What inappropriate touching actually feels like

If you’re following the food world news, you know Mario Batali has stepped aside from the day to day operations of his empire. Eater recently published the accounts of women who have been abused by him over the years. I’ll cut to the chase, he’s been inappropriately touching female staff members inside and outside his restaurants since he’s been in power as a chef. The article talks about some pretty icky and obvious stuff. Blatant grabbing of butts and boobs. Forcing women to straddle him to leave or enter rooms. Full body hugs from behind without permission.

This kind of stuff leaves absolutely no shadow of a doubt that he was in the wrong.

Reading this made me think about how inappropriate touching has presented itself through out my career, on my body, and the bodies of the female staff members* I’ve worked with.

One of my cooks shared an experience she witnessed, where on multiple occasions a male employee openly slapped her female sous chefs butt, and then escalated to grabbing her from behind while she was bent over to simulate sex. The employee was eventually let go. Eventually. It’s pretty obvious that this kind of touching should never exist in a kitchen. Or anywhere for that matter.

But scenarios like this are only the tip of the iceberg for inappropriate touching. This is an example of the really obvious part of the problem we can see from miles away.

What we experience in restaurants is often so much more subtle. And like an iceberg, the bulk of this kind of touching is lurking below the surface, sinking professional careers, often while they are just getting started. This kind of touching lives in grey areas that make you question your sanity. The kind of touch that isn’t visible to anyone besides the toucher and touchee. But when it happens to us, it makes the littlest hairs on our skin stand on end, gives us goosebumps, and echoes through our bodies every time we see that person.

This kind of touching involves the lingering hand, sliding down our back as they pass by us. Its someone squeezing past you in a crowded space, their chest rubbing you and their crotch pressing into you for just a moment. An unnecessary hand on your hip as you move aside, the fingers tipping forward over your butt just enough to be intentional. A shoulder squeeze that ends in thumbs gently rubbing your neck.

This kind of touching can be quickly argued away as a mistake, a misunderstanding. But those of us being touched know deep down inside us how much intention lives in those brief moments. We always know. And we carry that knowledge around in us as that person continues to work side by side with us. When we come forward, this person often safely claims it was unintentional, a misunderstanding born of hasty kitchen movements.

That is, if we come forward at all. It takes an incredible amount of confidence to stand up and say “I know the difference between someone trying to avoid touching me with their crotch when they pass, and this was not that.” It takes the kind of confidence that often comes with age, and the majority of restaurant employees are under 30.

I’ve helped several of my female employees* negotiate situations like this, and they are all afraid that the other person will deny everything. This fear is so strong that they often deny it themselves throughout the conversation. Maybe they were crazy, maybe they were wrong. Their mind is often split. They know deep down what those actions meant, yet are afraid no one will believe them, and they will just be told “there’s nothing we can do.” They are afraid that the other person will get angry with them and retaliate by being rude and cold, or by gathering support from other employees against them. But the worst thing that can happen is when the person you’ve reported stops providing the kind of daily micro-support we need from each other in the restaurant. Things like washing your pot ahead of the stacks of plates when you need it on the fly. Grabbing something from the walk in when they are headed that way. Running food to your table even if it’s not technically in your section. Even if the victim’s anonymity is guaranteed, we often feel like we won’t be able to ask for these things if we tell the bosses about them. Because we need them so badly, it can seem best to just to avoid that person, get what you need from them, and ignore the shadows their fingers traced across your body.

When a person touches you in an unwanted and inappropriate manner, they are breaking an unwritten contract that says we won’t mistreat each other while we share professional space. When it starts to happen to you, speaking up and reporting this person to the bosses feels as if we are the one breaking the unspoken contract instead, that somewhere in this contract is also a clause that says “don’t get someone else in trouble.” Reporting can seem as much of a restaurant crime as invading someone’s rights to their body. Somehow, the victims often hold up their end of this silent contract even when the other party has broken it with their hands.

The one thing every single person I’ve worked through these grey areas with says, no matter how different their case is, “maybe I misunderstood.” I believe this doubt resides in the difference between what they know their experience is and what they think the group perception of their experience is.

A fear of being considered overly sensitive often overwrites our finely tuned perception of human gesture. But we are sensitive, very sensitive. So sensitive that we can tell a person exactly what we think of their body in a split second with gesture, with a single look, or subtle pressure from our hands. And that person in turn, knows exactly what is happening. We do know the difference between intentional touch and the accidental brush on the same body part. We just don’t know if anyone else will believe it.

I say we, because while I have helped my cooks through situations like this, I too have experienced this kind of touching through out my career. I spent years pretending it wasn’t happening. Avoiding being in the same 2 foot radius as certain people, bracing myself if they came near. It wasn’t constant, but it definitely existed. Eventually as I left my 20’s behind, and grew in power as the pastry chef of larger and larger teams, I wasn’t a target. In fact, I had almost forgotten what it felt like until this fall.

I went to New York to prepare the desserts for a dinner at one of the well regarded culinary destinations within the city. A friendly server lent me an apron because I had forgotten mine. Then later when he saw me taking pictures of the old school desserts hung in basement kitchen, he encouraged me to go to the third floor where there were more. When he followed me and I realized we were alone, that old bracing feeling returned. My body knew before I did, and as I was ushered into a small room I felt that hand slip across my back, trail down to my waist, and linger.

