Jen Agg is a Toronto restaurateur and author of I Hear She’s a Real Bitch.
I used to be partners with someone who was a bad fit for me and my business. All signs pointed to a red-flag factory, with brightly lit red flags leading the way. Still, after eight months of operating the restaurant together, I figured making him a partner was going to turn out okay. It didn’t. Two years of, let’s call it, extremely difficult behaviour was intolerable, and excused by everyone, including me, as simply the stress of the job, boys being boys and the small price of artistic genius. Two years felt like a lifetime.
The moment we parted, and I had autonomy, I completely changed the culture at the restaurant. I wanted people to feel cared for and respected and felt no small amount of guilt for having allowed, through tacit approval, a kind of leadership I was glad to leave behind.
This has all been top of mind as I consider what we are supposed to do about Norman Hardie, the Canadian winemaker and the subject of a recent Globe and Mail investigation which revealed a wide-ranging pattern of alleged sexual misconduct and workplace harassment.
I wonder how we are supposed to reconcile our complicity and silence in our past relationships with him, as well as the continuing behaviour of men like him – which is a huge part of the restaurant industry, still, despite the protestations of some.
When The Globe’s investigation was published earlier this week, I could barely keep focused on my dinner date as I tore through it with rabid, deranged glee. I’d hoped it was coming for some time.
I was told, around two years ago, about what a creep Mr. Hardie had been. I didn’t feel as though I had any course of action, other than to listen and advise as best as possible.
It wasn’t my story to tell and I knew I would support the reckoning once there was an investigation. Still, I can’t imagine how all these women felt. I have a platform, and I’m still scared to speak out against powerful men in my industry.
Even with a movement as powerful as #MeToo, I was certain if I spoke up without the backing of a lawyer-proofed investigative report, I’d be crucified. Or, potentially, I thought I might get sued, because when some men don’t like what you’re saying about them, whether true or not, they sue. More important, I know my industry well enough to know if I’d tried to go up against the brick wall that is Norm Hardie Inc., I’d lose.
I’ve given up so much of the camaraderie that makes this business fun, because the men in charge of it would much prefer I don’t call them on their terrible behaviour. In retribution, they’ve chosen to ignore me, my accomplishments and any cause I take on, the insult of erasure after such an injurious fight to the top.
I said nothing. I waited. Worse, I didn’t immediately return the case of Hardie wine we were selling at one of my restaurants, the Black Hoof. I never bought any more Hardie wine for the Hoof, but neglected to make sure one of my managers also knew to keep it off the Grey Gardens list. When I was confronted with the fact that I still carried his wine at Grey Gardens, I was devastated. I hate to think about the perception that I would have prioritized a business relationship over someone’s truth. But even as I‘ve explained that I legitimately hadn’t known we were carrying it, I heard how careless I sounded.
The restaurant industry is slow as molasses to change, and just as sticky with secrets and lies. Powerful men such as Mario Batali and Ken Friedman think they can just waltz back in, business as usual. The day after the investigation was published, Norman Hardie published a mea culpa letter on Twitter. He suggests some of the stories aren’t true and takes little responsibility for the actual harassment he’s accused of. But this doesn’t at all surprise me. Despite the huge sense of relief #MeToo has brought to so many women, few men are facing any real consequences for their actions. They all seem to be trying to figure out the quickest way to get back to charging too much for burgers and pasta and pinot noir.
Obviously, it’s good that there’s a #MeToo food-industry bandwagon to finally hop on to – but some of those people getting on board and condemning men such as Norm Hardie would do well to look back at their own missteps.
Some of Mr. Hardie’s past allies and friends have cut ties, including those who have not said anything publicly about toxic restaurant culture – despite #MeToo gaining momentum. I’ll take what I can get, even from business leaders who’ve not historically been supportive. Which, frankly, isn’t ever where I thought I’d land. I want every man who has ever abused his power to be really, truly sorry for their trespasses whether, direct or less so. If you’ve listened to your bros talk degradingly about women and said nothing, guess what – you’re complicit.
We all need to take a good long look at our past behaviours, whether it’s complicity, enabling or something more evil. For a reckoning to truly reckon, we must rub away at our smudge-y, half-truth memories, the ones that we adjust and refocus for our current comfort, to reveal rear-view mirrors that truly reflect who we were. Only by coming to terms with our real past selves, can our present and future selves do some good.