Like many other major cultural institutions, the restaurant industry is reckoning with an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault. Like many other reckonings, this one is long overdue. Over the past few decades, the role of chefs in America transformed from never-seen, poorly paid labor hidden away in cramped kitchens to objects of endless fascination across television, news media, books, and increasingly, film. The chefs anointed as cultural arbiters were almost always white, almost always male. They shouted. They swaggered. They got sued for sexual harassment.
But when one fell, there was always another white man to take his place, and never enough discussion why. In the wake of the Times-Picayune expose about pervasive harassment within the Besh Restaurant Group in New Orleans, one that many employees say emanated from top management, longtime advocates for equality in the industry like Preeti Mistry, Jen Agg, and Amanda Cohen are speaking out about kitchens’ long-unspoken epidemic of sexual harassment. Male food-world celebrities and chefs like Anthony Bourdain, Tom Colicchio, and Daniel Patterson have decried systemic sexism in the industry, and take (some measure of) responsibility.
On November 17, the Washington Post published a wide-ranging investigation into the epidemic of abuse afflicting women working in all positions, front and back of the house, across the entire restaurant industry, including allegations of rape, sexual assault, and harassment so routine women accepted it as just part of the job. The Post identifies a host of causes for this toxic environment; on the kitchen side, this includes a long history of all-male chef hierarchies, dating back to Auguste Escoffier’s military-inspired brigade.
Disrupting the kitchen boys’ club, which fosters these toxic levels of harassment, requires hiring and retaining more women chefs. But even when those women arrive, as the experiences outlined in the Post and elsewhere suggest, they face a blistering hostility. Why are restaurant kitchens, especially high-end kitchens, so persistently male, and why are they so inhospitable to women who seek to join their ranks? Behind the history of all-male brigades is an effort to distance restaurant cooking from home cooking, the result of a phenomenon some sociologists call “precarious masculinity.”
“When we’re talking about precarious masculinity, it’s not a conscious process,” says sociologist Deborah Harris. “Men don’t form a cabal [to ask], ‘What are we going to do this week to keep the women down?’” In 2015, Harris and Patti Giuffre published Taking the Heat, a study of gender discrimination in the restaurant industry. Composed of a wide-ranging survey of food media, as well as interviews with 33 women working in the restaurant industry, the book identifies several causes for rampant gender-based discrimination (Harris also spoke with the Washington Post about some aspects of their research).
According to Harris and Giuffre, the media plays a distinctive role in defining men’s cooking as important and innovative, and male chefs are hostile toward women out of a fear of losing that vaulted status. The fear is that if more women enter the industry, chefs’ cooking might be equated with “women’s work.” Truly changing the culture of restaurant kitchens, in other words, will require redefining who can be a chef — and whose skill as a cook is valued.
The media-fueled mystique around chefs is rooted in their image as professionals and artists — technically gifted and extraordinarily creative, dedicated to the pursuit of excellence and seeking to revolutionize the way we eat (backed up by mountains of profiles portraying them exactly as such). Conversely, women cooking at home are portrayed as relying on instinct and love, hewing to tradition and happy to nurture their families for free. Two dueling short profiles of Nadine Levy Redzepi, in The Guardian and Bloomberg, both written by men, emphasize the simple, homey nature of her cooking, and the supposed challenge of “cooking for the best chef in the world,” contrasting her baked salmon with the exotified live ants deployed by her famous chef husband, René. Meanwhile, when René Redzepi released a personal collection of cookbooks, his insights about home cooking and family traditions were received as instruction from an unimpeachable expert.
In other words, male chefs are considered cultural influencers because the cooking they do is seen as fundamentally more skilled — and more important — than the cooking done in the home by women. (Ina Garten may be famous, but few in our culture would consider her an artist, or a visionary, however short-sighted that opinion is.)
Preeti Mistry, the chef-owner of Navi Kitchen and the soon-to-close Juhu Beach Club, says that as a prominent woman chef, her work is linked to home cooking much more often than that of her male colleagues. “Could you ever imagine a male chef being asked if he learned to cook at his mother’s apron strings?” Mistry said. Harris and Giuffre also find that across food media, female chefs are more likely to have their cooking compared to home cooking, which creates the impression their food is “unworthy of attention” in the public sphere. "There’s no science or true professionalism to it,” Mistry says of the common outsider impression of home cooking. “It’s Grandma sitting at the dining table shelling beans with her granddaughter."
