sexual harassment

How a Culture of Aggression Blinds the Restaurant Industry to Abuse

Preeti Mistry. Photo: Megan Swann/Star Chefs

The restaurant industry has been rocked this week by the New Orleans Times-Picayune report detailing systemic sexual harassment and abuse within the company run by celebrity chef John Besh. The extent of the abuse is disturbing; it is also a reflection of abusive, misogynistic behavior that continues to go unchecked in the restaurant industry.

Preeti Mistry is the chef-owner of Juhu Beach Club and Navi Kitchen, and author of the Juhu Beach Club Cookbook. She is also a clear-eyed critic of restaurant culture who has appeared on Parts Unknown and spoken at feminist food magazine Cherry Bombes Jubilee conferences. Here, she discusses what she sees as the real reason that abuse remains so rampant in the industry.

The extent of sexual harassment in the industry is one of the reasons I shied away from fine dining after culinary school — I was not motivated by that environment. In fact, it was really scary to me. People have the mentality toward women that they can’t handle it, and at times I did feel some impostor syndrome, like, “Oh, I can’t hang.” But that’s not what it is at all. It’s a bunch of little things that add up to create an environment that supports some people and ignores others, one where some people can be their true selves and others can’t.

Different people have different experiences. When you’re a straight white guy and another straight white guy makes a sexual joke to you, you may be able to just brush it off. It’s really different when you’re a woman, especially a woman of color. Some people might see a big, tall, straight white guy screaming and compare it to their dad, or a football coach, or a big brother — it’s familiar. But as a woman of color, this is a person that doesn’t inspire comfort. I look at that guy and fear for my safety, because that’s my experience in the world.

Obviously, sexual harassment is a big part of it, but my experience was different. I’ve been lucky enough that, given where I sit on the gender spectrum, I haven’t had to deal with as much of it because most times cooks see me as “one of the guys.” I’ve been able to tell people when I think they’re being gross. There’s safety in that, and a lot of women I know in this industry don’t have that privilege. Instead, they have to deal with these dudes all day long, where you’re constantly in very close quarters, bending over and kneeling in a very physical environment. To feel unsafe in this environment is fucked up.

For me, it’s been more about intimidation, being disrespected and yelled at. It’s rampant to the point where many women reinforce this attitude. I could list off female chefs, and female chefs of color, who maybe don’t sexually harass employees but who bully, humiliate, and say horrible things to their cooks. When you are raised in a culture where this is the norm, you replicate this same behavior. It’s a negative cycle. I know women chefs who call their staff names like motherfucking cunt, and tell employees to go fuck themselves. This is the base of our culture, so I can only imagine what all those straight white bros are up to!

Most of the world’s top restaurants are run by men, from the investors down to the GMs. These are the places that people want to work, and want to put on their résumés, because it will impress owners like me. There just aren’t many places like that that are run by supportive women, or restaurateurs, regardless of gender. It comes down to big-name chefs who don’t really want to change, who want to go back into the kitchen and grab their line cooks’ nuts and joke about it. They can go on TV and say they’re sorry, but — like Rihanna says — “You’re only sorry ‘cause you got caught.” I refuse to work somewhere like that just so I can put a restaurant on my résumé.

Look at René Redzepi. He wrote an article in Lucky Peach about his fantasy of a kinder kitchen. He writes that he put a “purposeful emphasis” on not making “pornographic jokes all day.” You’ve been running the top restaurant in the world, according to the industry Establishment, and you’re just now thinking about professionalism on the level where people aren’t making jokes about other people’s body parts? It makes me sad that this is the basic standard to which our industry’s leaders are held.

When you do try to stand against it, it’s all eye rolls: Oh, don’t take yourself so seriously — it’s not a big deal. The people who come up in this culture defend it, like, “Well, I put up with it.” How many women have I talked to who say, “I worked at this place and I went home every night and cried my eyes out, but I stuck with it.” Well, good for you. Guess what? I’m not going to do that.

These experiences not only shaped where I worked but also how I run my restaurants and treat my employees. Everyone deserves to work in a safe, supportive, and motivating environment. I feel like 90 percent of my cooks would not be successful in a traditional restaurant the way they are here. (This is even truer for some of my servers, who have shared the most horror stories of all.)

Someone like John Besh might lose advertising opportunities and business partnerships, but the fact is that there will be far more women and people who speak out against this abusive culture who never even get opportunities like that. They stay quiet because they’re afraid they won’t get invited to Aspen Food & Wine; they won’t have Emeril give them the cold shoulder at a party. There’s so much fear of being blackballed in this industry; it’s stupid.

Nothing’s happened at my restaurant where someone has outright done something so egregious that I’ve fired them. You hear about these things — smoking guns — but it doesn’t usually happen that way. At the end of the day, it’s not about the smoking guns. It’s about stopping all of the microaggressions that happen constantly, and which open the door for harassment, bullying, and humiliation.

— As told to Chris Crowley.

How a Culture of Aggression Blinds the Restaurant Industry