For the first time in perhaps ever, male public figures feel uncomfortable, especially those in the restaurant world. In the wake of the ongoing allegations of sexual assault in the industry, they’ve received contradictory messages on the behavior we expect from them, as “leaders.” Bon Appétit pleaded for male chefs to “talk less.” Then, New York Times critic Pete Wells shamed chefs for their silence. (In turn, Wells faced backlash for overlooking the critical contributions of women who have clearly spoken up, a group that includes Jen Agg, Amanda Cohen, Lisa Donovan, Katie Button, and Allison Robicelli.) The situation raises larger questions: Who should be talking? Who should be acting? Does the public want or need highly visible and influential men to address these issues? How much does talk matter in the grand scheme of creating change? What can men say and do to propel the #MeToo movement forward?
Personally, I want the men who have the power in the plagued restaurant business (with the highest claims of sexual harassment in any industry) to not only be more responsible about how they wield that power but to also explain how they’re now going to share and distribute it. I want them to hold themselves accountable for behavior that has, even if unknowingly, strengthened the power dynamics that created this culture of abuse in the first place. I want them to listen to women’s stories and ideas, as well as be active allies, pointing to and promoting the work of women and removing their barriers to success.
With this in mind, I’ve spent the last few weeks reaching out to prominent men in the restaurant industry who have remained conspicuously silent on the topic of sexual assault. These men belong to a small, privileged group of chefs and restaurateurs who own high-profile businesses that Wells is guaranteed to review. The #MeToo movement has been called the fastest-growing social crusade in decades, but in the restaurant industry, the progress feels painfully slow. I believe there’s virtue to public declarations of where these men stand, and that there’s no systemic change without meaningful male engagement. So, I solicited opinions, nudging them to comment. Few wanted to speak on the record. More than one PR rep told me that a client was traveling, as if that alone was reason enough to ignore this conversation.
One man who did agree to speak to me is Danny Meyer. He’s led more than one social movement — becoming the industry ambassador for “hospitality,” and more recently, spearheading the crusade against tipping — but he’d (previously) chosen not to comment on the issue of pervasive sexual assault in restaurants. Why not? “I have greater responsibility as a leader than ever before,” he said. “And I feel like my primary job, right now, is to listen even more than I speak. There’s a tendency to either write something or tweet something, but I don’t know that I’m qualified to do that yet.”
Meyer’s philosophy is shared by other men I spoke with in off-the-record conversations; he didn’t want to come off as a hypocrite. “There are 2,500 people who work in our company today, and if you multiply that by 32 years, I’m pretty sure there would be things I’d learn if I did a great job of listening,” Meyer continued. “I’m not someone who believes in pounding my chest and telling anybody else what they ought to do.”
Another restaurateur told me, anonymously, “Just as there is a very real pressure on women not to come forward in these awful cases, there is now a pressure against industry leaders to come forward and discuss the topic, because if you try to take the moral high ground, you’re just putting a target on yourself.” (As for the two most vocal men in food: Anthony Bourdain rightfully owned up to enabling “bro culture”; Tom Colicchio told me he’s felt he’s received the “cold shoulder” from peers since writing an open letter to cooks.)
The problem, though, is that someone like Meyer can’t strategically position himself as a spokesperson and leader for the entire industry — writing a book on his philosophies, regularly speaking at conferences and on podcasts, engaging in politics, and even acting as an investor — and then choose to avoid directly discussing the most important issue facing the industry. Crafting a response takes time and care, but three months after the Harvey Weinstein story hit, there is an obligation to at least start talking, holding yourself accountable for actions to follow. Even if aspects of Sunday’s Golden Globes red-carpet protest felt slight, at least entertainers pushed through their discomfort and articulated their values in highly visible ways. More importantly, many have talked and acted, forming and funding the Time’s Up legal-defense fund and a commission chaired by Anita Hill. Meanwhile, this week, Eric Ripert, José Andrés, and Bourdain will gather at the Ritz-Carlton in Grand Cayman for Ripert’s annual cookout. The group of 13 “headline chefs” includes just one woman, Dominique Crenn. In December, Ripert, one of the few chefs who agreed to speak on the record, told me, “We cannot put our heads in the sand.”
