Allegations Against Celebrity Chefs Reveal Abuse In The Restaurant Industry

Dec 14, 2017
Originally published on December 15, 2017 11:29 am

Allegations of sexual misconduct by high-profile chefs and restaurateurs, such as The Chew's Mario Batali, are revealing the wild and sometimes illegal behaviors that thrive in the pressure-cooker environments of some top American restaurants.

Earlier this week, Batali announced that he is stepping away from his restaurant empire and taking leave from his cooking show after reports of sexual harassment over a 20-year period. Ken Friedman, founder of the Spotted Pig in New York, and John Besh, owner of the Besh Restaurant Group in New Orleans, are facing similar accusations.

But many people in the industry say its problems go far beyond high-flying personalities and celebrity chefs.

Chef Amy Brandwein, owner of Centrolina in Washington, D.C., which is noted for its majority-female management team, says the high-stress, physically demanding job of working on a kitchen staff fosters an environment that is "like being on a football team."

"A lot of these things are power issues, they're not sex issues," she tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "It's about reinforcing the male stereotype, reinforcing a man's role in the kitchen."

More than a third of all claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from restaurant workers. A 2014 survey by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit organization that helps restaurant workers achieve financial independence, found 66 percent of women experienced sexual harassment from management and nearly 80 percent said they faced sexual misconduct from co-workers.

As Brandwein notes, the range of misbehavior in kitchens goes beyond sexual harassment. This creates the kind of cutthroat environment that is celebrated on Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen.

Brandwein says chefs, especially those who are famous, face intense pressure and can work almost 80 hours per week, which contributes to misbehavior.

"You're under the microscope every day, and you're only as good as your last meal," she says. "And people don't forgive any kind of mistake."

Though women now outnumber men in the restaurant industry, they make up 66 percent of all tipped restaurant workers, which means they are in lower positions of power, according to the restaurant workers group.

While Brandwein says she has never experienced sexual harassment at work, she is no stranger to the sexist environment in kitchens. When she landed her first job in 2000 at Galileo, which was then among the most popular Italian restaurants in Washington, she was the only woman on the kitchen staff.

"I had people on the line, my fellow co-workers, just relentlessly haze me," Brandwein told The Washington Post in 2015. "One person said, 'Why don't you go home and be a seamstress?' "

Brandwein says she often had to downplay her femininity and hide parts of her personality to not "encourage those types of behaviors" from her co-workers.

Restaurant critic Brett Anderson of The Times-Picayune, who broke the allegations against Besh, said most of the people he spoke with told him that a person has to have "a thick skin" to work in the restaurant industry.

"They were saying that working in restaurants, they expected some butt-slapping, they expected to be harassed to a certain degree," Anderson told NPR's Kelly McEvers in October. "I found that sort of striking, because they were in a sense admitting to me that they were going to work every day, assuming they were most likely going to be degraded."

One Off Hospitality Group vowed to change the culture in its restaurants in October, when it fired Cosmos Goss, the executive chef at the award-winning Publican restaurant in Chicago. He had failed to take action when an "inappropriate" photo of a female employee was shared among staff.

"The old mantra is that it's 'just kitchen culture,' and that 'it's just the way things are,' " One Off Hospitality said in a statement. "It is actively counterproductive to perpetuate that."

While the #MeToo movement has brought attention to sexual harassment in kitchens, Brandwein says it would be a "gross understatement" to say women are the only group that faces discrimination in the industry. She says she has tried to create an environment where "people feel comfortable about who they are."

"No matter the sex, nobody wants to be degraded, nobody wants to be told that they're a piece of crap or thrown out the kitchen or those kinds of things," she says. "It just happens to be that those are the cultures in most restaurants."

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