#MeToo is a movement about justice, accountability, and anger around society’s collective enabling of sexual misconduct — but it’s fundamentally about power. Understanding #MeToo through a lens of gender and sex alone obscures the fact that the many people accused of sexual misconduct in this blistering year stand accused not just of bad manners or uncouth behavior, but of using positions of power to exploit those beneath them, often at work. And one year in, too often, discussions about the movement’s impact flatten, distort, or plain ignore what kind of power #MeToo wields, and what type of power the movement’s supposed victims stand to lose. #MeToo is vested with massive cultural influence, but its economic dimension is much more difficult to define.
In the restaurant world, the objects of #MeToo-era investigations have been publicly shamed and at least temporarily shoved out of public life, but if their cultural capital has plummeted, few have taken a similarly dramatic hit to their bank account or their stakes in their businesses. Mario Batali and John Besh may be in the process of divesting from their restaurants, and Ken Friedman’s Spotted Pig may, according to New York’s new piece about Gabrielle Hamilton and Ashley Merriman’s failed effort to take over the restaurant, be struggling financially, but all of these men have made more money in the restaurant industry than most could dream of, and they will keep a great deal of it.
Nowhere is this disjuncture more elegantly captured than in the case of Hamilton and Merriman. With a single beloved restaurant, Prune, and a revered memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter, Hamilton had secured her status as a feminist icon in the culinary world; her wife and co-chef, Merriman, is a Top Chef alum who previously ran New York’s Waverly Inn. Hamilton tells New York she makes $1,112 a week in profit off of her restaurant, receives royalties for her memoir, and earns $3 a word for her writing. Merriman is an accomplished chef, and Hamilton is one of the most prominent female chefs in the country; Hamilton has turned down some deals to preserve her authenticity, but chefs like Batali could be authentic — and multimillionaires.
Nearly a year ago, the New York Times published an investigation into allegations of serial sexual misconduct by Ken Friedman at the Spotted Pig, one of the most iconic and defining restaurants in American culture over the past decade. A bar manager accused Friedman of biting her on the waist as he bent under the bar; a server accused him of publicly pulling her head toward his crotch; several women alleged they were required to work all night at parties featuring public sex; and interviews with over two dozen former employees paint a picture of serial sexual misconduct. That necessary, abstract word “misconduct” stands in for these allegations in subsequent write-ups of Friedman’s reckoning (or lack thereof). These images have faded from public memory, as has the fact they pertain to women at work.
When Hamilton and Merriman announced they were taking on a restaurant whose third floor, according to the Times’s investigation, was known as “the rape room,” criticism came fast and fierce, especially because Hamilton compared the partnership to chef José Andrés’s humanitarian efforts in Puerto Rico. But pinning criticism on a Twitter mob considerably reduces the complexity, and power, of the backlash. Controversy was present from the start. The initial New York Times write-up of the proposed Spotted Pig partnership included quotes in support of Hamilton and Merriman from Atlanta chef and current chair of the James Beard Foundation Awards committee Anne Quatrano, and criticism from Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg and Los Angeles chef Jessica Koslow. Natalie Saibel, one of the former Spotted Pig employees who went on the record in the Times’s original investigation, was quoted saying, “It’s shocking and unfathomable why as a female chef, as a queer woman, Gabrielle would align herself with a sexual harasser and help bail this man out.”
Now, to New York, Merriman and Hamilton express powerful frustration — with Friedmen, and with the amorphous group of women who Hamilton characterizes as engaged in “pass the talking stick” meetings, while she and Merriman take action. And their action, primarily, is intended to transform the restaurant industry’s broken, toxic culture. Speaking to reporter Maggie Bullock, Hamilton and Merriman sum up their decision to partner with Friedman, to take action, as a question of culture, and suggest cultural change trumps economics. Bullock writes:
If Friedman continued to make money in the process, well, Hamilton didn’t love that, but she hadn’t come up with a better alternative. And she didn’t want to wait. “Who wants to run the Spotted Pig?” Hamilton asked that August day. “Who on earth wants to align with a restaurant known as the ground zero of sexual misconduct?” She looked at her wife.
“I do,” Merriman said.
“I do,” Hamilton echoed. “Because that’s the money shot. That is where we can do the most substantial work.”
In other words, Friedman may continue to profit from the restaurant, but the restaurant offers a proving ground for transforming restaurant culture as a whole. And more importantly, the work involved is not just talking. Hamilton and Merriman say they wanted to tackle the problems of one restaurant, with specific people to manage, specific freezers to clear out, a specific partnership to form, a specific man to rehabilitate.
But they were tackling an individual restaurant in the name of a moment built on collective solidarity. When Hamilton and Merriman’s Spotted Pig partnership was announced, the Twitter and social media backlash was characteristic of what Amanda Hess recently defined as “rational mob”: Women expressing anger that Hamilton and Merriman would lend their immense cultural power to Friedman for the sake of changing the culture at one single restaurant, endangering the solidarity needed to change the culture of every single restaurant, while shoring up Friedman’s economic power in the process.
In September, Hamilton and Merriman announced they were pulling out of the Pig after Friedman refused to surrender day-to-day control of the restaurant, characterizing it as “true heartbreak.” According to New York, Friedman refused to give up a manager’s salary despite the fact that, Hamilton says, “We can’t have the guy in the building, because we don’t want him there. No one wants him there.” Giving up even a piece of his financial stake in order for two women to remake and perhaps redeem the restaurant in which he is the primary investor was still a bridge too far. (Friedman is also being sued by the entity behind Ace Hotel for misrepresenting the profits at John Dory Oyster Bar and the Breslin.) So Hamilton and Merriman walked, with a few months’ salary between them.
At the end of this saga, there’s much more conversation to be had about what Hamilton and Merriman owe other women and the #MeToo movement. All the while, Ken Friedman is presumably still drawing a salary, and possibly a profit, from the Spotted Pig, as Hamilton and Merriman are left with “an exhausted, sad, lasting woundedness,” according to New York. Ignoring the distinction between #MeToo’s cultural power — and the cultural responsibilities of women swept up in this moment — and #MeToo’s necessary evolution into an economic force obscures the men like Friedman who still hold all the money, and who are still very much getting paid.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.