Restaurants may be one of the last workplaces in North America to actively give a shit about employee harassment.
The news last June suggested that. A cook in the pastry department at Weslodge restaurant in Toronto, Kate Burnham, filed charges against three male coworkers—two sous chefs and the chef de cuisine—seeking damages and formal apologies. Burnham said that, over a year and a half, the men called her an “angry dyke,” asked if she shaved her pubes. They touched her breasts; one guy allegedly showed her a picture of his dick; another fake-raped her from the rear, through clothing, planting his hand on her crotch from behind and below. This is only a sample of Burnham’s allegations.
A lot of people who’ve worked in restaurants (I’m one of them) have witnessed criminal abuse like this and shrugged it off, uncomfortably, as shitty but unavoidable, the way things play out in some kitchens. If you wanted to keep your job, you kept quiet; if you couldn’t stand it you got out of the industry. Everybody knew how it worked. We were complicit.
The Burnham case was about assault and a hostile work environment. For some, it kicked a hole through the drywall of restaurant tradition to reveal the sexism and homophobia, the disrespect and brutality that happen there. Jen Agg, a Toronto restaurateur, saw all of those things and got pissed. Fucking enraged. Really, really angry.
“A lot of people who’ve worked in restaurants (I’m one of them) have witnessed criminal abuse like this and shrugged it off, uncomfortably, as shitty but unavoidable…Everybody knew how it worked. We were complicit.”
To turn that rage into something useful—a kind of public catharsis—Agg organized a one-night conference, called Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time. The event was last week, on a muggy Thursday evening in Toronto. It played out in front of more than 300 people at Revival, a brick-walled, warehouse-like restaurant strung across with white paper lanterns.
I was a panelist, along with four other writers and editors: Helen Rosner of Eater, Peter Meehan of Lucky Peach, and Denise Balkissoon of The Globe and Mail. We followed a chef’s panel with Jessica Koslow of Sqirl in L.A., Hugh Acheson, Rosy Rong of St. John in London, Sophia Banks from Montreal, Suzanne Barr of Toronto’s Saturday Dinette, and Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy in New York City.
Did we shatter restaurant patriarchy last Thursday? Both Acheson and Cohen talked about things getting better—how shittiness is being chipped away at, gradually, like the forces of wear and a hot water–sanitizing machine on a rack of plates.
The tenor of restaurant work is different than it was 10 years ago, Acheson said, things are better. “Chefs are becoming more empathetic and more understanding,” he said. “Those who are not, who are harassing people and exploiting people, will not survive in business anymore.”
Koslow talked about an evolution in openness and communication that are—slowly, but perhaps inevitably—making restaurants better places. Even, she said, the evolution to open kitchens (like, physically open) is creating a kind of civility that tended to foster what she called abuse and aggression. “Open kitchens require you to communicate and talk to one another.”
Of course, being like Suzanne Barr—a black woman anchoring the open kitchen in her own restaurant—makes nothing easy. “For so long black women were invisible in kitchens,” she said. Being visible can challenge white diners (some assume she can’t be the owner). Race adds complexity, even among feminists (see: intersectional feminism). There are so many fucked-up things to smash—and for cooks and servers working now, little comfort in knowing about some long, historical march to unshittiness.
Banks, a trans woman who began cooking as a man, had the most heartbreaking moment of the night. She talked about being caught up, as a man, in an abusive kitchen environment—“dude-bro culture,” she called it—that harassed females as a matter of course. Later, as a woman, she became the victim of it. Except then, it was way worse.
“I was furious when I first read the piece: How dare Redzepi—the embodiment, for some of us, of dude-bro culture at the highest level of fine dining—define the terms of change! What about the victims, the Kate Burnhams and Sophia Banks, whom few people will ever hear?”
