Jen Agg is a Toronto restaurant owner and author of I Hear She's A Real Bitch
Those who exist in my own social justice echo chamber – that is, people who consistently call out misogyny and sexual harassment whenever and wherever they witness it – don't tend to drop hundreds of dollars on rare burgundy.
Those guests – a fine dining restaurant's bread and butter – are simply not the type who will vote with their wallets.
Which is why, when any sort of restaurant scandal is unwrapped by long and arduous journalism – such as the eight-month investigation into the John Besh Restaurant Group by the New Orleans newspaper the Times Picayune – people on my Twitter feed suggest a "name and shame" so they can boycott whichever guilty chef or restaurant who happens to be exposed that day, I can barely suppress an eye roll. These people are, generally speaking, not a restaurant's target demographic, but more importantly – people simply do not operate this way with their favourite restaurant: They will, sadly, just keep going.
I'm honestly not sure how egregious an offence would have to be to actually shut a place down: rape and/or murder in the walk-in fridge? But even then, a boycott likely only out of squeamishness (hey, what's really in the blood sausage?).
Interestingly, people are actually getting tossed off the island in Hollywood, even if it feels sort of arbitrary (erase Louis C.K., but feel free to enjoy Woody Allen; Harvey Weinstein is dead to us all, yet Donald Trump is President, and on and on and on). Some of this may be due to timing, as we find ourselves caught in a swell of women finally telling their stories in a collective exhale.
The restaurant industry is crawling with so much misogyny and harassment that there's probably something gross happening somewhere right now. Only an extremely small percentage of incidents get investigated and end up with the weight of a respected newspaper behind them, giving the brave women who came forward at least a fighting chance of being believed – at least five victims seems to be the magic number for "believability"; also, being white helps.
When it first happened in Toronto, in June, 2015, with Kate Burnham coming forward about the appalling working conditions at Weslodge (breasts grabbed, butts slapped with tongs and a constant barrage of commentary and innuendo over the course of 13 months) there were calls to boycott, rallying "vote with your wallet" cries.
And yet, Weslodge remains open and is still being run by the same men who allowed this environment to go unchecked for so long.
The next year, La Carnita finally got called out for its so-called edgy sense of humour, which included a fun (not fun at all) #tacHOES hashtag that often accompanied pictures of female staff, mouths agape for a taco. Eventually, in October, 2016, as public support turned against them for a terrible "grab her by the taco" post, they issued an apology dripping with PR jargon. As far as I can tell, La Carnita's business hasn't slowed.
And last month, in Ottawa's perpetually busy Riviera, where politicians power-lunch, and chef/owner Matthew Carmichael recently admitted to sexually harassing three of his employees, customers were not turning away. A recent Toronto Star article interviewed Sarah Hurman, a strategic adviser. The article said she "would go back despite the scandal, especially now that Carmichael has apologized and stepped away from the business."
(Mr. Carmichael has apologized and stepped away from the business – which leads me to ask who should we be punishing? If the whole system is broken, how can we fix anything?)
Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio recently penned an "Open Letter to (Male) Chefs," tackling the matter with a somewhat more critical eye on complicity and a vehemence about rooting out the problem, which is great. But when I tweeted at him asking what he was doing to keep his restaurants free of bro culture, he responded with a grandiose claim even I wouldn't make – as there's no way to know for sure: "I mentioned that I'm not perfect and provided examples but the bro culture doesn't exist in my kitchens." To which a woman currently employed by Mr. Colicchio responded, "You might not think so but yes, it does. I've reported incidents of inappropriate behaviour not once but twice in the 1+ year I've worked in your LA restaurant …"
I do appreciate powerful men in this industry finally saying something, after years of ostriching. But the question remains: How does the dining public ensure these men are not spouting a public-facing message that doesn't reflect the true state of their empires?
The whole point is to keep diners oblivious as to what's happening behind the curtain – even if the kitchen is fully exposed. This is part of why diners have such a hard time believing their fave place is problematic. If all they've ever observed is the chef coming out to personally grate the truffles on their hand-torn pasta, gracing them with his presence, of course they'll have no context for the story that paints him as a monster from a past food-runner complaining he once, hypothetically, threw a plate at her. And even if they did, would it matter? We've spent so many decades glorifying chefs as temperamental artistes that even when we show them in their true light, it's almost as if that's what the public expects anyway.
All of this makes any kind of change in the industry incredibly difficult. The industry doesn't want to change, even if all the women working in restaurants wish it would, and customers don't want to see how the proverbial sausage gets made. So forgive me if I remain skeptical with each new mea culpa uttered. It doesn't mean a thing if we don't put in the work.