It’s Not Actually Funny

Sunday, Nov 26th, 2017

Food and Wine asked me to write something for a new column they are publishing called Communal Table- in case it passed you by, here it is. This piece follows on the heels of my blog post here, in which I come clean about my own participation in this big tangled mess of laughter and hurt. 

Pastry chef Dana Cree asks what needs to happen for kitchen culture to change—and it starts with shutting down jokes that marginalize, disrespect and demean.

Editor’s note: Last week we launched Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to — Hunter Lewis, Editor-in-Chief, Food & Wine

It’s Not Actually Funny: We Need To Hold Chefs Accountable For Inappropriate Jokes

Over the past few weeks, the media has covered several sexual misconduct scandals, in and out of the restaurant world. Many industry leaders have led us astray, and they are only now facing repercussions for words and actions that we have come to accept as normal. Many people in the restaurant industry (myself included) are waiting to see what happens next. We want to know if the people we have seen behaving similarly in our own kitchens will also be held accountable, or if it will just go back to “normal.”

If we look back at what caused these scandals, we can see the writing was all over the walls. But if we look closer, what does that writing actually say?

It’s a no-brainer that the middle aged, married owner of a restaurant group should not be persuading young female employees to enter a sexual relationship with him. At least it should be. It seems so obvious, but how did it come to this?

Restaurants are well known for housing no-holds-barred, raunchy, dirty jokes. But how many sexually charged jokes must be told before subtle sexual misconduct begins without raising an eyebrow? How bad does the misconduct have to be before we raise an eyebrow, and how many eyebrows have to be raised before we raise our voices? These “jokes” are grooming us to become compliant victims and silent observers from the day we walk into professional kitchens. In this culture, it’s only a matter of time before one of the victims or observers becomes an abuser. And if you think John Besh is a lone wolf, you are sadly mistaken.

Here are questions we have to ask about all the recent subjects of harassment allegations, because the behavior had to start somewhere: Did they witness playful dry-humping their first days as line cooks? How many months before their initiations were they the ones pinned against their stations, being humped by sous chefs? Or were they on the other side of that situation, the sous chef behind another cook, but looking them in the eye and saying, “It’s too big for you, I’d make you bleed, but she can have it,” pointing to a female server. Were they in the kitchen the week the chef individually asked every cook if they liked eating assholes, making sure to point out the people who said they did as he pressed him for an answer? Did they hear the owners joking to each other about which female servers were walking around with “mattresses on their backs”? Did they watch the chef repeatedly drip aioli into a full six pan because it looked like “the little man in the boat?” Were they still there three minutes later when that same chef called the new female line cook over to ask her if she recognized it, while the rest of the male kitchen staff muffled laughter? Did their chefs force them to re-plate the grilled endive with foie gras to look like female genitalia because the dish was going to a table of lesbians? Or were they at the pass when the expeditor lined all the male servers up to take a gander in the kitchen because a female cook shook her butt unknowingly as she shook onion ring dredge out of the fry basket. Were they laughing when she turned around and realized what was happening? Or was it much simpler than this? Was it just a daily volley of derogatory words thrown around in jest?

If you imagine the words we speak take shape, the letters adhering themselves to our restaurant walls, you can see that over time, our jokes have written a novel-sized permission slip to behave inappropriately. We have an opportunity every day to fill our kitchen with different words—what could we fill the empty space with? What other conversations could we start to have if our mouths weren’t full of sexualized jokes?

I, for one, would like to find out what will grow in the absence of raunchy kitchen humor. I want to know what I’ll see written on the walls next year, if today, we erase inappropriate words, jokes and gestures from our kitchen vernacular. I want to see how many people of every gender, race, place of origin and sexual orientation will rise to the top when they are no longer marginalized for a laugh or two. And I want to do this, because as we wait with baited breath to see where our leaders take our industry after this upset, changing our vocabulary is something both you and I can do today.

I believe we all know how to do it, too. We don’t take a class in culinary school titled “Kitchen Humor: How to Cross Boundaries and Get Away with It.” We know how to behave appropriately in a group setting, because they started teaching us in kindergarten. We know what not to say, because we restrain ourselves in almost every other space we enter.

Those of us with power should start scrubbing our walls clean, and quite frankly, we have to wash our mouths out with soap, too. While none of us started this culture we have the power to stop it, word by word. It has to start today with the words we don’t say. And we absolutely have to do this so we can help our cooks can rebuild the industry we have debased as they grow and become our leaders.

While the old guard struggles to change their habits, while we wait for them to do their parts to improve our industry, or disappear, I believe lasting change will come when our cooks can stop feeling obligated to laugh with us, when they can validate their early gut reactions to our terrible jokes and introduce their own, safer vocabulary to our kitchens. If anyone is waiting for permission, I’m giving it to you now. I give you permission to say, “That’s not funny,” or “That’s not okay,” and do what you know is right. Walk away from an inappropriate conversation knowing your career has a future in a better industry. I know it’s going to get better, because you and I are going to build it. And we are going to build it in rooms without permission slips on the wall for abuse, written one bad joke at a time