Female Chefs Pursue Deal With Restaurateur Accused of Harassment
Posted June 13, 2018 7:13 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — The chef Gabrielle Hamilton says she is joining with Ken Friedman, who has been accused of sexual harassment by women who worked at his restaurants, to run the Spotted Pig, the West Village restaurant where much of the harassment is said to have taken place.
Hamilton, the chef and owner of Prune restaurant, in the East Village, said in an interview Wednesday that she was pursuing a partnership in which she and her wife, Ashley Merriman, would become chefs and co-owners of the Spotted Pig with Friedman.
“We don’t have a deal, but we’re going to make one,” Hamilton said. “We’re going to be chef-owners. We’re going to run the Pig.”
Friedman could not be reached directly, and a representative for him had no comment.
The announcement shocked many in the food business, who had not imagined that such a prominent woman chef would collaborate with Friedman; his previous business partner, the chef April Bloomfield, announced a week ago that she had ended their relationship. On social media and in interviews, people said they were caught off guard by what they saw as Hamilton’s disregard for Friedman’s behavior.
“It’s shocking and disappointing news and a lot of women are upset, myself included,” said Kerry Diamond, editor of Cherry Bombe, a food magazine focused on women.
Jen Agg, a restaurant owner and writer in Toronto who has become an outspoken voice for women in the restaurant industry, wrote in an email: “It’s bonkers, but more important, it’s callous and self-serving. I was once a great admirer of Gabrielle, in an industry where there are so few women to look up to, but sadly, after paying closer attention the last few years, I’m shocked, but not surprised by this.”
The Atlanta chef Anne Quatrano, however, called Hamilton’s proposed deal “fantastic.”
“If anybody can turn that situation it would be her,” she said. “She’s got the backbone for it.”
Quatrano brushed off critics who think Hamilton should not be doing business with Friedman. “Sometimes you have to be in bed with the devil to control him,” she said.
Hamilton said that she was proud of the work environment she has built with Merriman at Prune — last month Hamilton won the James Beard Foundation’s top award, for the nation’s Outstanding Chef — and that they are eager to bring it to the Spotted Pig.
“Everyone gets so excited when José Andrés goes into these natural disasters and helps people,” Hamilton said, referring to the Spanish-American chef who received praise for his relief efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last fall. “They ought to be happy that these two women are going into a man-made disaster to help make things right.”
Hamilton was criticized extensively on social media for comparing her business decision to a humanitarian effort.
Women who worked at the Spotted Pig and left because of Friedman’s behavior said they were stunned by Hamilton’s move.
“It’s shocking and unfathomable why as a female chef, as a queer woman, Gabrielle would align herself with a sexual harasser and help bail this man out,” said Natalie Saibel, one of the two dozen employees who went on the record with their stories in a December report in The New York Times. A longtime server at the Spotted Pig, she was fired in 2015 after bringing a complaint against Friedman.
After the Times report was published, Friedman said that “some incidents were not as described, but apologized for behavior that “can accurately be described at times as abrasive, rude and frankly wrong.” He said he was stepping away from daily operations at the seven restaurants he owned with Bloomfield, including the Breslin Bar & Dining Room in Manhattan, Tosca Café in San Francisco and their flagship, the Spotted Pig.
On June 6, Bloomfield announced that they had ended their 14-year collaboration. She is taking over the Hearth & Hound in Los Angeles and Tosca Café, and will remain the chef at the Breslin and the John Dory Oyster Bar, both in the Ace Hotel in Midtown.
The Spotted Pig is the locus of some of the most serious accusations of sexual harassment and assault that have rocked the restaurant world in recent months. The New York Police Department is investigating a claim that the celebrity chef Mario Batali sexually assaulted a woman in the private party room on the restaurant’s third floor.
In the Times report, more than two dozen former employees of the Spotted Pig and other restaurants owned by Friedman and Bloomfield described an unusually sexualized and coercive work environment, which included text requests for naked pictures and forced kisses from Friedman, and groping and harassment from Batali and other customers.
Bloomfield has been criticized for not doing more to stop the behavior and protect workers. In announcing her split from Friedman, she said she was turning her focus to the welfare of her staff and building a company she could be proud of. Through a representative, she declined to comment on Hamilton’s move.
Hamilton opened Prune in 1999. She married Merriman in 2016, and at Prune the couple share the duties and title of chef. They will do so at the Spotted Pig as well, Hamilton said.
Hamilton, who is a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, said the Spotted Pig, an international culinary destination that has won a Michelin star, and its nearly 100 employees needed help in the wake of the accusations against Friedman.
She said she and Merriman view themselves as “exceptionally poised to be the leading edge of the paradigm shift,” and are not becoming partners with Friedman to offer him any kind of redemption.
Hamilton said her goal was to “honor and respect April’s magnificent work, to be one of the luckier things that ever happened to Ken Friedman, to be women in business of increasing power and to get paid for our impeccable work.”
The ending of Friedman and Bloomfield’s partnership can be compared to a divorce, Hamilton said. “We can follow that metaphor for a single beat further and say we are going to be the second marriage,” she said. “As everyone knows, it is a bittersweet truth. Everyone is a better spouse their second time around.”
Other chefs pushed back on that notion. “There are certain people that will never be great spouses,” said Jessica Koslow, the chef of Sqirl in Los Angeles.