Blocking my way out of the room, I was encouraged by this person to stand in front of a portrait so he could take a picture of me with my phone. I complied, and when I see that picture instead of seeing myself with a culinary icon, all I can see is my own discomfort, the knowledge that I so desperately wanted out of that room as fast as possible. I see the realization in my eyes that as I passed to return downstairs to the kitchen there was a chance that hand would find my back again. It did. This time slipping just a tiny bit further.

I ran down the stairs, helped plate every course for the dinner, shuffling to the other side of the counter if i saw him coming to run plates.

At the end of the meal, after all the thank you’s and goodbyes were being said, I asked for my backpack and coat. When I approached coat check, he was there by the door, pointing into the far corner of the small closet where my backpack had been propped. I entered, and he blocked the exit, telling me how much he wanted to come to Chicago so he could see me again, would I like that too. I pushed out of the closet and exited the building into the rainy night.

The other chefs were all planning a little post dinner gathering before we all went our separate ways back to our hometowns. During the half an hour it took to plan, I stood outside in the rain. I couldn’t bring myself to go back inside, and by the time the cars arrived to take us to the chosen restaurant, I was upset enough that I went straight back to my hotel room and called my boyfriend to tell him what happened. He said I should report it. I didn’t. The entire incident made me shrink inside myself, question my own reality, and then, as time passed, I felt like I lost my right to say anything because I didn’t do it right away.

What did happen? A friendly server welcomed me to his place of work? I misunderstood the passage of a hand that meant nothing? Was his invitation upstairs a common courtesy that all chefs are given when they arrive? Did he tell all the chefs he wanted to come to their hometowns to visit them out of polite interest?

Maybe. But then again, why were the alarms in my body ringing, why did I stand in the rain, and why did I bow out of the celebration everyone so joyously left for? And the thing that really got me was a wondering if any of the men I cooked with that night ever found themselves in a situation like this, or were they able to navigate these kinds of wonderful evenings without fighting doubt about the subtle human interactions they might be misunderstanding?

While I had been in this situation before, it became clear that this time around I had lost my ability to hide in denial. After years of helping validate other women I managed, I just couldn’t pretend like it didn’t happen. I couldn’t pretend like my perception was the problem.

I don’t know why but the idea of this person getting fired was terrifying to me. But if I chase that thought a little deeper, what truly makes me uncomfortable is idea that I would be responsible for getting him fired by telling on him, and that is a burden too heavy for me to carry. And the reality is that it’s not my burden to carry, it’s his. The idea that his hands will find another person’s back also upsets me. All I really want is for this person to stop doing it all together, so any person in that place can go about their culinary business with a clear mind. I’d like this person to realize that by letting me know he perceived me as a potential sexual option for himself, he was erasing my rights to be in that space as a professional. But I’d settle for him simply understanding that he can’t get away with it and restraining himself in the future.

I tell my cooks that the only way any person is going to grow past a set of inappropriate behaviors is if these behaviors are brought to the surface and talked about.  I have certainly had to face my own behavior in the past, something that I often wasn’t capable of doing until someone else showed me what it looked like from their point of view. Without these people, I would never have been given the chance to amend myself and change at the core. I am grateful for these opportunities.

For the right person, reporting inappropriate behavior will be used to reflect upon themselves, change, and grow in a different, more positive direction. But if we don’t speak up, we never give them that opportunity. For others, a report is going to be denied, diminished, and they may never change. They may lose their job. They may be given another chance. It may seem like nothing happened, like they were let off the hook. But hopefully, if they continue to let their hands wander in those grey areas, the next person who makes a report will have your report to validate a pattern of behavior.

While the court of public opinion is currently holding people accountable for past behavior, and for that I am grateful, we don’t want to see everyone we’ve worked with loose their careers. We don’t want a witch hunt rife with accusations to wrestle power away from men and into women’s hands. All we want is to come to work and, well, work. We want to enter our professional spaces knowing we only have to think about cooking, or our guests, not sectioning off part of our mental capacity for protecting ourselves from the kinds of touching that can be dismissed with a simple claim of misunderstanding. This is something male cooks probably don’t realize we do every day, because they will most likely never have to do it. They don’t realize that we can never give 100% of our mental capacity to our jobs if we are constantly forced into using even the smallest percentage of our brains to deflect inappropriate touching and manage the emotional impact during the moments in between. They may never see that they can rocket past us developmentally and professionally when we are bogged down emotionally, or forced to change jobs because of a pair of creeping hands.

I want that kind of freedom for my entire staff, and for yours. This won’t happen until those subtle wandering hands keep to themselves. Does anyone remember the concept we learned in kindergarten called “keep your hands to yourself?” Great, now lets exercise it, and let our staffs know that this fundamental rule hasn’t changed.  And while we’re at it, let’s keep our eyes to ourselves and our comments about other people’s bodies to ourselves too. If we can just keep all of our body parts to ourselves, we could be out of this trouble in no time.

In the meantime we can also start trusting ourselves when we experience inappropriate touching, and speak up. Change won’t happen by shrinking inside ourselves, worrying about getting someone fired, and thinking that since we have waited a little while, our chance has past. It’s never too late to report, it’s never too small to talk about. No matter what happened, the feelings you are left with are always real and that warrants a conversation.

On that note, I have to go write an email that I have been avoiding for too long.

*While I have only helped female staff members through situations like this, inappropriate touching is not limited to female victims, people of all genders are vulnerable, and people of all genders have the capability of inappropriately touching people.