reporter, but if I was, I wouldn’t profile a chef without interviewing the line cooks and the front of house team, former employees, and former employers. I would do a 360 review of the restaurant as a collective operation, and not just take the materials supplied to me by the publicist. I’d be a bit more cautious, maybe more adversarial before I assumed the entrepreneur is right. 

And the higher-ups in the organization - both at entertainment and news media companies - are just as accountable, as the ultimate decision-makers of who gets what spotlight.

We also need to zoom out and tone down the hero worship. No one is successful by themselves - entrepreneurs have teams, kitchens have cooks - all of these projects we see as being achieved by one lone boy genius are always collaborative efforts. 

It’ll take patience, bravery, and skepticism to move forward, but we can start now.