Statements: Addressing the misogyny and “machismo” of the restaurant industry

Addressing the misogyny and

As the number of powerful men under fire for sexual misconduct, harassment, rape, continues to grow, it was only a matter of time before the issue was addressed within the restaurant industry. And while there haven’t been any Weinstein-caliber bombs dropped on prominent chefs, Food Network star John Besh perhaps being the most well-known, the general patriarchal culture of restaurant kitchens has certainly not gone unnoticed.

How do we go about about addressing yet another age-old culture, where it has long been considered “normal” for men to use sexist language, talk about their genitals, physically harass, and generally generate more money and fame all the while?

An industry-apt response?

Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy recently shared her thoughts in Esquire about being a woman in the food industry, condemning the rise of “female chefs” becoming prominent only in conjunction with “sexual harassment allegations” as not only hypocritical, but also disrespectful to the women who have worked so hard to become known for their craft, only to become known as victims instead.

Saying, ultimately, that the struggles of women in the kitchen have been going on for far too long to be addressed as such; addressed simply for headlines’ sake, once again taking away the agency of women who have toiled away for years in these conditions without attention.

We’ve had run-ins with kitchen inequality in Minnesota as well, most notably in 2015 when exactly zero female chefs made the cover of Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine’s grand “Best Chefs” edition: Fifteen chefs were featured as culinary royalty, and fifteen of them were men. Editor Stephanie March responded to subsequent outrage by describing it as representative of our food scene, and said, “…people have suggested that we should have included women in the picture just to be more fair. Quite honestly, isn’t the “token” metric just as offensive as a blind eye?”

Meaning that the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in media representation, but rather in the inherent imbalance behind the line; that it is something festering within the industry that doesn’t only rear its ugly head while the cameras are on.

For a different story about kickass women in the kitchen, read this: Behind the line with Heartland’s dynamic chef duo

On a national level, it was Tom Colicchio of Top Chef-fame that first put pen to paper to admonish the persistent “machismo” of chef culture. In “An Open Letter to (Male) Chefs” published by Medium on 11/8, he discusses the “bad eggs,” like the now-disgraced John Besh, but also the “larger culture that hatched all these crummy eggs.” 

He writes,

“Let’s start with this: Assessing a woman as a body, rather than as a person with a mind, character, and talent, denies the full measure of her humanity. It’s wrong and it demeans us all.

Real men don’t need to be told this.

They shouldn’t need to be told that the high stakes of elite kitchens don’t justify the ugly machismo that runs through so many of them…”

“Enough; Because deep down men know that sexist shit-talk is just a lazy substitute for real wit.

They know that work is not sexy time.

They know that if they have to insist it was consensual, it probably wasn’t.

They know that women really don’t want to hear about their boners (and that they shouldn’t say boner because they’re not fifteen.)”

Read Colicchio’s full article here: An Open Letter to (Male) Chefs

A restaurant point of view

While the idea that we need to address the kitchen’s culture of misogyny is, of course, pertinent, relevant, and long overdue, it’s becoming clear that there is more than one way to peel a potato, and actions will always speak louder than words.

This is exemplified further by Saveur magazine’s Associate Digital Editor Katherine Whitaker, who took Louis CK’s recent admission of guilt with an appropriate grain of salt, and used it as a springboard to remind of the larger problem as a whole while offering examples of the good that is already being done around the world, usually without (inter)national headlines.

The following is her statement in full, published 11/11/17:

“It’s a Friday at the Saveur office, and before I sat down to write this newsletter, I read the statement that Louis CK put out responding to the New York Times’ report on something that has been referred to repeatedly as “sexual misconduct,” a term that seems to absolve him of responsibility. If you ask Merriam-Webster, as I just did, “misconduct” has several definitions with varying degrees of severity, but at its most basic, it’s called “improper behavior.” When I was a teacher, I used to hear the word “misconduct” all the time—from other teachers who were too tired to go through the many steps it would take to discipline an unruly student, from parents looking for a convenient excuse for their child’s behavior.

And this word is convenient in CK’s case. He’s a comedian, one who used to be pretty popular. I used to like him. I have seen him at Madison Square Garden and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and both of those times I was ridiculously excited to see him.

But then I read his statement. He talks about power and how he wielded it “irresponsibly.” That line gives me a drowning feeling. Everything is a power negotiation, and apparently some people are so blinded by the authority they’re awarded that they don’t even realize when they’re crossing over from “misconduct” to something that is totally unforgivable. And now, as accusations of “misconduct” against people with power continue to stack up in a nauseating barrage of news posts, it’s hard to avoid thinking about what power is and what it should be.

Here are a few reminders.

There’s chef and restaurateur Vicenta Guzman Gutierrez in Oaxaca, who is providing a safe space and good food to locals suffering from September’s devastating earthquake. Then there’s SunCulture, a startup company making solar-powered rainmaker machines in Kenya and totally changing the way farmers harvest their crops. Women in the food world are doing ridiculous amounts of great things for us all, including humanitarian work and vital preservation of traditions. In Kerala, there’s an entire ladies-only celebration of Attukal Amma, “a ferocious incarnation of Devi, a supreme goddess with many names and forms” (and, may I point out, this story was written and shot by two ladies that I certainly admire for their storytelling prowess). And there are so many other examples of both men and women who use the power they have in admirable and positively impactful ways.

I don’t know how to prevent people who can’t help “misconduct”-ing all over everyone. They’re an ever-present bad energy. But it’s important to also remember there are people who are doing good, and they deserve our support and attention, especially now.” 

— Katherine Whittaker, associate digital editor

Yes. The progress made (and being made), and the hard work of so many gone unnoticed while this (negative) issue is being addressed deserves as much attention as the stomach-turning acts dominating our headlines.

As Amanda Cohen said, this should not, and will not, be a story solely about “victims.”

Power in the kitchen doesn’t look different than it does anywhere else; i.e. Harvey Weinstein’s gross misuse of position to prey on women is no different than a prominent (or obscure, for that matter) head chef treating his line cooks the same way. But it should extend further than that. It is everyone working together, sweating behind the line or sitting in an office, in the front of the house or the back, that will ensure that this culture is something solely of yesteryear and remains that way. It can no longer be thought of as “normal.” It can no longer be dismissed or accepted, as one Minnesota chef described it with an endearing wink and smile, as “old school.”

That the archaic culture of male dominance could continue to run rampant in one industry simply because “...that’s the way it always has been…” means that it can continue to run rampant in any and all industries across the country.

And that it should now shadow the talent, passion, devotion, and skill of so many women only adds insult to injury. There’s too much good in the world for this to be the status quo. As Tom Colicchio says, “Enough.”

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