A girl in the kitchen

A recent rash of articles has been written about sexual harassment in professional kitchens. Just google it, you’ll find them.

I’ve cycled through a complete spectrum of emotions recently after reading them, in particular because many of the articles involve the restaurant group I work for, and more specifically, the restaurant I work for. I won’t recap the details for you here, I have nothing to say publically about that.

But after 15 years of being quiet about what I’ve seen and experienced, it seems like the wrong choice to let this pass with complete silence.

As a culinary school student, I somehow ended up in a class of one. Just me and Peter Levine, the instructor, who happened to be a chef in the community at some fast paced, upscale casual joints. My classes ended up being me learning for the evening in his kitchen, butchering whole fish, chickens, and learning on the job. It was fantastic.

For one of our classes, Peter took me to the Elliot Bay Book store to see a visiting author speak. he made me wear my chefs whites, telling me “You see this Dana?” pointing to his own white coat, “He’ll see this and know it’s respect. Respect!” After Anthony Bourdain read from his book, I shook his hand, and had him sign the book Peter had bought me. It’s still on my shelf.

I tore through that book as if it were the how-to for kitchen survival. No, not survival, for thriving in a kitchen. When I got to the chapter about women in the kitchen, I took note. Thick skinned, sarcastic, funny, and one step ahead of everyone. That would be me. I vividly remember a description of a female employee who came to work to find her locker plastered with pictures of porn. She didn’t react, she simply replied something like “nice to see the family photos, mom’s looking great these days.”

I decided then and there, this is who I would be. A girl who could take what the guys gave out and shut them down with a single response.

The first time I saw a chef press a sausage to the crotchal region of his apron and pretend to pleasure it, I ducked back around the corner and hid. The next time, I was prepared with “Well I guess I know why I don’t like the way cotechino tastes now.” It brought the room down with laughter. I kept a straight face, but inside was very proud of myself. I had mastered the art of being a girl in the kitchen.

I continued numbing myself for the impact of these raunchy moments. I responded to a group conversation about the frequency of masturbation with concern that if we spend 14 hours at the restaurant at the frequency they brag about, that can only mean somethings happening onsite. When they laughed I thought, “nailed it!” I laughed at all the lude drawings, the pictures people showed me on their phones, the ones they texted me directly, the racist, sexist, mysoginistic, homophobic, and all together inappropriate jokes. I started to carry them with me, repeating things I’d heard, inventing jokes of my own in that ilk. I told tales of the staff that played the game “I’m not gay but my cyborg hand is” while they used their tongs to pinch each others ding dongs. Not to describe an unhealthy work environment, because I thought it was funny. To line cooks, we believed nothing was sacred, we considered ourselves stand up comedians.

I was a cook then, and I wanted nothing more desperately than to just be one of the guys, to fit in. And I did.

I didn’t come here today to talk about what other people have done during my time in the restaurant industry. I came to talk about what I’ve done myself. Because after 17 years in this industry, I could be seen as a female victim of a male environment that allowed unwanted touching, a victim of verbal abuse, a witness to physical abuse, and well, the victim of some bullying, but mixed in with all that, I participated.

I told jokes about my co-workers that would have hurt them had they heard.

I participated in a culture that promoted sexualized, sexist, racist, misogynistic, and homophobic humor.

I laughed at jokes that diminished my own gender.

I witnessed inappropriate photos and didn’t speak up.

I shared inappropriate photos.

I used raunchy debasing words under the guise of humor.

I witnessed inappropriate touching and didn’t speak up.

I passed around gossip about people I worked with.

I had knowledge of people experiencing bullying and didn’t speak up.

To say, “yeah but that’s the culture” isn’t good enough anymore. To say I did it to fit isn’t good enough anymore. To say I read it in a book, again, not good enough anymore. I was just doing what everyone else did, not good enough. I was afraid of repercussions if I said anything, not good enough. I was protecting myself and my job by blending in. All of these excuses would only excuse me from a consequence for my actions. And as far as I can see, no one is punishing me. Which simply leaves me with my actions.

Plain and simple, I was a cook who participated. And because I participated, the culture continued. And because the culture continued, people continued to get hurt. And for that, I am deeply regretful.

When I started to really manage other people, I was working for Sherry Yard at Spago. My early days were spent watching HR videos about sexual harassment. Lightbulbs started to turn on in that part of my brain. I watched a video on how the boss dating a subordinate eroded the entire teams trust and productivity, and it clicked. When I took my next position at One Off Hospitality, I attended mandatory HR trainings quarterly. It all started to sink in. I wasn’t a cook anymore, I was the one responsible for setting the tone around me, not joining in. I was the one responsible for protecting my team, from who? From ourselves. And I did just that, for my small little team, within the walls of my small little pastry department. But what of the restaurant surrounding me? The culture surrounding the restaurant?