“On a job interview,” Banks said, “a restaurant owner asked me point-blank if I had a dick or a vagina, because he said he needed to know how to classify me.” When Banks did land a job, she got kicked out of the women’s changing room, trying to put on her chef’s whites. She walked off the job before she’d even started. The only kitchen work Banks could get was washing dishes, and even that didn’t last. Her most recent gig in Toronto was barbacking at a queer club. This week she moved to Montreal. She hopes it’ll be more chill.
Restaurants have a dirty history of driving people out, and blaming the victims for being such difficult little bitches.
Nothing so painfully resonant drifted from the stage during the writers’ panel I was on. Only, most poignantly for me, a talk about René Redzepi and the path to change. In August, Lucky Peach published a sort of op-ed by Redzepi—chef of Noma in Copenhagen, and perhaps the most influential cook in the world—called “Fantasies of a Happier Kitchen.” He cops to being a dick in the kitchen, screaming at cooks, bullying and humiliating as an inherited management tactic in kitchens, shoving, shaming. We have to change, Redzepi says, if only to stop brutalizing new generations of cooks who burn out after a decade and leave the industry.
Important conversations on the state of, and the rampant abuse that takes place in, the kitchen hierarchy. Current take aways: Yelling happens. But don’t be an asshole. Things get said. Address them (don’t need to scold) when it’s not okay. Know your rights. I am called a normal. My additional thought: maybe a course in chef school curriculums on rights and shitty kitchens to avoid in your city. Jen Agg (@theblackhoof) exclaimed “We don’t really know what we’re doing!” – but you are doing! When not many do. I may not agree with how/all that’s being said, but it’s important that things are being said, and more importantly, being discussed. Thank you, Jen, for making this happen. #kitchenbitches #cheflife #sexualabuse #kitchens #abuse #event #toronto #torontoevent #revivalbar
I was furious when I first read the piece: How dare Redzepi—the embodiment, for some of us, of dude-bro culture at the highest level of fine dining—define the terms of change! What about the victims, the Kate Burnhams and Sophia Banks, whom few people will ever hear? Shouldn’t they be setting the parameters of this discussion, listing specific abuses like a formal reading of charges in the courtroom?
I brought it up on stage at Kitchen Bitches. Eater’s Helen Rosner, who’d denounced the Redzepi piece on Twitter as I had, talked about its patronizing and sexist language—how the chef had a twinge of conscience after humiliating a “girl” who was cooking at Noma one night and fucked up—explained this to Peter Meehan, the piece’s editor. Meehan was mostly quiet, said he’d come to listen more than talk.
“As Jen Agg symbolically smashed a couple of thick restaurant-supply plates on stage to formally smash the patriarchy and end the conference, I thought, This isn’t over: Somebody’s gonna have to clean that up.”
Talking a few days after the event, Acheson said he’d felt a little awkward on stage, as if his role, as the sole man, had been to answer for the patriarchy. “I didn’t create the patriarchy,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s constructive to talk that way. It can be a really beautiful industry, it’s an industry going through a lot of change, issues overall with the LGBT community, equality issues in general—we’re making progress. Beginning a conversation about this stuff—this is a major issue in our industry and we’re not going to completely fix the problem overnight.”
On stage, whatever anger I’d had about the Redzepi piece long since faded, and I thought about the long arc of change Hugh Acheson had talked about, the kitchen evolution Amanda Cohen’s seen, the future Jessica Koslow’s hopeful about. Maybe smashing the patriarchy is less a dramatic gesture and more a messy conversation, one of anger and agreement, a pointing out of bullshit and an acknowledgment of the horribly shitty things one’s done, or done nothing to stop, even years after they happened.
As Jen Agg symbolically smashed a couple of thick restaurant-supply plates on stage to formally smash the patriarchy and end the conference, I thought, This isn’t over: Somebody’s gonna have to clean that up. Kitchen Bitches was only the start of a long—and long overdue—reckoning. Will it end in reconciliation?
Agg hopes to bring a version of the Kitchen Bitches conference to Los Angeles in the near future.