by The New Yorker
on October 26, 2017
In September of 2015, I organized a conference in Toronto to discuss gender inequality in the restaurant world. Titled Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time, the conference was the first of its kind, and it came in the wake of several instances of women in the Toronto restaurant industry speaking out about the discrimination and harassment they’d faced.
In March of that year, Ivy Knight, a Toronto writer and former cook, published a piece on Vice’s Munchies site called “What It’s Like to Be Attacked by Your Sous Chef,” in which she recounted a long list of horrifying stories from her time working in kitchens, including being slammed against a counter and choked after a bad service. A few months later, a cook named Kate Burnham came forward with hideous allegations about her experience as an employee at the Toronto restaurant Weslodge. In her complaint, she alleged, among other things, that three male colleagues at the restaurant had grabbed her breasts, slapped her ass with a spatula hard enough to leave bruises, and that a popular brunch activity for some of the cooks was to spray her face and hair with aerated hollandaise, an act whose inspiration is self-evident. (Burnham later reached a settlement with Weslodge.)
Around the same time, René Redzepi, the world-famous chef of Noma, published a confessional essay for Lucky Peach, describing his own history of aggressive, bullying behavior in the kitchen. He detailed screaming at a female cook, identified as “a girl from Colombia,” and wrote that he only gave his behavior in that incident proper thought after his (male) sous chef told him that he’d “stepped over the line.” “How do we unmake the cultures of machismo and misogyny in our kitchens?” he asked. “Can we be better?”
In all of these ways, it seemed like the restaurant industry might be approaching a watershed moment. Yet, as much as it pains me to admit it, little has changed since that time. Weslodge remains open. Kate Burnham and Ivy Knight have both left the industry, and all the anecdotal evidence I collect talking to cooks suggests that it’s business as usual in high-end kitchens. The world of restaurants is a rusty old cargo ship—hot, loud, slow to change course—which is a strong irony, considering how trend-based food culture is. The tendency, when these kinds of horrifying stories come out, is to “bad apple” the men responsible, so that we don’t have to do the work necessary to fully confront the kitchen’s overheated masculinity.
Now, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, many male-dominated sectors are doing some form of a gut check, and again there is a sense that the restaurant industry might finally be forced to a proper reckoning. Last weekend, a report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune revealed that twenty-five women have accused the restaurant group led by John Besh, one of the most well-known and successful chefs in New Orleans, of fostering an environment of “vulgar and offensive comments, aggressive un-welcomed touching and (condoned) sexual advances,” including by Besh himself. (In a statement, Besh said that he had a “consensual” relationship with a member of his team.) Until this October, the company, which employs more than a thousand people, had no director of human resources, and multiple women said that their complaints were ignored when they attempted to report them. Besh’s former business partner, the chef Alon Shaya, has come forward to say that he was fired from the company after complaining about the lack of H.R. support, but, as the Times-Picayune also reports, “current and former staff” of the Besh restaurants Shaya ran “say his restaurants were not the safe havens from sexual harassment that he described.” On Monday, meanwhile, Besh stepped down from his company. His departure is, as far as I know, the first time that such a high-profile chef has been brought down by the culture of sexism in his kitchens. Anthony Bourdain, tweeting a link to the Times-Picayune investigation, wrote, “The beginning of the end of institutionalized Meathead Culture in the restaurant business.”
I remain skeptical. The “bro” culture in kitchens is so deeply entrenched that it has become second nature for many of the people who work there. Cooks are “just boys,” “blowing off steam” in an impossibly high-pressure, physically demanding environment. The sheer brutality of the work, the heat, the knives, the unrelenting hours, the drugs and drinking, and the never-enough pay are tropes that have been washed, dried, and hung out many times over—perhaps most influentially in Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential.” As I’ve written before, that book, published almost two decades ago, contributed to the allure of the kitchen as a rough-and-tumble subculture, and of chefs as a bunch of foul-mouthed macho renegades. Bourdain, in an interview with Slate on Tuesday, said, “I’ve had to ask myself, and I have been for some time, ‘To what extent in that book did I provide validation to meatheads?’ ” But readers may also, to some extent, have missed the point of his story, as Bourdain himself touched upon in an interview last year. “If you read the book carefully to start with, drugs didn’t work out too well for me,” he said. People only see what they want to see.
