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A Portland Chef Organizes Restaurant Workers As “Chef Bloc” Protest

Channeling frustration and idealism into local activism.

Mike Kapski is a chef and organizer of Chef Bloc, a group of protestors made up of restaurant workers marching through downtown Portland tonight—July 24th, 2020, 7:30 p.m.—meeting at Salmon Street Springs at Waterfront Park. Participants will also support Riot Ribs, which cooks and serves free food to people at the Portland protests.

I’ve been working in the restaurant industry for nearly 15 years. I started here in Portland, working my way up from a little local mom-and-pop coffee shop doing baked goods up to the fine dining scene and everything in between. I lost my job during COVID. I was working at Clyde Common, in the Ace Hotel in downtown Portland. It shut down completely for the lockdown, and two months ago we received an email from the owner saying that he was not going to be reopening, or at least he was going to reopen in a different capacity. So we were all let go.

Since then, the industry here in Portland has taken a really big hit. People that I know who are working are maybe working three days a week. That really hurt us all a lot. I’ve been using this time to figure out exactly where I want to go. I’m 37 years old. Do I want to continue in the kitchen life? Do I have time to wait for this to recover? Or do I need to start thinking about a new career opportunity? I don’t know what the future holds for me as far as if I am going to go back to the industry or not.

From the beginning of all of the protests in Portland, back in the end of May, I was very supportive of the movement, but I didn’t want to get involved too much. When I was a kid, I used to love going to protests, throwing rocks at cops and stuff. But that’s for the kids, you know? That was my attitude. I was like, “I’ll let the kids handle this one. I’ll just sit back and throw money towards the bail fund and stuff like that.” So I did that for about 40 days. Then on June 30, I was exposed to tear gas in my house. It literally hit home. And the Portland police have been flying spy planes daily overhead ever since.

Later there was another protest at the Portland Police Association building, which is a five-minute walk from my house. This time I heard the protesters coming down the street, so instead of getting gassed in my own home, I figured I’d go to the protest and check it out. If I’m going to get tear gassed, I might as well do it willingly.

Watching the sheer brutality that the Portland Police were inflicting on these protesters, that was the biggest turning point for me. Following that, for the next five days I was downtown.

I woke up Tuesday morning after being at the protest all night. Seeing the bloc of moms and dads protesting, and seeing the way that everybody was trying to come together—those moms and dads were the biggest inspiration for me. I said, “Well, us chefs are some crazy fuckers. If we can get some chefs and line cooks in here, then we could stand in solidarity. And we can also highlight issues that are specific to our industry as well.”

There are a lot of issues that have been in my heart for a long time about ending toxic kitchen culture, unionizing, and working for a more equitable, sustainable industry—an industry where people aren’t taken advantage of, a less racist, less misogynistic industry. I already had these feelings and these thoughts in my head. Seeing all the blocs downtown, I put two and two together. And I was like, “Why don’t I try and organize something?” I’ve never, ever organized a protest or a march or anything like that in my entire life. I’ve no clue what I’m doing.

The first thing I did was contact my good friend who is a graphic designer and asked if he would mind drawing up a quick flyer. He really came through. He said his inspiration for that was the covers of Philip K. Dick novels, which I thought was really apropos.

My next step was I went down to the protests on Tuesday dressed in my chef coat, my striped apron, my chili pepper pants, and a sign that read “86 the Police,” just to kind of gauge what the response was. It was overwhelmingly positive. Everybody was super into it.

The next morning I got up, my buddy sent over that flyer, and I said, “Wow, that’s great. Let’s throw it up on a couple of groups on Facebook that are kind of protest-centric.” You know, people sharing information and whatnot. We threw it up there and it started to spiral. I sent it to a local independent journalist by the name of Tuck Woodstock. They were super supportive and retweeted it for me. It just kind of took off from there. It’s been a whirlwind ever since.

I wrote a statement for Chef Bloc that goes like this. “Chef Bloc is a grassroots organization of restaurant workers who are committed to change. We support Black Lives Matter and the effort to defund the Portland Police Bureau. We are marching not only to throw our support behind Black Lives Matter, but also to highlight specific issues within our industry, such as exploitative business practices, misogyny in the kitchen, racism in the kitchen, and a fight for a more equitable workplace. We are here to make four demands. One, that the federal occupation of Portland ends immediately. Two, defund the Portland Police Bureau and reinvest the funds into communities of color and community services. Three, an immediate rent and mortgage freeze and forgiveness until the end of the global pandemic for both residential and commercial properties. Four, amnesty for all arrested protesters.”

I talked with a local restaurant group, Lardo and Grassa, and they have expressed support. They said that they will be there on Friday with food to donate and that they will march with us. I’m in contact with pretty much every chef that I ever worked for. If they’re not comfortable with coming, they are at least helping to spread the message. It’s been overwhelmingly positive.

But I’m not going to lie, man. I’m nervous as fuck.

Editor’s Note: After this interview was published, Kapski was cited on social media for his own contributions to toxic restaurant kitchen environments, which he admitted to. Mirroring other organizations involved in the Portland protests, he has asked for interested POC to consider taking over leadership of Chef Bloc.