Some chefs and savvy business owners try to have it both ways. The practice of naming a restaurant after a female relative, or extolling “grandma cuisine,” functions as a way of gaining the authenticity associated with home cooking, while also distancing male chefs’ work from both the domestic arts and cooking by female chefs. According to Harris, when male chefs cite this kind of domestic inspiration, and the media uncritically reports it, “there’s a pattern to chef myth-making, a common trope where he would become inspired by women and by their cooking, but he would surpass it, and transform it into something worthy of attention and praise.”
To Mistry, that performative recognition of female home cooking — giving credit to those who came before as inspiration and nurturers but not as experts — only reinforces all-male restaurant networks. “All of those big-boy male chefs, they give all this praise to grandmothers, but not their colleagues who are women,” Mistry says.
There’s a lot at stake for male chefs to uphold this dichotomy between the traditionally female-associated home cooking and the male restaurant kitchen: power, status, and, most importantly, money. In an industry plagued by tight margins and low wages, if chefs can sell the public on the idea that they have unique expertise, they can become celebrities, franchise their restaurants, nab TV and book deals, and fly around the world to speak at conferences. At the moment, it’s possible for a man, usually a white man, to cook for a living and, at the highest levels, be considered an empire-building, cuisine-redefining, lone genius chef, charging hundreds of dollars per customer and featured on at least one extremely sympathetic television program. Few women, very few, enjoy similar privileges.
What would happen if restaurant cooking were seen on a continuum with women’s domestic innovations? If this realignment accompanied by a deep and vast reckoning with our culture’s hostility toward women’s domestic work, it could lead to greater equality in and out of restaurant kitchens. But, in the current environment, if restaurant cooking became feminized, then it’s very likely all the capital and status and fame so recently attached to chefs would drain away, fast.
Traditionally male industries often resist integrating more women workers because, as Harris and Giuffre note, “the higher the percentage of women in an occupation, the lower the pay.” When a field transitions, pay and status drop. In Taking The Heat, the co-authors cite elementary school teachers as a prime example. Until the early 20th century, the field was male-dominated, well paid, and high status. As men transitioned to manufacturing jobs and more women entered the teaching ranks, pay began to drop, and teaching became more associated with caretaking.
The stigma around “women’s work” is especially pernicious when it comes to care work, which might help explain why male chefs cultivate a shouty, rough-edged environment, lest they be mistaken for nurturing grandmas. According to Harris and Giuffre’s work, the women who enter these kitchens are expected not to challenge the culture, even if it hinges on hostility toward femaleness. Instead, they’re pressured to conform. In the Washington Post, women chefs describe the complicated dance they must perform to both fight back against harassment and resist being labeled as a “prude.” Restaurant consultant Heather Carlucci told the Post, “In the beginning, you try to ignore it, or you try to deflect it, to be both funny and defensive, and know how to put them in their place.”
When Mistry was rising through the kitchen ranks, she found she was better able to handle this hostile culture as a masculine-leaning queer woman — after all, like her straight male colleagues, she was attracted to femme women; her identity didn’t threaten men afraid of a feminized space. But she was also never welcomed with open arms the way a new white, male hire would be, and says her colleagues who were straight women and gay men faced “a whole host of other challenges.” Her method of pushing back also reflects the tension between needing to be funny and defensive. Mistry used to call out bad behavior by saying things like, “Dude, that’s fucking gross. If you want to say some shit, whisper that to your buddy, don’t shout across the room and make other people uncomfortable.”
In The New York Times, Tracie McMillan argues that the pressure to accept lower-level harassment creates an environment where women cannot tell who is joking and who is not. “When the entire culture of a place is lewd, it makes it impossible to tell which men are dangerous,” she writes. Harris says, “What are women supposed to do? Be silent for 12 hours a day? First I tease and joke to fit in, and then I have to read minds and which men aren’t doing it a jokey team-building way, and suss out who’s trying to make [me] into a victim.” Women cannot win in a hyper-masculine culture; instead, it drives them out.
