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From October 2006 to September 2007, I worked as a server for many of the third-floor parties at the Spotted Pig. One night, comedian Amy Poehler was among the celebrities at one of those events. I was just starting to do standup, and the Pig’s owner, Ken Friedman, knew that Poehler was a big hero of mine, so he volunteered to introduce me. I was on my knees, stacking glasses on a makeshift bar, when she walked over. I extended my hand, and Friedman pushed my face into his crotch and said, “And while you’re down there...”
I was humiliated. In the summer of 2017, I shared this story with the New York Times, along with the fact that during my time working at the Breslin, Friedman once tried to forcibly kiss me in his car outside the restaurant. On December 12, 2017, my story came out, along with those of nine other former employees detailing incidences of sexual misconduct. And although I hadn’t worked for Friedman since 2012 (I gave my notice the day after the incident in his car) I was pretty certain that going on record was worst mistake I’d ever made: It would very publicly add my name — and one of the worst experiences of my life — into the historical record, and dredge up memories that I’d hoped to leave behind.
Initially, I didn’t want to go on record because I knew that Friedman and his partner April Bloomfield had a history of blacklisting people. When you’re working in a popular market like New York City, the restaurant industry feels very small, and there’s a lot of fear about making enemies and being pushed to the outside of the circle. This fear is, sadly, not unique to restaurants: Because of the constant threat of being fired, working-class women are easily silenced when faced with sexual harassment or verbal and emotional abuse. And in the restaurant industry, where these issues are particularly pervasive, simply getting another job doesn’t necessarily provide an escape route.
I ultimately came forward, in part, because I chose to leave the restaurant industry — my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and I moved to California to help care for her. Retiring my apron meant I had less at stake. My safety was knowing that my paycheck was no longer dependent on people who may not want to hear the truth about abuse in the industry. But I did worry about losing some dear friends: My coworkers at the Breslin and the Spotted Pig were a very tightly knit group, and exposing the dysfunction of our restaurant family meant that there was a real possibility that some of them would turn their backs on me.
When I did finally share my story with the Times, it was heartening to know that my voice mattered. The response to the article made it pretty clear that once the thread was pulled, it was only a matter of moments before the whole infrastructure of the restaurant world would start to unravel. And looking back now, the choice to put my name on record was necessary to help expose some of the more noxious power structures that had previously gone unchecked in our industry.
Since the Times article published, my peers have been supportive. People who worked under Friedman and Bloomfield have reached out to talk about their own experiences and thank me and the other women who have come forward; I truly admire those women who put their entire careers on the line by telling their stories. That said, the support hasn’t been unanimous. I’ve worked in so many different restaurants throughout my career, from Hollywood to Seattle to Orange County. Only one of the men who I worked for reached out to me to say, “I hear what you’ve said and I totally support you.”
One year after coming forward about abuses in the restaurant industry, I’m working to influence restaurant reform on a global scale, including writing a book on restaurant culture. I don’t want future generations of service industry employees to endure the kind of unmonitored, toxic environments that my generation experienced. The abusive behaviors at the Spotted Pig, the Breslin, and the other restaurants run by Friedman and Bloomfield were a well-known secret, and although these behaviors were severe, they weren’t abnormal. When I left restaurants in June of 2017, I realized that throughout my career, I had been conditioned to believe that sexual harassment and verbal and emotional abuse were just a part of the job. Because I took a step back, I came to recognize those daily experiences as damaging and, frankly, wrong. Without a forced reflective period I don’t think I would have gained the insight and courage I needed to come forward and do the work I’m doing now.
As part of my advocacy work, I spoke about rebuilding kitchen culture at René Redzepi’s MAD Symposium. When I stepped out in front of the crowd of industry leaders from around the world, some of them friends with my former employers, I wasn’t planning to tell them that I was one of the women who accused Friedman and Mario Batali of sexual misconduct. But in the end, I went off script. I thought, “Well, I might as well just rip this Band-Aid off.” They gave me a standing ovation and what felt like hundreds of people approached me over the next couple of days to talk about the work they’re doing in their own kitchens to improve kitchen culture.
Of course, the decision I made doesn’t work for everyone. For some people, dealing with the reality of a situation can feel unsafe. It’s about survival, and I support anybody who needs to maneuver through the fallout from the #MeToo movement privately. It’s also possible that some of the people who aren’t outwardly supporting the women who have come forward might be having a difficult time dealing with their own role in all of this, or they may be so severely broken down by the abuse they’ve faced that silence is the only option for them at this time. It’s much easier to not have to deal with this than it is to confront it, and I absolutely understand that.
Going on record with my experience was eye-opening. It showed me that although divisiveness plagues our country, at the end of the day, we do have each other’s backs — we don’t want people to suffer. That is so heartwarming to a woman like me, who often felt powerless working for decades in a career that doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.
The women who came forward over the course of the #MeToo movement have shined a spotlight on this industry, and all of the cockroaches have scurried. We’ve discovered that we’ve got a lot of work to do. We have a new generation of patrons to serve and those customers will hold these establishments accountable for their actions and practices. We’re in the middle of a shift in cultural awareness that could eventually inspire an entire working-class rights movement. Restaurant reform is just the beginning.
Trish Nelson was a longtime server at the Spotted Pig, the Rusty Knot, the Breslin, and more. These days, through her company BanterGirl, she hosts storytelling salon the Secret Society of the Sisterhood and produces This Alien Nation, a monthly celebration of immigration at Joe’s Pub in NYC.
Sarah Robbins is an illustrator, printmaker, and book artist living in Baltimore, Maryland.
Editor: Monica Burton