The former pastry chef of Toronto's Weslodge is alleging that she was subjected to an incredible amount of sexual harassment while working at one of the city's most popular restaurants. The Toronto Star reports that 24-year-old Kate Burnham has filed an application with Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal that says she was "routinely sexually harassed and abused" by three of her former bosses between July 2012 and January 2014. She is seeking $225,000 CAD ($182,466 USD) in damages and wants formal apologies from each of the alleged harassers.
Daily reminder that there has still been almost zero support FROM RESTAURANTS in what's basically a plea to stop harassment in kitchens.— Jen Agg (@TheBlackHoof) June 14, 2015
Burnham claims that she was mainly harassed by three male chefs. Her application says that the chef de cuisine Kanida Chey was particularly lewd and would "lick Burnham's face" and grab her breasts. She alleges that on a "weekly basis" he would grab her crotch and "hold it while humping her from behind in front of coworkers." Burnham says that once Chey even asked her for her hand — she thought he was handing her an ingredient — and he took it and "held it over his penis" instead.
Night sous chef Colin Mercer was also named in the application. Burnham claims that Mercer would make "repeated jokes" about her sexual orientation. He also got physical and supposedly "smacked" her rear with a metal flipper so hard that "she could not sit down." Mercer would also ask Burnham about her pubic hair.
"I just thought this came with the job and it was something I just had to overcome."
The application further alleges that day sous chef Dan Lidbury would call her names like "angry dyke," would constantly ask her lewd questions, and grabbed her breasts on a regular basis. Burnham says that together with Chey, they told her that she was being harassed because "she was hot." At one point he even "unclasped her bra from behind" while she was in the restaurant's unisex changing room and "laughed at her embarrassment."
Burnham realized after that incident that she needed to leave. Burnham told the paper, "That's when discomfort turned to fear for me and I just thought anything could happen to me if I'm down here with one of my superiors." She gave her two weeks notice December 21, 2014. Burnham filed the allegations with the tribunal nine months later. "I never once thought it was acceptable," she tells the paper. "I just thought this came with the job and it was something I just had to overcome."
The former pastry chef adds that INK Entertainment and Icon Legacy Hospitality — the co-owners of Weslodge — "failed to investigate her complaints." Burnham says that the companies were very aware of the issues. Jen Agg — the Toronto restaurateur behind The Black Hoof and Rhum Corner — tells Eater, "I don't find it that shocking [that no one higher up did anything]... I think that situations like this are always genuinely top-down tolerated." As for the accused chefs, Mercer has "no comment," Chey did not respond, and Lidbury "denies all the allegations" and "looks forward to being exonerated."
INK and Icon told the Star in an email statement that the companies are "committed to providing a safe work environment in which all individuals are treated with respect and dignity." However, two other former employees of Weslodge have also come forward with allegations. Sophie Han, a former Weslodge cook, filed a witness statement in support of Burham's tribunal application. In it she says she also encountered levels of harassment where she would have to threaten managers "with a knife if they came any closer."
INcredibly disgusting, disturbing treatment of female chefs alleged in @Weslodge kitchen. "Harrassment" doesn't come close too covering it.— Chris Nuttall-Smith (@cnutsmith) June 15, 2015
A former server, Sarah Jurgens, had previously filed a tribunal application also alleging sexual harassment at the restaurant but never followed through with it. She says that she was asked for a resignation letter right around the same time she took her case to the tribunal. Jurgens reveals that she "regrets not following up with her application." Agg tells Eater that Burnham is "really brave" for coming forward and that she wishes more people would do so.
Agg notes that while not all restaurants have this issue, sexual harassment is a "systemic" problem in the restaurant industry. Last year, a shocking report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center United revealed that that 90 percent of female restaurant employees have experienced sexual harassment at work. Additionally, 75 percent of women reported being harassed by co-workers on a monthly basis.
Agg says that real change needs to happen and that she is now organizing a conference around the issue called "Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time," that she hopes will help raise awareness and instigate action. "[Sexual harassment] is rampant in the industry and until male leaders get on board it will remain rampant." Agg adds that so far, she has not seen much support from the local Toronto restaurant community.