Scandals Keep Breaking, but Restaurateurs Have Yet to Own Up

Posted January 2, 2018 4:13 p.m. EST

Another week, another chef down. This time it was Charlie Hallowell, who just before the end of the year took leave from daily operations of the three restaurants he owns in Oakland, California. Seventeen employees told Tara Duggan of The San Francisco Chronicle that Hallowell’s sexual harassment and verbal abuse were so routine that they stopped seeming remarkable.

Hallowell said he was “deeply ashamed and so very sorry” in an email to the Chronicle. “We have come to a reckoning point in the history of male bosses behaving badly, and I believe in this reckoning and I stand behind it.”

The reckoning Hallowell invoked has played out in several U.S. business sectors, as significant numbers of women who have experienced sexual harassment at work for years have begun to talk about it in public. It reached the food world in October, with a newspaper investigation into New Orleans chef John Besh.

But if the restaurant industry is having a reckoning, it is an excruciatingly slow one. So far there seems to be only one way to depose a serial harasser who runs a restaurant: a long investigation by reporters who have the time to gather a convincing number of corroborated accounts. Each of these articles takes weeks or months. To justify that commitment, publications generally choose well-known targets.

In other words, checking out all 620,000 or so restaurants in the United States is going to take a while if we leave it up to journalists.

But who else can clean up the industry? Probably not customers, who have no equivalent to the #deleteuber movement a year ago, no quick and potent way to vote with their money. Just before Christmas, there was still a two-hour wait for a table at the Spotted Pig, where many employees told The New York Times that part of the job was fending off Ken Friedman, one of the owners.

Prominent restaurant figures, for their part, don’t seem willing to admit that the way the industry treats women has damaged careers and lives.

The allegations about Mario Batali and other restaurateurs have inspired women who’ve worked in restaurants to tell their tales on social media: the come-ons, the put-downs, the intrusive questions, the out-of-the-blue grabs and pinches and pokes and thrusts, the way their careers stalled if they complained, the way the men they complained about rose higher and higher.

Some of these women moved to other lines of work, a predictable result of discrimination that is chronic and untreated. Others stayed and are calling on restaurants to finally admit just how far they are from any kind of parity in the ways men and women are hired, paid, talked to, looked at, managed and rewarded. Admit it, and fix it.

Restaurant people are famously loyal, so perhaps it is unrealistic to expect mass denunciations of Batali and Besh. What has been so infuriating, though, is how few leaders in the industry have been willing to go on record against the behavior itself — behavior that was, after all, banned by federal law several decades ago.

If you rounded up all the chefs and restaurateurs who have taken the opportunity to say, in essence, “sexual harassment at work is wrong and I won’t stand for it,” they wouldn’t fill the sushi counter at Masa. And the best-known of them is Anthony Bourdain, who hasn’t worked in a restaurant for more than a decade. For the most part, chefs are acting as if the sudden willingness of women to talk about what the industry is really like for them is just a temporary condition, that it will blow over soon enough and the party will start up again. This seemed to be the message of the pizza dough cinnamon roll incident.

In December, several women who worked for Batali accused him of making unwanted sexual advances. Batali didn’t agree with every specific account, but he generally acknowledged that he had done things that were not very different.

The fallout was swift. Batali stepped aside from managing his restaurants, pending an investigation. A few days later, ABC fired him from “The Chew.” It looked certain that if he returned to work at all, it would have to be on different terms.

Then Batali sent a mass email to his fans. It started out as another apology (“I take full responsibility”) until the postscript, which linked to a recipe for pizza dough cinnamon rolls, “a fan favorite.”

This was one of the more bizarre non sequiturs in the history of cooking. It quickly went viral and generated a fresh round of news articles, most of them mildly aghast at this glimpse into the Batali school of crisis management.

In normal times, yes, chefs have fans who want tips on sweet breakfast pastries. But this is not a normal time for fans, let alone ordinary customers. It isn’t a normal time for anyone who might be thinking about spending money that would end up in the pockets of Batali, or indeed of anybody whose restaurants might turn out to be nests of sexual harassment and assault and discrimination.

Those fans are left to wonder what the people who run restaurants are really thinking. We cook from their books, watch their TV shows, wear their aprons, buy their clogs, give their olive oil to friends — these days, we even do their marketing for them by posting pictures of their food on social media. What do they believe in?

The chef-driven end of the restaurant business has many stars but few leaders and no spokesman. The National Restaurant Association tends to look after the interests of large corporate groups. The James Beard Foundation, which works closely with many chefs, usually conducts itself in a celebratory mode, giving out awards, hosting parties and so on. Besh, Friedman and Batali have all won Beard awards in the past. Last month, the committee that oversees the restaurant and chef awards wrote to all its voters promising to take “meaningful steps forward to end a culture of silence and complicity that has allowed this behavior to proliferate.” Voters were advised: “When considering the candidacy of a person or restaurant, bear in mind that award winners are held up as role models. If you have concerns about a chef, restaurateur or beverage professional, or about the culture around a restaurant or restaurant group, leave the person or business out of your nominations.”

It’s doubtful, though, that the Beard people will be able to peer into enough kitchens to guarantee that no future awards will go to sadists and creeps and career-killers.

Restaurants are like pirate ships. Each has its own code, with distinct values and rules. Some crews are kind, supportive and disciplined, relatively speaking. Others are angry, surly, misogynistic and drunk. New crew members quickly fit in, or jump ship. Like pirate crews, restaurant staffs are cohesive societies, but they aren’t big on transparency, and it’s hard for outsiders to know what’s happening.

Fifty years ago, when nobody cared what went on in restaurant kitchens except health inspectors and tax collectors, acting like pirates was probably a useful skill. Today, though, it is outmoded.

Customers may enjoy the occasional sample of salty pirate speech, but they also care about the inner workings of kitchens. They know the names of the chef, the sous-chef, the pastry chef, the head bartender. They’ve watched TV documentaries about the creative process behind trout roe in little cups made of pig’s blood. They’ve heard many chefs talk on many occasions about certain kinds of ethical behavior, having mostly to do with livestock.

Something has gone grotesquely wrong when chefs brag that the chickens they buy lived happy, stress-free lives, but can’t promise us that the women they employ aren’t being assaulted in the storage room.

Some of the mythology of food culture died last year, I think. The chef as avatar of sensual indulgence; restaurant work as a demimonde where rules dissolve in a pleasurable after-hours haze; kitchens as combat zones where everybody talks tough in the heat of the moment and laughs it off later — these myths may have had their uses once. Now that they are not just outmoded but demonstrably false, it is time for a more reality-based view of the industry.

One place to start would be realizing that sexual harassment is not limited to a few rogue libidos dressed in white jackets. It goes on in restaurants from the fanciest to the most humble. It is so widespread that it is, in practice, a system, and one of its main effects is to keep women from rising and to push them out.

This system makes up a large part of the answers to the two least mysterious mysteries in the restaurant business: Where are all the female chefs, and why are good, experienced servers so rare? A better question for these times might be, how many chefs does it take to lead a reckoning?