Jen Agg is a Toronto restaurant owner and author of I Hear She's A Real Bitch
The restaurant industry contains multitudes. It's a fantasyland where people can while away a couple of hours over steaks and a bottle of burgundy, erasing the concerns of the day, turning the necessary human need to consume food – sometimes a chore to busy, privileged people – into a Bacchanalian feast.
But there is a dark and gritty underbelly propelling that fantasy. At its worst, it isn't (necessarily) the hellish Sisyphean task that is a whipped Homer Simpson exhaustedly plodding along a turnstile so that a plate of pastries can spin prettily on a charming diner counter above ground. But it can be ugly and hyper-masculine. Sometimes even unjust.
When pastry chef Kate Burnham came forward in June, 2015, with horrifying allegations about three of her superiors in the kitchen at Weslodge in Toronto, I organized a conference to discuss how toxic the restaurant industry had become. "Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time" was an attempt to hoist up a spotlight, but the effect was short-lived. Although there have been many conversations around sexism in the industry, perhaps as a direct result of the conference, professional kitchens – and restaurant ownership – remain the domain of men.
So when Munchies, the food arm of the ever hungry Vice octopus, recently published a piece, We Asked Male Chefs Why There Are So Few Females in Professional Kitchens, I clicked with great intrigue. Disappointingly, but not at all surprising, the five chefs interviewed give the kinds of answers that vary from naïve to idiotic. A small sampling:
Jason Blanckaert, of J.E.F. in Ghent, Belgium, starts things off with this charming perspective: "I think that women often give up the job because of their social life. … Good female cooks often quit their work because the boyfriend, for example, finds it hard to be in second place."
Lucas Jeffries, executive chef at Instock, Netherlands, says: "I want more women in the kitchen. They don't necessarily all have to be beautiful, though that would be a bonus, of course."
What's most disturbing is that these chefs are comfortable spouting such utter garbage in a climate that claims it is learning inclusivity. Maybe we are learning nothing.
Having spent my whole career entrenched in this business, I am fully aware of the sexism ranging from well-meaning to derisive, all the way to cruel and beyond. I have learned why kitchens actually remain such tough environments – and not just for women, but especially women.
There is a militaristic mentality, passed down from abusive European kitchens, that fear and despotism are the only ways to lead a troop of young cooks, and to some degree – gasp – I agree.
Great restaurant leadership requires someone willing to take a lot of risks and make a lot of difficult decisions – it's no place for committees and bureaucracy. But it's when strong, decisive leadership becomes twisted into something else, into something that nurtures the kind of environment where repulsive, unpublishable slurs are tossed around like salad greens, and towel whipping and hot tongs on forearms the go-to arrows, it becomes very difficult for young cooks to differentiate between the hierarchy needed for a restaurant to properly function and an abusive environment.
They aren't able to even recognize the broken system they are compliantly supporting. All these blurred lines within hierarchy mean that when it starts to fall off the rails and young cooks are leaving work in a Stockholmed state, they often don't realize how cutting the abuse is, especially when it's mollified at the end of service with a few cold beers and a hearty "attaboy." (The extra problem is abuse begets abuse, and the victims of brutal environments so often ascend to leadership roles themselves and only know, from experiencing it firsthand, how to rule with an iron fist.)
The bro-ish-ness that blankets many kitchens, the brotherhood, the "trenches" mentality and many, many in-depth, deeply crude discussions of who the "hottest" women in the restaurant are at any given moment, make kitchens that much harder for women, who are usually expected to tap into wells of internalized misogyny and play along, or be an outsider – a difficult choice one shouldn't have to make at work.
The sad reality is that the subtle and blatant cues and codes of the restaurant business do little to dispel the notion that it's a man's world, and we are just living in it (and making the sandwiches, birthing the babies and being good, supportive wives).
It's a difficult industry for men, but it's worse for women. The last thing we need is ignorant commentary from cooks so unwoke they are in a coma.