Anyone who has worked even one shift on the hot line or waiting tables can tell you that the phrases “hospitality” and “customer service” are some of the delicate ways the restaurant industry masks ingrained sexism and long-standing gender imbalances. I myself have been at bars after a long night with line cooks who jokingly make sexual innuendos or crude comments about female anatomy and have regrettably turned a blind eye despite much internal discomfort. I have had male co-workers admire new outfits or look me up and down and ask me to spin around, turning me into nothing more than an object for speculation. I have also served tables full of men, guzzling wine, who call me “sweetheart” and “darling” and “honey,” as though I have met them in any sort of meaningful way before walking up to take their orders.
In the most extreme cases — Mario Batali, the Spotted Pig — abuse within the industry is covered extensively by reporters. What gets far less attention, even now, is the pervasive way this insidious behavior affects all aspects of restaurant work. The fact is that despite the progress of the Me Too movement, as well as the increasing presence of chefs from diverse backgrounds, restaurants remain a largely uncomfortable and unequal space for anyone who is not a straight, white, cisgender man.
Instead, many workers in the restaurant industry, myself included, see a food-media complex that celebrates and champions the very people who perpetuate this behavior. In a widely circulated New Republic article by the chef Kate Telfeyan, she criticizes the food media at large for aiding powerful and toxic kitchen personalities. After relaying several recent allegations against well-known operators, Telfeyan asks, “Why didn’t food journalists already know about these abuses? Or if they did know, why hadn’t they reported on them?”
One response from food journalists was that restaurant employees simply aren’t willing to speak out and share their stories, making it difficult for journalists to bring them to light. And it’s true that many hourly employees wouldn’t dare risk divulging information to writers or reporters for fear of losing what is already in many cases a very unstable job.
But I have also been a restaurant employee on the other side of this dynamic, and I recently took a story of abuse to several high-profile food editors in New York City. Perhaps naïvely, I assumed it would be easy to place and publish the piece because it seemed impossible to me that journalists would want to ignore blatant examples of sexism and toxicity in the industry they cover. Instead, over the course of several months’ worth of emails, I have been told my story is “not timely,” “too broad,” and even that the behavior I encountered is so “endemic” that it would be impossible to cover properly.
Everyone who cares about restaurants laments that these stories don’t get told, yet here I was, trying to do just that for three different editors, only to be dismissed three different times. I am proof that these stories exist. Why is it so hard to get anyone to listen?
In my time working at one New York City restaurant, I assisted a female server in filing a formal sexual-harassment complaint. During a busy weekend night when dropping off dirty plates at the dish pit, a member of the kitchen staff had verbally accosted her in Spanish, a language she does not speak. She apologized for any misunderstanding, and in response he smiled and kissed her on the neck. It wasn’t until after we were alone in the empty dining room that she told me what had happened. She ended by saying, “It’s fine.” I told her it most certainly was not.
As we were going through the form later on, she turned to me in tears and said she hadn’t even realized the incident could be considered sexual harassment until I had encouraged her to file a complaint. Suddenly, I recognized I had also been the victim of similar behavior for months, even years. None of it could quite qualify for a written claim, but it had nevertheless made me feel uncomfortable on a level so deep that it was practically unrecognizable.
Instead, I’ve grown so accustomed to this sort of conduct within the context of the food-service industry that at first I genuinely didn’t even believe it to be a substantial enough issue to raise it with the rest of my team. Here I was standing up for her, without recognizing that I needed to stand up for myself as well. After talking with her at length about the specific incident, as well as the way in which it was handled and nearly overlooked, we both grew to understand that this was in no way an isolated situation. I began to reflect on the larger issues at hand — the ways in which restaurant culture facilitates and fosters an environment where blatant misconduct is brushed off and ingrained sexism is standard. With her full support and insight, I decided it was time to bring both of our stories to light. It was time to try to change the standard.
I began sending pitches and proposing stories that highlighted not only this incident but also the entire system and mindset it exposes. In a response from one editor, I was told that it is simply too difficult to corroborate and report on every allegation of toxic workplace culture that comes their way. While I understand the difficulty and legal ramifications in publishing specific harassment allegations, my story requires no such corroboration. It is one thing to publish stories of outward harassment and specific assault, while it is another to actually address these issues in a way that seeks to eradicate them.
As a woman working in both restaurants and food media, I have been disappointed more times than not by the ways in which major publications fail to address the exploitation and core systematic inequalities that are inherent to the industry. To turn down these stories is to remain willfully ignorant and complicit in a system that dehumanizes the people within it.
I have been guilty of remaining a passive participant, reacting to mistreatment with timid smiles and nervous laughter. I have seen inappropriate interactions that were easy to dismiss as “not sexual harassment,” and therefore easy to dismiss altogether. Anyone who works in a restaurant can say the same, even though it was never okay. I want other women, women like me, to see that they don’t need to brush anything off, no matter how small. It’s time to stop being complicit.
As more dining establishments reopen and adapt to the changing landscape forged by COVID-19, now is the time for food writers and reporters to do better. Men in all areas of the industry need to understand the fundamentally imbalanced and privileged position they are in, as well as how difficult it is for women to come forward and speak about sexism in any form without feeling vulnerable both personally and professionally. Despite increasing diversity, male-dominated restaurant spaces also remain unsafe and inaccessible to many.
There is a dangerous misconception that inequity has been resolved. While the past few years have certainly seen an increasing presence of women and Black people and LGBTQ+ folks within the industrial-kitchen space, these groups also face steeper obstacles and higher expectations in order to reach the same level as their white male counterparts.
The fact remains that there are glaring, underlying, and universal gender issues in restaurants. I am frustrated by these issues, and by the people who seem uninterested in exposing them. It is time for the people in power to use their positions to move beyond simple compassion and toward true cooperation.