Well-meaning, but pat, statements and stories from men aren’t helpful if they’re not backed by action. But what is productive to say, then? My colleague Rebecca Traister wrote in October: “The conversation we should be having, alongside the one about individual trespasses, is about mechanisms far larger than any one perpetrator. It’s about the kind of power structures that enable powerful individuals and then shield them from resistance or retribution.” The restaurant business is run like a patriarchal oligarchy, with operators like Meyer and critics such as Wells at the top. Lay Dirt Candy chef-owner Amanda Cohen’s powerful statements for Esquire over Traister’s: “Women are second-class citizens in the restaurant world. We have less access to investors and are perceived as less profitable investments because, in large part, we have smaller profiles than male chefs. We get nominated for fewer awards, our restaurants get reviewed less often, and we get less press coverage than men.” If the system is fundamentally rigged against women, it’s critical for leaders to recognize their own complicity, even if it’s inadvertent.
Meyer came close to acknowledging his own role in this system. He also said: “I’m pretty confident that this fish does not stink from the head down, but I’m also pretty confident that there are things that the head of the fish needs to know about, that maybe the head hasn’t known about.” These vague comments seemed geared more to absolving himself of blame. To be fair, we only had 15 minutes, but I’m left wondering: What are specific examples of what he’s learned while listening? After running restaurants for 32 years, why isn’t he more qualified to speak to this? If he doesn’t feel confident being a leader right now, can he hold up and point to specific women who are? (This is the same action that would’ve elevated Wells’s response — though I also would’ve liked to see Wells acknowledge his own power to anoint “leaders.”)
What makes this issue so precarious and uncomfortable for the industry’s supposed leaders is that it speaks to fundamental inequities in the food world, and inevitably highlights the fact that restaurants are egregiously degrading and hostile work environments by anyone’s standards. The #MeToo movement calls into question how we’ll define abuse and harassment in an industry with appalling norms. Chefs appear fearful to speak because even if they haven’t assaulted anyone, the means through which they’ve expressed their power could now get called into question. One restaurant owner defended screaming at cooks, saying it’s necessary to make them better at their jobs. If that’s no longer permissible, he said, his food will suffer. Another admitted, “I’ve certainly gotten drunk, flirted, all the usual stupid behavior.” A third questioned his tendency to make raunchy jokes, which one woman later told me were far from funny.
I asked Meyer if it’s hard to draw the line on what behavior he does not tolerate in his company. “No, it’s not hard,” he said, confidently. He implied that he even includes yelling, the hallmark of normalized restaurant aggression, in this category. “I’ve never ever had any patience for that, whatsoever,” he said. “If one of our chefs were ever to yell at someone on our team, whether it’s yelling at another cook — a male cook or a woman cook — or a server, that just absolutely wouldn’t work. The whole question of sexual misconduct on top of that is so far worse that I just …” Meyer trailed off. That’s the thing; talking about this can be baffling, but difficult conversations are needed to lead to structural change.
This change can and should take different shapes and forms. More restaurateurs can implement parental-leave policies. More backers can partner with women and invest in their projects. Male chefs can close their businesses for a day to draw awareness (and dollars) to the female-run ones nearby. Men can refuse to participate in food events and competitions, like many sponsored by S. Pellegrino, that lack diversity. Operators can form a commission and create a clear code of conduct and ethics that they encourage others to commit to, similar to the Sanctuary Restaurants movement. They can pay workers a full minimum wage, or abolish tipping altogether (Meyer certainly helped here), which has a direct impact on the harassment of servers. A burger at Diner comes with a five-inch-by-five-inch, attention-catching note card that reads, “In an effort to make our industry a more sustainable home for all who work on it, we are now a gratuity-free restaurant.” As a customer, I’d also like to know which restaurants are at least striving to be abuse-free.
Meyer says specific actions that he’s taken within his own company include holding roundtable discussions and hiring an additional human-resources employee. “I’m struggling because I feel that my job of setting an example with my own behavior, for years, is a good start,” he says. “But it’s not enough.” And he’s right. It’s not.