Behind the Kitchen Door

How do restaurant workers live on some of the lowest wages in America? And how do poor working conditions―discriminatory labor practices, exploitation, and unsanitary kitchens―affect the meals that arrive at our restaurant tables? Saru Jayaraman, who launched the national restaurant workers’ organization Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, sets out to answer these questions by following the lives of restaurant workers in New York City, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Miami, Detroit, and New Orleans.

Blending personal narrative and investigative journalism, Jayaraman shows us that the quality of the food that arrives at our restaurant tables depends not only on the sourcing of the ingredients. Our meals benefit from the attention and skill of the people who chop, grill, sauté, and serve. Behind the Kitchen Door is a groundbreaking exploration of the political, economic, and moral implications of dining out. Jayaraman focuses on the stories of individuals, like Daniel, who grew up on a farm in Ecuador and sought to improve the conditions for employees at Del Posto; the treatment of workers behind the scenes belied the high-toned Slow Food ethic on display in the front of the house.

Increasingly, Americans are choosing to dine at restaurants that offer organic, fair-trade, and free-range ingredients for reasons of both health and ethics. Yet few of these diners are aware of the working conditions at the restaurants themselves. But whether you eat haute cuisine or fast food, the well-being of restaurant workers is a pressing concern, affecting our health and safety, local economies, and the life of our communities. Highlighting the roles of the 10 million people, many immigrants, many people of color, who bring their passion, tenacity, and vision to the American dining experience, Jayaraman sets out a bold agenda to raise the living standards of the nation’s second-largest private sector workforce―and ensure that dining out is a positive experience on both sides of the kitchen door.

Praise for Behind the Kitchen Door

“For all its talk of organic foods and sustainability, the restaurant industry pays little mind to the health and welfare of its own low-wage employees. In this persuasive volume, Jayaraman draws attention to servers, bussers, runners, cooks, and dishwashers across the country ‘struggling to support themselves and their families under the shockingly exploitative conditions that exist behind most restaurant kitchen doors.’ Jayaraman champions employee causes and argues fervently against discrimination, giving restaurant owners, diners, and readers considerable food for thought.”

Publishers Weekly

“The author reveals [how] many restaurants steal workers’ wages and tips, and put white workers in the best jobs out front while assigning those of color to the worst kitchen work. Women are harassed and not promoted. Few food workers have insurance or even sick leave, which is a problem not just for the workers; patrons also suffer when ill workers prepare and serve meals… This book will leave readers angry at the injustices detailed within, queasy about eating out, and much better tippers.”

Library Journal

Behind the Kitchen Door is a powerful expose of the labor practices of the contemporary restaurant industry… Throughout the book, the author brings her points alive by providing profiles and stories from individual restaurant workers.”

ILR Review

About the Author

President of ROC United & ROC Action (based in Oakland, California), co-founded ROC in New York after 9/11, together with displaced World Trade Center workers, which has organized those who work in restaurants to win workplace justice campaigns, conduct research and policy work, partner with responsible restaurants, and launch cooperatively-owned restaurants. Saru is a graduate of Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She was profiled in the New York Times’ “Public Lives” section in 2005, named one of Crain’s “40 Under 40” in 2008, was 1010 Wins’ “Newsmaker of the Year” and New York Magazine’s “Influentials” of New York City. She was listed in CNN’s “Top10 Visionary Women” and recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House in 2014, and a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2015. Saru authored Behind the Kitchen Door (Cornell University Press, 2013), a national bestseller, and has appeared on CNN with Soledad O’Brien, Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, Melissa Harris Perry and UP with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, the Today Show, and NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Her most recent book Forked: A New Standard for American Dining (Oxford University Press) has received widespread press coverage and acclaim.

Real Food Reads Recipes

Our resident recipe guru Jessica Jones weighs in with some tasty treats that’ll take your book club to the next level. Check out Jessica’s blog and podcast,
Food Heaven Made Easy, an online resource for delicious and nutritious plant-based living.

Wild Rice Stuffed Acorn Squash 

From Food Heaven Made Easy


3 medium-sized acorn squashes
3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon olive oil
3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 head of garlic

For the stuffing:
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1″ fresh ginger, minced
1 cup brussel sprouts, halved
1 tablespoon coconut aminos or 1/2 tablespoon low-sodium tamari
1 1/2 cups cooked black wild rice*
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Salt, to taste
Optional toppings: Pomegranate seeds, ground black pepper


  1. Preheat the oven to 400F
  2. Slice the squashes in half horizontally, scoop out the seeds, and puncture the insides 4-5 times with a fork
  3. Add 1/2 tablespoon of oil + 1/2 teaspoon vinegar to the insides of each half, and rub in with your hands
  4. Chop about 1/4″ from the top of the garlic head, exposing the cloves. Add this to a sheet of aluminum paper and drizzle 1 teaspoon of olive oil over the exposed head and cover completely with the aluminum paper
  5. Add the squash + garlic head to a baking dish, add 1/3 cup water to the bottom of the dish, and pop into the oven for 40-45 minutes, or until squash is browned and tender
  6. While that’s baking, heat the coconut oil on a pan, and add the onion and ginger. Sauté for 1-2 minutes over medium heat, then add the sprouts, aminos/tamari, cooked rice, and cumin
  7. Sauté for another 3-4 minutes, and set aside. Salt, to taste
  8. Once the squash & garlic are done, remove from oven and allow to cool
  9. Thinly slice the bottoms off each squash half so it stands flat on your surface
  10. Remove the garlic cloves from the skins and add them evenly into the squash halves. With a spoon, spread the garlic like butter onto the insides of the squash
  11. Add the wild rice sauté, and optional: top with pom seeds & cracked pepper. Enjoy!

To cook wild rice, bring 2 1/2 cups water to a boil in a small pot. Add 1/2 cup black wild rice, and boil for 45 minutes, or until semi-tender. If you enjoy firmer rice, use less water. Softer? More water.

Header photo by Lou Stejskal