The #MeToo movement revealed allegations of abusive behavior by several high-profile chefs and restaurateurs, sparking a national conversation about sexual harassment and gender inequity in the restaurant industry. But for many women working in that industry, the revelations came as no surprise. On Monday, FERN hosted a panel in Brooklyn of top woman chefs, writers and food activists to discuss the problem, and how to work toward a more equitable and inclusive future.
The event also featured food prepared by five woman chefs from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, as well as wine from woman winemakers.
Moderator Tracie McMillan, a FERN contributor and author of The American Way of Eating, began by reminding the audience that several of the biggest #MeToo stories were from the restaurant industry: John Besh’s alleged “culture of harassment,” reported last October; claims of Mario Batali’s inappropriate touching and behavior, reported last December; the existence of a “rape room” in the upstairs of Ken Friedman’s Spotted Pig, also reported last December.
Yet Ruth Reichl, an author and former New York Times restaurant critic, noted that, despite the recent attention, the problem is longstanding. “Restaurants are and always have been extremely sexist,” she said. “This is a story that goes way back.”
Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy, a vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan, echoed Reichl’s point. “When everything started coming out, I was actually really surprised that we finally cared.” (Cohen wrote an essay in Esquire last year titled, “I’ve Worked in Food for 20 Years. Now You Finally Care About Female Chefs?”)
The panelists discussed how the conventions of restaurants create an environment ripe for harassment and discrimination. Cohen noted that the tipping system can pressure women to dress in revealing clothes and tolerate inappropriate behavior, while people of color and other marginalized groups typically receive lower tips. “I really believe that tipping is the devil in this industry,” she added. “It doesn’t make for a safe workplace. People should be compensated properly.” The federal tipped minimum wage is currently $2.13 an hour. Some states have eliminated the tipped wage; voters in Washington, D.C., eliminated the District’s tipped minimum wage in the June primary.
Reichl noted that restaurants “still expect women servers to be sort of sexual objects, and we accept that. And we’ve got to stop it.”
The speakers also noted that many restaurateurs come from a cooking background and are not necessarily adept at managing businesses. “The people who got taken down should have had HR departments, and they didn’t,” Cohen offered. Reichl quipped that “no sensible person goes into the restaurant business,” adding that many restaurant owners lack the necessary business skills to navigate complex personnel issues. Ashtin Berry, a bartender and activist, said early on that she was an awful manager “because all I’d ever had was awful managers. I had to start thinking about the ways that I was part of the problem.”
The panelists had several ideas about how to begin to address the problem, from changing the way bosses and employees communicate to establishing clearly defined rules of behavior and safe avenues for reporting problems.
They also highlighted the importance of financially supporting restaurants that support women and promote a safe working environment. “It’s about supporting with your dollars,” said panelist Alana McMillan, co-founder of JaynesBeard, a culinary-event company for lesbian and queer women.
“In the end, it’s economics,” added Reichl, noting that she is most worried about the vulnerable workers in restaurant kitchens. “The entire American food system runs on the backs of undocumented workers. Until we fix that, we’re not going to fix anything else.”