clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘It’s Not My Job to Clean Up Ken’s Mess’

Gabrielle Hamilton’s partner and co-chef, Ashley Merriman, elaborates on the controversial decision to team up with Ken Friedman at the Spotted Pig

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for American Express

On Wednesday, the James Beard Award-winning chef-author Gabrielle Hamilton and her wife, the chef Ashley Merriman, announced plans to take over embattled New York gastropub the Spotted Pig. The pair plan to partner with owner Ken Friedman — who was accused by multiple women of engaging in serial sexual misconduct — following the recent exodus of his business partner, the chef April Bloomfield.

On Twitter, food writers and chefs reacted with shock and anger at the news that Merriman and Hamilton, who is widely regarded as a champion of women chefs and restaurateurs, planned to work with Friedman and not, as Helen Rosner wrote, “Just. Close. The. Fucking. Restaurant. Down.” In a statement, Hamilton said that part of her intention in taking over the Spotted Pig was to be the one “going into the ground zero of the man-made disaster to start to help out” — an endeavor she compared to the chef José Andrés’ humanitarian work in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Merriman may be the lesser known of the two, but she’s no less accomplished as a chef — a Top Chef alum, she ran the kitchen at Graydon Carter’s celebrity hotspot the Waverly Inn before becoming the co-chef at Prune. In a lengthy phone conversation, Merriman elaborated on Hamilton’s statement, and shared her perspective on why the pair are working with Friedman in the wake of the serious allegations made against him (many of which took place in the restaurant they plan to run, no less). This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Gabrielle has pretty famously run just Prune for many years, and you’ve been at the helm for the past three. Now you are both expanding to take over a second restaurant, one at the center of the #MeToo movement. Is this partly out of a desire to expand? Why now?

I wouldn’t say that it’s something we were looking for at all. We only run the one restaurant and that’s enough for us. All of us, collectively — the nation — has been having this conversation about #MeToo, and funnily, Gabrielle and I are over at Prune, busily running our own little restaurant. We’re interested in the conversation and we want to be going at it in a dynamic, nuanced way.

Ken has been a friend for a long time, way before this happened — we catered his wedding, we’ve been to his summer house. Professionally, many years ago, I interviewed with him and April, and he’s been interested in working with Gabrielle for a long time.

This came up and it’s a lot of work — a lot of work Gabrielle and I are uniquely poised to do.

You say he’s a friend. What did the investigation in the New York Times, which alleged serial harassment — and that the third floor was nicknamed “the rape room” — do to that friendship? To be frank: Why partner with someone accused of harassment, credibly, to take over a restaurant where serious harassment and misconduct is alleged to have taken place?

I think for starters, I’ll just say I really don’t believe in capital punishment. I’m morally opposed to it with every fiber of my being. I’m also totally opposed to Ken’s frankly disgusting behavior in equal measure. I’m opposed to both those things, and I guess there’s a big question missing for me in this #MeToo movement: What does the possibility of redemption look like? Is it possible? I don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t think anyone does.

So are you saying if Ken doesn’t keep the Spotted Pig, or if you don’t partner with him there, that’s like capital punishment?

No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. What I’m trying to say is, I didn’t sexually assault anyone, and I don’t have a restaurant that has the “rape room.” That’s up to Ken to fix and deal with himself. I know he has a lot to say about it.

The decision to partner with him obviously does not come lightly, and it’s something we’ve thought a lot about. We like the work. We like the challenge. It may seem ridiculous to a lot of people, but we really believe the core values of working at Prune are, little by little, important to the universe and changing the world. I think the Pig has been without a leader in the building — the GM has been there doing her best to be a leader — but April and Ken have not been in the building for many months.

What will Ken Friedman’s role be? Will you run both front and back of house?

The specifics on what Ken will or will not be doing are not worked out. The best I can say now is Ken and Gabrielle and I have had a lot of meetings.

This dude has a man-made disaster on his hands. It’s his disaster, and there’s 96 employees at the Pig who are dealing with his man-made disaster, and they could use some sturdy leadership. It’s not my job to clean up Ken’s mess, but I really believe our management style and the way we approach things is vital to this conversation and shift in the restaurant industry.

I’m sure you’re seeing a lot of reactions online to the news. Some people are saying it’s better to build your own culture and not help to resurrect one with a pre-existing culture of serial harassment — what have been your reactions to those comments?

My reaction is while I have only been at Prune for three and a half years, the restaurant has had its own culture for 19 years, and it’s pretty impeccable. I see it as such a great opportunity to go in and help clean up a mess and help a group of people who are really hurting and having a bad time — and to have a whole new conversation about how to manage, shepherd, and treat human beings.

What about those who would say there’s a huge labor shortage in New York, and those folks could just go elsewhere?

There’s a shortage of cooks in New York, that’s for sure. We’re going into the eye of the storm to help some people out. That’s our way of approaching it.

Right, but when you go into the storm, the storm doesn’t get a cut of the profits.