That said, many of Taking The Heat’s women interviewees bristled at the idea of restaurant culture becoming sanitized. “The chefs we talked to, they didn’t want a hardcore HR mentality — they think of the white-collar corporate model,” Harris says. “But when they became heads of kitchens they would take steps to keep [harassment] from happening. There are ways to create happy workplaces where people get along and enjoy their time at work.” Kitchen culture, and restaurant culture in general, is its own world and way of life, and even those vulnerable to its worst excesses do not want to lose the freedoms and camaraderie it offers. Instead, women chef-owners find a new direction for that culture, rejecting the conceit that a restaurant kitchen has to be a masculine space to succeed.
When Mistry opened her own restaurant, culture was first on her mind. She is fond of describing her restaurants as “opposite day,” with women, especially women of color, in prominent positions in front and back of the house. Mistry says when she celebrates her kitchen’s culture, “All of those social norms of straight white men being the epitome of power and leadership, we’re not dissing them. We’re celebrating beautiful differences.”
Daniel Patterson, who owns a number of restaurants in the Bay Area and is the co-owner of socially minded fast-food restaurant LocoL, says the first step to changing restaurant culture is to listen to the experiences of women who’ve suffered harassment and “[acknowledge] when you’re part of the problem.” He also believes it’s on male chefs to be part of the solution. It’s not enough for women (and men) with progressive values to open restaurants that are islands of safety. The whole industry must find systemic solutions to what he says is a systemic problem — which ultimately requires transforming the idea of who does and does not belong in the kitchen.
Patterson says his training as a chef in the early ’80s can be summed up by two words: Kitchen Confidential. After years of searching for a better model than the too-white, too-male culture he came up in, Patterson began working with Restaurant Opportunities Center on piloting a racial parity program at his Alta restaurants, which he says has also automatically involved addressing gender imbalances. Remaking a restaurant’s culture top to bottom, Patterson says, is “emotionally difficult” and challenging. But the benefits long term are innumerable, especially as competition across the industry for both labor and customers heightens. “In fine dining, if people of color see themselves represented in the staff, that feels really welcoming,” he says.
But even in kitchens that have achieved greater equity, like Mistry’s, there’s always the issue of integrating people from the outside. As a well-known chef and owner, surrounded by a racially diverse, queer-positive staff, Mistry has still had to grapple with employees who cannot conceive of a chef and boss who is not a white man. This is a double bind she says many female chef-owners grapple with. “If you put up with the bullshit talking about women, or someone slapping you on the ass, and then become the boss, shit gets really real,” she says of women chefs’ career paths when being a chef, especially a head chef, is still so aggressively coded male. “When you experience sexism [as a boss], you discover half the population really has a problem taking orders from you.”
Mistry says that some white cooks, especially white male cooks, have resisted adapting to her kitchen’s culture, despite the fact that that’s what white women and people of color are expected to do in white-male-run kitchens. Instead, insecure employees push back. Mistry recalls one white male employee who kept messing up a soft-cooked duck egg. Instead of asking for advice, he insisted Mistry was cooking them wrong. “He was literally 24 years old, I am 41, and I’ve been cooking for 16 years. He would never say that to a big white dude.”
Changing the mindset around who can be a chef, in addition to inviting in more customers, retaining more workers, and revolutionizing the conversation about food, would also heal a hypocrisy at the core of modern chef culture. “The funny thing is [male chefs] can use tradition to argue for hiring fewer women,” Harris says, but then these same men present themselves “as trailblazers questioning everything.” In reality, they’re the ones stuck in the past. If men, especially white men, cannot re-examine their ideas about whose cooking has worth, what trails can they hope to blaze?
Harris says that even if her findings suggest that, because of the larger sexism in society, men are discriminating against women in part to protect their economic interests, that same discrimination frustrates chefs’ attempts to frame their work to an art form, where the real glory is. “There’s this idea that food is art, and that chefs create the best thing possible,” she says. “If you’re saying to half the population, ‘Stay away,’ you can’t also argue it’s about artistic expression and meritocracy. You’re keeping half the group out.”