Former pastry chef alleges sexual harassment at top Toronto restaurant
A Toronto cook alleges she was badgered about her sexuality, touched without consent and subjected to a sexist work atmosphere by three former bosses at one of the city’s most popular, high-profile restaurants.
Between July 2012 and January 2014, Kate Burnham, a former pastry chef at Weslodge restaurant, was routinely sexually harassed and abused at the King Street W. eatery, according to the application she has filed in Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal.
Burnham, now 24, is seeking $225,000 in damages and formal apologies from each of her alleged harassers. She is also asking the tribunal to order Weslodge staff and each of the three former chefs to take training in how to spot and stop sexual harassment. Burnham is being represented in her case before the tribunal by lawyer Tatha Swann.
The allegations have not been proven at the tribunal and the principals deny the allegations.
Burnham’s application alleges that day sous chef Dan Lidbury called her names, such as “angry dyke,” bombarded her with lewd questions, grabbed her breasts and, when she wouldn’t allow his advances, warned that her “attitude” put her on “thin f—king ice.”
Chef du cuisine Kanida Chey regularly harassed Burnham, even grabbing her crotch, according to the application, and he and Lidbury told her she was “harassed,” because she “was hot” and “that kind of attention is flattering.” The application also alleges that night sous chef Colin Mercer made repeated jokes about Burnham’s sexual orientation and “smacked” her rear with a metal flipper “so hard she could not sit down.”
Weslodge, which calls itself a modern-day saloon and is one of several properties co-owned by INK Entertainment and ICON Legacy Hospitality, failed to investigate Burnham’s complaints, which were “well-known,” her application alleges.
“It was horrible,” Burnham said in one of a series of exclusive interviews with the Star. “It was a nightmare. I got so used to feeling so small for so long.”
An email statement sent on behalf of both companies said they are aware of Burnham’s tribunal application and that INK and ICON have always had a sexual harassment policy in place. They “are committed to providing a safe work environment in which all individuals are treated with respect and dignity” and “do not tolerate any form of workplace harassment,” the email says. Given the matter is before the tribunal, the companies do not have any further comment, the statement said.
Mercer also has “no comment,” according to paralegal Katherine Sperti. Lidbury “denies all the allegations” and says that “at all times, he has treated his colleagues with dignity and respect. He looks forward to being exonerated when this matter is heard,” his lawyer, Daniel Chodos, said in an email.
Chey and his lawyer, Peter Silverberg, have not responded to the Star’s repeated requests for comment.
Weslodge, the tribunal and lawyers for the three men would not provide the Star with any formal responses that may have been filed to the tribunal.
When Burnham took the job at Weslodge nearly three years ago, preparing and plating desserts for the dinner service from 3 p.m. until 2 a.m. nightly, she says she was one of few women on staff — the only female on her eight-member team of sous chefs, cooks and dishwashers.
A restaurant industry veteran, she says she was well-acquainted with how busy, male-dominated kitchens operate: the foul language, sexual innuendo, frequent yelling. The atmosphere was no different at Weslodge, she says.
According to the application, Mercer would talk about his girlfriend’s pubic hair, asking Burnham whether she was “clean and shaven down there.”
The application also alleges Chey, now a chef at another popular Toronto restaurant, showed her a picture on his cellphone of his penis.
He would also lick Burnham’s face, grab her breasts and, on a weekly basis, the application alleges, “reach through her legs to grab her crotch and hold it while humping her from behind, in front of coworkers.”
Once, Chey asked Burnham for her hand, then “held it over his penis,” the application alleges. Burnham told the Star she had been expecting her boss to place an ingredient in her palm.
“I felt so betrayed,” she said, adding she didn’t know where to turn or who to talk to.
She was aware of a situation involving her former colleague, Sarah Jurgens, 27.
Jurgens had previously filed a tribunal application alleging sexual harassment at the restaurant, but never followed it up. According to email correspondence obtained by the Star, the former server was asked for “a written resignation letter” around the time she took her case to the tribunal.
Jurgens filed the documents, she says, when she felt a manager she complained about wasn’t disciplined. In an interview, she alleged a senior manager stroked her thigh in the deserted dining room one night after her shift ended.
She left Weslodge soon after, she says, moved on and didn’t look back. She says she regrets not following up with her tribunal application.
Several accounts from Burnham’s former colleagues illustrate the sexually charged atmosphere that she describes at Weslodge. In a witness statement filed in support of Burham’s tribunal application, Sophie Han, 28, a former Weslodge cook, called the working atmosphere “anarchy.”
When she ran into her own problems with harassment at Weslodge, she “would have to kick back and threaten my managers with a knife if they came any closer,” according to her witness statement. Han often felt “your only option was to quit,” Han says in the statement.
Burnham told the Star she needed her nighttime job at the saloon to help pay for a part-time English degree at the University of Toronto. Since Chey had the power to fire her, she says she reached out to Weslodge’s daytime sous chef, Dan Lidbury, for help.
He had the power to bring Burnham onto his team for the lunch shift. According to her tribunal application, Lidbury promised to “protect” her from Mercer.
But Lidbury’s “harassment and sexual abuse … turned out to be as bad if not worse,” the application alleges.
Sometimes, when she arrived at work, Lidbury would “leer at her body,” the application alleges, “licking his lips.” When he found her “alone” in Weslodge’s walk-in fridge, he would “grab her breasts,” her application alleges; once he ripped the buttons off her jacket “until it popped open in front of co-workers.”
Burnham told the Star in an interview that when Lidbury came close, she would “flinch and jump away” or ask “do you mind?” or “what’s your problem?” But as time wore on, she said she just kept her head down.
“I never once thought it was acceptable,” she said. “I just thought this came with the job and it was something I just had to overcome.”
One former Weslodge cook, who did not want to be identified, says she witnessed Burnham’s treatment. When the same chefs tried out their bad behaviours on her, she says she would yell and they would stop.
Calling Burnham “too timid,” she advised her to be assertive and “firm with her words.” When things got really bad, she says, she would stare into the kitchen’s surveillance cameras, wave and hope someone, somewhere in the company, was monitoring the footage and could intervene.
“I would say ‘this is sexual harassment’ right into the camera,” she says. “I would say it loud. And nothing happened. Nothing ever happened.”
By late fall 2013, after almost 16 months on the job, Burnham “would break down in tears on a daily basis,” her application alleges; she “dreaded coming to work.” Anxious and depressed, she says she lost 50 pounds in four months.
That November, an incident made Burnham realize she could no longer “grin, bear it, get paycheque, go home,” she told the Star. In Weslodge’s unisex staff change room one morning, Lidbury “unclasped her bra from behind,” according to her application, and “laughed at her embarrassment.”
“That’s when discomfort turned to fear for me and I just thought anything could happen to me if I’m down here with one of my superiors,” she told the Star. “That was really scary.”
Less than a month later, Lidbury sent her a text message, her tribunal application alleges, “warning her that her job was in jeopardy and swearing.”
She met with Chey and Lidbury on Dec. 21, according to the application, and it was then, she told the Star, that she gave two weeks’ notice.
Burnham once aspired to be a chef, but her experience at Weslodge “rerouted the course” of her life, she told the Star.
She is currently working as a part-time cook at a women’s shelter.
She filed with the tribunal about nine months after quitting, she says, because as time wore on, she couldn’t shake her experience in that kitchen and felt she had to act on it.
“I need closure,” she says, “and I don’t want this to happen to the next girl that’s hired.”