Kitchen fires: The open debate Canadian chefs are finally having about sexism and harassment
The chef Michael Steh was working a busy lunch service this week at Kasa Moto, his Toronto restaurant company’s newest project, when a server rushed to the kitchen with an urgent request for a dessert. Within seconds, a cook plated one and passed it to her. “That’s so amazing I could almost sexually harass you right now,” the server said by way of thanks.
Before Mr. Steh could react, one of his young male cooks joined in, with a reference to a Toronto restaurant that’s at the centre of explosive sexual harassment and abuse allegations. “You just pulled a Weslodge!” the line cook laughed.
That sort of banter – and far worse – has long passed for ordinary conversation in much of Canada’s testosterone-fuelled restaurant kitchen culture, but not in Mr. Steh’s company, he said, and especially not this week. The chef stopped everything, he said. He explained that he wouldn’t tolerate any of his staff making light of sexual harassment. Mr. Steh then had that cook and the server apologize to Kasa Moto’s kitchen brigade, he said.
Those sorts of teachable moments have been taking place in restaurants across the country this week, as well as a whole lot of soul-searching. Although cooking has been slowly professionalizing in the past two decades, it’s still overwhelmingly male, close-knit and ruled by “45-year-old teenagers,” as one veteran put it. With the Weslodge case, first reported in the Toronto Star last weekend, the cultural evolution grinding slowly and often quietly in Canada’s restaurant kitchens has suddenly been thrown into public view.
According to that harassment complaint, filed with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, pastry chef Kate Burnham’s male bosses groped her breasts and crotch and took turns smacking her rear whenever they passed her in the kitchen, in full view of their colleagues. They badgered her about her sex life, and one of the men stole her phone to search it for explicit pictures. One of the chefs repeatedly propositioned her, threatening her employment when she refused to play along. He routinely sprayed Burnham’s face with a pressurized can of hollandaise sauce after Sunday brunch service, while making ejaculation jokes, her complaint alleges.
Worse, when Ms. Burnham, who is 24, went to her superiors for help, one of those chefs decided to “wage war” on her, she said in an interview. “All bets were off,” she said.
In a statement, the restaurateurs Charles Khabouth and Hanif Harji, who own Weslodge, said that the chefs Kanida Chey, Colin Mercer and Dan Lidbury, all named in Ms. Burnham’s human rights application, had since “parted ways” with the company. “There may have been lack of communication and reporting of the alleged incidents at Weslodge,” their statement said, adding that the behaviour Burnham alleges was “disturbing and unacceptable.”
Maria Triggiani, a lawyer for Mr. Chey, said Friday that the chef is “devastated by the allegations.”
“They’re completely unfounded, and for a man who’s made his way up from nothing, who’s built a career, to have one person with false allegations try to destroy that is heartbreaking for him,” Ms. Triggiani said. “It would be nice if people would give him the opportunity at least to defend himself before the tribunal and to not prejudge the situation. Ms. Burnham had communications with Mr. Chey well after the alleged discrimination. She touched base with him as a friend and he gave her a reference for a new job. He’s completely dumbfounded why she would bring him into this.”
Daniel Chodos, a lawyer for Mr. Lidbury, said his client also “denies the allegations absolutely.” Mr. Chodos said Mr. Lidbury has been approached since the story broke by female chefs who will attest that he’s always treated them with dignity and respect.
The paralegal representing Colin Mercer didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
All three chefs have filed responses with the human-rights tribunal, but are not publicly sharing their defences.
Fair or otherwise, the Weslodge case has ignited a conversation that too much of the industry has been happy to put off for decades. How quickly and completely should a mostly unregulated field be forced to get with the times? That conversation is taking place in texts and phone calls between restaurant staff, on social media, at waiter’s stations, in cooking schools and around the stoves.
Charlotte Langley, a Toronto chef who once ran the catering arm of the company that owns Weslodge, said she knew many of the players involved, and was still trying to sort it all out.
“I’ve been a chef in the industry 10 years now and I recognize that behaviour; you see it everywhere,” she said. “It’s the bro mentality of, you’re in the kitchen, you’re with the bros, you get accepted by them and you’re kind of like one of them. Slapping on the ass, lewd comments, air humping, whatever, that’s what kitchens are like, a lot of them.”
When I spoke with her Wednesday, Ms. Langley had spent much of the past few days talking with her friends in the industry. She had always stood up for herself, she said. “If somebody grabbed me in the crotch, I would punch that guy in the face,” she said. Still, like many other female chefs I spoke with, who have thrived by being tougher and better than their male counterparts, Ms. Langley wondered aloud whether she should have tolerated as much as she has. “Am I part of the problem?” she asked.