I guess my question about that is: What does it look like for [Ken to pay]? What will be satisfying? Should Ken lose all his businesses? Should he never make a penny again? That’s a real, genuine, open curiosity. I think he’s already lost in his split with April a number of his restaurants.

This is again — please, I sincerely hope you will not paraphrase me — it’s a real, genuine question: What does it look like, should the guy not make a penny again? I think he should be able to. He did build an iconic restaurant. He and April built something special at the Spotted Pig, and I’m not sure his shitty, boorish, outrageous, disgusting behavior [should keep him] from ever earning a living again.

So you’re saying if you don’t go to the Spotted Pig, Ken won’t make money again?

I think he built something special, and people make awful mistakes, and he really fucking did, and he ought to pay for it.

Do you think he has?

I think I’ll let him answer that.

I’m going to the Spotted Pig because there’s a job to do, and Gabrielle and I are uniquely poised to do it. Like Gabrielle said, we’re not Ken’s fence.

We believe wholeheartedly in in our management style — in leading, shepherding, teaching — and I think that’s what the Spotted Pig really needs.

Just to clarify, are you implying it was not there when April ran the kitchen?

April and I have know each other in this industry for a long time. I fucking love April Bloomfield with my whole heart, and she has done tremendous work at the Spotted Pig. I completely understand why their partnership has dissolved, and why it’s time for her to move on, for her.

Will you keep the name?

Yes.

This is a smaller question: Will you keep the burger?

[Laugh] The burger, that remains to be seen. I’m not gonna cook her burger; it’s hers. I’ve made a lot of burgers, and I don’t think I need to cook April’s out of respect to her and what she’s done and accomplished in her career. That’s a goddamn good burger.

Obviously, this is a premature question, but my knee-jerk reaction is yeah, I don’t think so. I haven’t even set foot in the Pig.

Will you be the one running the kitchen?

Yes.

Will you have an ownership stake? You and Gabrielle?

Yes. We haven’t done [the deal] yet.

Can you speak to whether the restaurant is profitable?

In so far as restaurants are profitable.

When you say you want to change the culture to be more like Prune, what does that mean? Will Ken be returning to the restaurant after stepping away? Will he just be a silent partner? What concrete steps will you take to make sure his previous behavior won’t be repeated, or that the culture that tolerated this kind of behavior by him and people like Mario Batali will change?

Mario Batali had really bad behavior at the Spotted Pig, and Ken Friedman had bad behavior at the Spotted Pig, and everyone knows that’s true, including us.

Our collective record speaks for itself. We have, between us, over 40 years of collective experience in this industry. Gabrielle has run Prune for nearly 20 years, and I have run Waverly Inn, another celebrity hotspot, where it can get a little debaucherous. I think our collective record shows we have managed to have shift drinks, throw pool parties, run restaurants, run restaurant kitchens; managed to hire men, women, brown people, queer people, trans people, fat people, immigrant people, we have hired everyone; and we managed them with a pretty great track record of success. We plan on doing that, and continue to do that.

Both you and Gabrielle have said you’re not a “fence” for Ken. You’re saying what you’re not, and I’m wondering how you see yourselves instead.

There’s nothing for us to be in front of. Our track record really speaks for itself. We are going to the Pig to enact our management style, our approach, our very fucking delicious cooking, our very excellent, immaculate style of management. As [Gabrielle] said, this paradigm shift that’s so necessary in the restaurant industry, we’ve been having it over here at Prune, for a long time.

Is there anything you think people are getting wrong about this situation? I’m still a little unclear on how you’re thinking about changing the culture, or how things will work with Ken.

Gabrielle and I will take full responsibility for the culture at the Pig. I’m saying this to you in casual conversation — you and I are not friends and I know you’re a reporter — but I didn’t harass anyone. I didn’t make this mess, I’m not the reason for the #MeToo movement and neither is Gabrielle. I’m interested in a very nuanced conversation.

What kind of nuance do you think is missing?

Ken behaved in a despicable manner. In addition to having despicable, disgusting, boorish, awful, aggressive behavior, Ken also hired April. He’s had a lot of women working for him front and back of the house; he’s championed April, as far as I can tell or know. A lot of things we’ve asked men to do, he did. He invested in a woman chef and he now continues to. I don’t think that’s part of his brand. He did it because April was the perfect person for the job and she fucking did immaculate and impeccable work, and at the same time, he did some really shitty stuff. Not just shitty — that makes it sounds lesser than it is. He harassed women at work; he harassed the people he employs.

Anything else you wanted to say? Something I didn’t ask?

I want to say I’m really excited. I’m really looking forward to the work itself, there’s plenty of it to be done — in management, in cooking, in cleaning. There’s plenty of work to be done and I really like to work.

Gabrielle Hamilton Partners With Ken Friedman, Will Take Reins at the Spotted Pig [E]
Gabrielle Hamilton Defends Her Decision to Partner With Ken Friedman [E]