Sexism in the Kitchen
Toronto — IN June Kate Burnham, an up-and-coming pastry chef at Weslodge, a popular Toronto restaurant, filed a claim with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, alleging that three male chefs had repeatedly harassed her verbally and physically. In several especially lurid instances, she described a colleague reaching through her legs, grabbing her crotch and holding it while humping her from behind, all in front of co-workers.
What’s surprising is not Ms. Burnham’s allegation — sexual harassment in professional kitchens is ubiquitous. What’s surprising is that someone finally came forward about it.
Indeed, in the months since, Ms. Burnham’s allegations have generated a pointed but necessary discussion in leading kitchens in Canada, the United States and around the world about the ways that sexism keeps women out — and what has to be done to change that.
High-end kitchens have long been regarded as a male domain, with culinary students worshiping brutal but allegedly brilliant men, best exemplified by the “bad boy” chef Marco Pierre White and made popular by the ludicrous character portrayed by Gordon Ramsay.
Mr. Ramsay is, at least on TV, an equal opportunity abuser. But he represents what society has decided is the ideal head chef: aggressive, abusive and above all male.
What we don’t often see is the sort of behavior that such an environment fosters among the sort of people attracted to it. Under extreme stress, young male chefs all too often take out their frustrations on the few women who dare to enter their realm.
I’ve never worked as a chef, but I’ve owned and run restaurants for almost 20 years, and the things I’ve seen — sometimes in my restaurant, under certain chefs — never cease to shock me. It often goes way beyond the everyday sexism we all must weather as women, and into what is, unmistakably, harassment and assault.
Slapping with tongs, snapping bras, relentless grabbing — women chefs learn quickly to crouch, never bend over, when picking up a pot. One woman I know, who worked as a cook at a well-known restaurant group with an outpost in Toronto, told me horror stories of a chef who’d do things like put her staff meal in a metal bowl on the floor of the kitchen because “that’s where the dogs eat.”
Many women I know in the industry heard Ms. Burnham’s story and almost yawned — not because they didn’t sympathize, but because they had heard it all before. (Sadly, I have heard some women be just as unsympathetic as their male counterparts regarding another woman’s inability to “cut it.”)
So why don’t more women in the industry come forward, as Ms. Burnham did? Many do: According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the restaurant industry is the largest source of sexual harassment complaints. Yet all but a handful of them come from the “front of the house.” That’s because, in many restaurants (though certainly not all), working in the front of the house — tending bar, waiting tables — is often transitory work, the sort of thing you’re doing while getting a degree or trying to make it as an artist.
The kitchen is different. Particularly in high-end restaurants, people there are building careers. They start off working prep, or somewhere on the line, with hopes of one day making it to sous chef, or starting their own restaurant. The best kitchen staffs work as a tight team, and foster competition as a way of improving themselves, and for forging through 14-hour days.
That camaraderie needs to exist for the demands of the job, and it can, without sliding into a chaotic environment of accepted abuse and harassment, supported by an understood code of silence. Many women just don’t see the benefit of pointing fingers.
That’s especially the case in a town like Toronto, which is big, but not big enough that you can shake a reputation for not being a “team player.” Even in a huge metropolis like New York, the high-end restaurant community is small, and word travels fast. And so women stay quiet and adjust themselves to fit into a testosterone-fueled environment, or they leave the business.
Although there are many talented women coming out of culinary schools, it’s no surprise that there are relatively few at the top of the industry. Apologists will tell you they can’t cut it. The reality is, women ought to be uninterested in a workplace that’s not just unwelcoming, but so obviously degrades them.
It took great courage for Ms. Burnham to go public, but it has taken even more for her to weather the onslaught of sexist attacks against her on social media. (She has since left the restaurant business.) The challenge now is for other women in the industry to stand up as well.
When I’ve learned of sexism in my kitchens, I’ve taken action, and I’d like to think I’ve set the right tone for my staff. But the problem goes beyond bad apples. It’s the culture. We need public awareness, more people speaking out and a standard of zero tolerance from industry leaders. Slowly we’ll create a new restaurant industry, one that will make the era of kitchen machismo look like the sad anachronism it deserves to be.