Another female chef who once worked at a high level within Mr. Harji and Mr. Khabouth’s restaurants said that she, too, had been accepted as one of the boys, and questioned whether she should have behaved differently.
“Guys didn’t really want to bother me because they knew I was too tough and they wouldn’t get anywhere,” she said. Yet, she also accepted butt-slapping, and more, as a part of the job, as “a normal thing, it’s once, twice a week. For a lot of us in these really high-level, tight-knit kitchens, most of us are friends. Most of us party together. A lot of us are sleeping together, too. It’s not black and white. There are so many shades of grey.”
But it’s notable, too, that much of the conversation has so far been one-sided. So far, it’s mostly women speaking out.
“The silence is deafening,” said Alison Fryer, an instructor at George Brown Chef School who is well-connected in the industry. “I was in four meetings yesterday, totally unrelated, and I probably saw 30 people, and every single one of them was talking about it. But only one of them has spoken out publicly. It’s got to change.”
Still others said they hadn’t worked in abusive kitchens in years. Although the anything-goes, outlaw male bravado schtick that’s been popularized by Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsey and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential still persists in many places, many women I spoke with said the kitchens where they’ve built their careers were largely respectful and professional. Emma Cardarelli, the chef and owner of Nora Gray in Montreal, said she wished this conversation happened 10 years ago, when she was starting out.
Ms. Cardarelli’s introduction to professional cooking happened at the age of 22. “It was my first or second day there and I was cleaning out my station,” she said. “I was washing out my freezer and I was bending over it and one of the cooks came up from behind me and was like, ‘Oh yeah, I could get used to this view.’”
Since then, she’s had mostly positive experiences, Ms. Cardarelli said. “My kitchen’s not like that. That’s for damned sure.”
“The whole culture has changed,” agreed Andrea Carlson, the chef and owner of Burdock & Co., on Vancouver’s Main Street. “The people I’ve worked with, they wouldn’t dare do any of that to me.”
Cate Simpson, the communications manager for Vancouver-based Earls Kitchen + Bar, said definitively that her company does not tolerate any harassment or abuse in its kitchens. “We can say to the people joining us that it’s not going to happen to them,” she said.
“We each have to own our place in this,” said Peter Oliver, a partner in Oliver & Bonacini, the influential Toronto-based restaurant company. “I’m sure many of us feel we are on the right track with our values and policies in place, but something like this forces us to dig deep and see what’s really happening,” he said.
Yet if anything’s become clear in light of the Weslodge case, it’s that the industry’s standards for reasonable behaviour vary widely. There are laggards, still – some of them are even proud of that. And young cooks too often have no idea what they’re getting into when they accept a job.
“For a lot of people, especially in the male-dominated kitchens, you don’t complain,” said another female chef I spoke with. “For the most part, complaining is frowned upon: ‘Oh, party pooper, you can’t handle it. Uptight bitch.’”
That harsh reality is borne out in Canadian law. “Human-rights jurisprudence is absolutely filled with complaints from young women who go to get their first jobs as waitresses in some restaurant and they’re harassed by the cook or the barman,” said Shelagh Day, the president and senior editor of Canadian Human Rights Reporter.
As for female chefs, though, there’s almost nothing in the record. The career penalty for complaining is just too high. At Ms. Burnham’s level – a respected chef in a high-level kitchen in a major Canadian city – I haven’t found a single human-rights case. And the handful of tribunal cases that are similar to Ms. Burnham’s don’t offer a lot of hope.
In one of the most notable cases, from 2006, an assistant kitchen manager at a Humpty’s Family Restaurant in Alberta was called a “worthless bitch” and fired after complaining about sexual harassment in the kitchen. The restaurant’s chef had, among other things, dangled a breakfast sausage from his pants and waved it at a female kitchen worker, she alleged.
Alberta’s human-rights tribunal agreed she’d been the victim of harassment. She was awarded just $7,000 for her trouble – minus the unemployment insurance she’d received.
“I think it will change when there are more women cooking at that level, and when it’s safer to make a complaint,” Ms. Day said.
The industry may finally be reaching that point. As one Toronto chocolate maker put it on Twitter this week, the Weslodge case and the reactions to it might just be the spark that’s “followed by an explosion.”