At one point long, long ago, my assistant was being bullied by a savory sous chef. I went to the chef de cuisine, and we talked. He said “what do you want me to do, it’s happening on my days off. I don’t see any of it.” I took it as a brush off. A reminder that we just have to suck it up and get through like always. We must abide. I returned to my assistant and watched her cry as I told her we were powerless over this person and to just avoid him as much as possible. It’s one of my greatest regrets that I didn’t fight for her, that I rolled over and told her I couldn’t do anything for her. It was one thing to tolerate that kind of treatment, it was another to allow it to happen to someone who’s professional wellbeing I felt responsible for. In hindsight, I think the chef was truly asking, “what should I do, I don’t know how to deal with this.” And honestly, who of us did? Who do you go to when the HR department is also the chef, the owner, the handyman, and the guy drinking at the bar halfway through the night with one of the young hostesses? If it’s the woman who’s barely spoken to you in two weeks because you fucked something up? What happens when the tell-all books are telling you this is normal?

If there is no HR department, if the person in the position of power is abusing it, we have the media. And they are listening these days, because the public is listening to them. The public expects better of us, and better for us.

My first report to HR came directly after a mandatory HR training covering harassment. They pressed upon us that as managers, if we have knowledge of something and don’t report it, we are liable too. I left that meeting, and sat for an hour as the point drove itself home in my head. It wasn’t just fear of being held liable that made me speak up. It was empowering to know that not only is it something I can do, but it’s something I have to do. It’s my responsibility to hand over my knowledge to my bosses and allow them to do their job. And honestly, the only reason I had this information was because a cook on my team spoke up for his teammates in the first place. And that was very inspiring for me. He believed we deserved better, therefore I did too. It’s contagious.

So where do we go from here. Those who are ready to change the industry, but don’t know where to start?

I believe it starts with the language we use in our kitchens. The jokes we make, the insults we sling, the nasty nicknames people carry around like trophies. We need to start treating the space we occupy with more dignity. This is too important, our craft, our hospitality, our livelihood. It deserves more than raunchy jokes and abusing the people around us.

And it can start with you, the cooks, who come into work each day and fill the kitchen with your ideals, ethics, excitement, laughter, and and most importantly, your words. You can say, “hey that’s not ok. I don’t like that.” But while our cooks are all shifting their young personalities to try to mesh together, emulating those they look up to, it really needs to starts with us, the chefs. The cooks need to hear us saying “Hey that’s not ok to say. Erase that nickname from your vocabulary. We don’t talk about people that way in this restaurant.” Its up to us to kill these verbal weeds as they pop up, so our teams can blossom to their fullest potential as professionals.

My cooks giggle when I tell them “that’s a no-no word” but they don’t use it. Until they do, and  then I say it again. I tell them we are really smart and funny people and certainly can find more creative words to use jokingly than to throw around foul slander. Ever heard the phrase, “why don’t you just go eat a bag of mini-muffins?” Well, you have now, line cooks made it up after such a speach. I make them change the music if something degrading comes on, telling them we only have 8 hours together here, surely we can find something to fill our kitchen with that doesn’t diminish people or describe sex acts. Save it for the bus ride home, we literally have a hundred years of music to choose from.

Most importantly, I truly believe it’s up to us to stop pointing dirty fingers at each other, saying “yeah but I saw them do this.” We all have stories. We are all someone else story too. We need to know that excuses only excuse us from punishment, when you strip that away, you’re simply left with people behaving badly. That bad behavior shouldn’t be allowed to survive in our silence anymore. So lets use our voices when we need to, exposing innapropriate behavior. And like me, many of us also need to use our voice to stand up and say “I participated in this culture, and it’s not right. I want better for us and it starts today.”

 

11 Responses to “A girl in the kitchen”

  1. Amelia

    Thank you for writing this. I think it’s so important to consider how we may have each been complicit in toxic workplace cultures and how we can work to make them better moving forward.

    Reply
  2. Maureen Grey

    Another amazing essay from you.
    I’ve marveled the past decade over how the culture of service industry workplaces have evolved. I’ve even missed the hostile, raunchy, sexist, racist, homophobic atmosphere of it at times.
    As a woman in the front or the back of the house you put on armor everyday and something about that seemed great and made me feel so tough. The other women and gay men were warriors too, and participated fully in degradation of self and others. The first time a woman I knew complained about sexual harassment I just thought, ‘You don’t belong here, it’s not your world, go clutch your pearls somewhere else’… in retrospect, yuck.
    I’ve been trying to reconcile my own lifetime of racist, sexist, homophobic thoughts and actions to the person I want to be. You helped me articulate to myself a little bit more of the puzzle, thanks.

    Reply
  3. Paul Lebeau

    I‘m not a culinary professional, nor a probable victim of bullying. But I know courage when I encounter it, and I know humility, and I know solid leadership, and I know good writing. Congratulations, Dana. This deserves to go viral, because *everyone* deserves a safe and nurturing workplace. It’s clear that in our society broadsweeping Behavioral change is needed, and you‘ve provided a strong example of how people stuck in destructive behavioral patterns can pull themselves, and those around them, out of those patterns. I‘m proud to know you!

    Reply
  4. Diane Harris Brown

    Courageous and articulate. Thanks for having the strength to share this well-told story.

    Reply

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