The tone in kitchens and in nearly every aspect of the restaurant industry, from chefs and bartenders to sommeliers and management (excluding servers, where there is more parity), is antithetical to women’s success. All these professions, to some extent, revolve around a culture of being “badass,” and the standard to achieving that illusory stature is simply higher for women. Mario Batali allegedly recognized April Bloomfield as a talent because her arms were littered in burns—just one example of how much the industry values physical proof of devotion, and possibly why cooks love covering themselves in tattoos. The chef and restaurateur Ivan Orkin once said, “At Lutèce, if you broke your leg, you leaned against a wall and finished your shift.” For women, this fear of being perceived as weak—and thus, inevitably, of being branded a “pussy”—runs especially deep. When kitchen bros use words like “pussy,” or engage in vulgar banter or make rape jokes, their female colleagues can either be “cool girls” and laugh along, or act offended and be ostracized. Not being able to “hang” is as egregious a sin as not being able to lift a side of lamb or a stockpot big enough to hold one. It’s no surprise that, despite the fact that cooking schools are seeing more and more women graduating, professional kitchens remain dominated by men, and an alarmingly low number of women end up becoming executive chefs or chefs de cuisine.
It’s not only the overwhelmingly male culture of kitchens that makes it difficult for women to combat the status quo. Many of us, like women in Hollywood, have had to be a little bit complicit in order to have a career. As a restaurateur, I find myself frequently torn about how to navigate my relationships with famous food-world men, weighing what I know a man can bring to my brand (ugh) against my desire to ask him why he isn’t doing more to help women succeed and why he won’t speak out against sexism. Do I really want to call out the restaurant critic who wrote a column that reads like a liberal version of Mike Pence’s don’t-dine-alone-with-women-and-sexual-assault-won’t-happen philosophy, even though the critic has more than two hundred thousand followers? Do I really want to antagonize the high-powered magazine editor who inanely referred to Chinese food as “slutty,” even though I have a book I’m trying to sell? In both of those cases, the answer was yes, but I’m more outspoken on this topic than most. For women who don’t have the same platform that I do, there’s just no reward in rocking the boat. For the small percentage of women who do manage to break through, there’s just too much to lose.
It’s worth noting that, as I’ve watched the Besh story unfold, I’ve seen many food journalists and non-restaurant people speaking out publicly about it, but few food-world leaders. “Hi chefs & restaurateurs not saying anything about sexual harassment, we can see that we’re not seeing you,” Helen Rosner, a food writer and editor (and contributor to this site), tweeted on Monday. I have no doubt that many male leaders in the restaurant industry are looking back on their careers, in the wake of the Besh and Weinstein scandals, and questioning whether systemic abuses have been happening in their kitchens, right under their noses. They’re wondering how often they themselves have crossed the line, or where that line even is. “What have I done? Will anyone find out?” So they keep quiet. But, unless men in the restaurant industry, and in all industries, join the ranks, systemic change will never happen. As Jia Tolentino wrote in this week’s magazine, “A genuine challenge to the hierarchy of power will have to come from those who have it.”
Earlier this year, in a passionate Instagram post, Dominique Crenn, the French chef behind the Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn, spoke out against San Pellegrino, the sponsors of the famously male-dominated World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, for including only a handful of women among roughly a hundred judges for the Young Chef 2018 competition. (Full disclosure, I was one of them.) Crenn’s comments felt, in part, like an indirect response to how she was treated in last year’s rankings, when she was named Best Female Chef—which might seem like an honor until you realize it’s not the actual list. (So does that make her the fifty-first best?) “Your leadership skills are disappointing,” Crenn wrote in her message. “Please evolve and do the right thing.” The same could be asked of the industry as a whole. The long-term goal should be to get more women into positions of leadership, whether judging restaurants or running them. Those are the kinds of changes that will force a true evolution in kitchen culture, just as they will in other fields where women are underrepresented at the top. But, in the meantime, we have to keep rooting out the existing problems, one at a time, so that more women actually want to be a part of the restaurant industry in the first place.