“I’ve had this outpouring of support from cooks, from people who I worked with for only a matter of weeks, three years ago,” Ms. Burnham said. “I’ve had complete strangers write to thank me on behalf of their daughters, who were abused at work.”
The timing might be why. Where even five years ago it was hard to name more than a handful of ambitious, women-run restaurants in any Canadian city, today there are scores of them, and at every level.
Michael Steh, who lectured that cook and server about their sexual-harassment jokes, pointed to his company’s restaurant, Collette, a high-end French place in downtown Toronto. The restaurant’s chef, Amira Becarevic, its two sous chefs and the company’s executive pastry chef are all women.
Ms. Cardarelli’s Nora Gray is one of the more celebrated places in Montreal; she is a star in the city. Ms. Carlson’s Burdock & Co. is to my mind one of the very best restaurants in Vancouver.
Which is not meant to say that women chefs and women-run restaurants are full equals. It is still somehow okay for 12 “top chefs” in Toronto to announce a high-profile benefit dinner without including even a single woman on their roster, as happened earlier this month. And women-run restaurants still aren’t given adequate credit in some circles; Burdock & Co. hasn’t won half the awards or recognition as many of its lesser, male-run peers.
“If a female cook makes it, if she becomes a chef, she’s often put in 10 times more effort than a male,” said Eric Wood, the executive chef at Port Restaurant, in Pickering, Ont.
“There is something so wrong about that.”
The question now is what to do.
Are restaurant kitchens so different from other work environments that they should be afforded a little extra leeway? Should chefs and restaurant managers be required to complete management and sensitivity training? Is butt-slapping ever alright? What about X-rated banter? And where do the people who don’t want to participate – who only want to cook to the best of their abilities – fit in?
Ms. Langley said many of the cooks she’s been speaking with this week don’t quite know how to act any more, not just in the kitchen, but out in the restaurant. “In that scenario where I’m thinking of hitting on that cute new bartender,” she said, speaking hypothetically, “I’m probably going to check myself more than I would before.”
Peter Sanagan, a Toronto chef and butcher, took aim this week at those who think “sexual innuendo and low-grade misogyny is okay in a kitchen, as long as it’s in good fun and everyone knows where the line is.”
“It doesn’t matter who does it,” he wrote in a post on his butcher shop’s website. “It’s always wrong.”
Mr. Wood said he spoke with his kitchen crew last Saturday after reading about the Weslodge case, and he was nearly in tears as he did. For Mr. Wood, the matter comes down to dignity. “If anyone does anything to impinge on your dignity, I want to know about it,” he told his staff, before adding, “and if it’s me, here’s my boss’s card.”
Mr. Wood, like many others, said restaurants managers set the tone. “If I do anything wrong in the kitchen, if I skip a step in a recipe, that’s the new standard. So, of course the way I treat people is going to be how the people who work for me treat people,” he said.
And even if all that is too modern and touchy-feely for some in the industry, they may not have a choice but to play along. Nobody wants to be called out for treating female cooks badly – not now.
When one Toronto chef took to Instagram last weekend to urge his peers to “keep ur thoughts to urself,” as he put it, the response online, and from his bosses, was swift and damning. “This is a conversation that needs to be had to end harassment in the workplace,” the restaurant’s owners tweeted, adding that the chef’s opinions didn’t reflect their own.
The restaurateur Jen Agg, who has argued loudly and consistently that the industry is too often stacked against women, has plans to continue the conversation. By midweek, she had lined up an impressive roster of speakers for a conference to be held in early September, including top restaurateurs and food editors from around Canada and the United States. Called “Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the patriarchy one plate at a time” (the name is meant to subvert the common industry epithet), the conference will include legal advice, panels on improving the status of women in the industry and on changing the way women in hospitality treat each other, and also a forum for women who’ve been harassed to share their stories.
To Ms. Agg and the growing number of industry players, both women and men, who’ve thrown their support behind the conference, the system itself is broken: Women shouldn’t have to decide between adapting or getting out.
No matter where it all eventually settles, one of Ms. Burnham’s biggest fears in filing her complaint – that “nobody wants to hire a whistle-blower” – might quite suddenly be out of date. Many of the chefs I spoke with said Ms. Burnham wouldn’t have too much trouble. She should come east, Ms. Cardarelli suggested. “We like loudmouths in Montreal.”
Adam Weisberg, a chef who worked briefly at Weslodge and came forward this week to support Ms. Burnham’s account, said her employability shouldn’t be in question.
“She could walk into my kitchen tomorrow,” he said, “and I’d offer her a job, no questions asked.”