For the first time since the #MeToo movement reached the restaurant industry, one of the accused men has a new business venture. After dividing his bicoastal restaurant empire with chef April Bloomfield, restaurateur Ken Friedman is partnering with James Beard Award-winning chef Gabrielle Hamilton and Prune co-chef Ashley Merriman on the Spotted Pig, the New York Times reported earlier this week. An official deal isn’t in place yet, but Hamilton and Merriman assure the press that the project will happen.
Friedman was at the center of a New York Times report revealing a pervasive culture of sexual misconduct at the Spotted Pig and the other restaurants he and Bloomfield operated together. Hamilton, meanwhile, is a revered figure in the restaurant community, both for her groundbreaking culinary style and for hiring and supporting women at her restaurant, Prune. Until now, the men at the center of sexual misconduct allegations have stepped away from their restaurants; some, like Mario Batali, are making the decision to divest. But Friedman’s move is a step in the opposite direction, and one that seems to seek redemption (with help from two female chefs, no less).
Top Chef alum Merriman tells Eater she and Hamilton are “uniquely poised” to take over the restaurant. “The decision to partner with him obviously does not come lightly, and it’s something we’ve thought a lot about,” she says. “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.”
Hamilton and Merriman are friends of Friedman’s, and in a statement, Hamilton says she and Merriman are “helping the Spotted Pig, helping the industry at large, helping April, helping our longtime friend Ken, and helping ourselves.” She went on to explain: “You have your heroic José Andrés going into the eye of the natural disaster, and in us, I think you have two highly qualified and capable women going into the ground zero of the man-made disaster to start to help out.”
But many of Hamilton’s peers aren’t warming to the comparison — or to the partnership. In reacting to the news, the restaurant industry finds itself navigating the changing terrain of the post-#MeToo moment and, not for the last time, grappling with what a future for the disgraced men of their industry could look like.
After the news broke, restaurant industry players and those who follow along aired their disappointment on Twitter. Some, while dismayed, say they weren’t actually all that surprised by Hamilton’s decision. “I was once an admirer of Gabrielle (in an industry where there are so few women to look up to) but sadly, after paying closer attention the last few years, I’m shocked, but not surprised by this,” Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg said on Twitter. “That expression, ‘when people show you who they are you should believe them’ applies.”
San Francisco chef Preeti Mistry, who appeared with Merriman on Season 6 of Top Chef, was also not surprised. “There will always be opportunists in moments like these,” she tells Eater. “So yeah, kinda gross, but not at all surprising, sadly.”
For many, the fact that Friedman still stands to profit from the Spotted Pig is the most egregious part of the partnership. (Though the deal is not yet set, Merriman asked and answered the question in an interview with Eater: “Should the guy not make a penny again? I think he should be able to.”) Alex Pemoulie, the co-owner of Mean Sandwich in Seattle, tweeted, “The Spotted Pig, which is the site of so much destruction, should, at the very least, no longer provide profit to the man who oversaw, condoned, and participated in those acts. At best it should cease to be a restaurant.”
Anita Lo, chef of the now-shuttered Annisa, tells Eater that Hamilton’s desire to create a better culture isn‘t enough to overcome the fact that Friedman will still make money off of the restaurant. “The net effect here gives a serial sexual harasser a second chance long before he’s due salvation, and you can’t extract that from this situation,” she says. “I believe in redemption, but people first need to be held accountable and pay for their crimes, showing true remorse. The victims deserve at least as much.
“If Ken really wants a second chance,” Lo continues, “He could shut it down, change the name, step back, and let Gabrielle and Ashley open a restaurant that gives a significant portion of its gross sales to the Time’s Up organization.”
New Orleans chef Kelly Fields similarly argues that allowing Friedman to profit is a missed opportunity to uplift other women: “Ken Friedman doesn’t need partnership, investment + support,” she tweeted. “Women who are actively fighting their way out do.” Her restaurant, Willa Jean, is a part of BRG Hospitality, which changed its name from Besh Restaurant Group following sexual misconduct allegations against chef and restaurateur John Besh. (Besh stepped down from the group following the allegations.)
Not everyone is against Hamilton and Merriman taking over the Spotted Pig, though there seems to be consensus that Friedman shouldn’t profit. Andrés, whose Puerto Rico relief efforts Hamilton compared her efforts to, tweeted his support for the chefs, arguing “let’s give them the benefit of the doubt,” as “they will help maintain 100 jobs.” Andrés still advocated for Friedman, however, to divest: “But Ken Friedman I don’t understand why he doesn’t sell, and move out and give earnings to women’s empowerment NGO’s...”
Andrés isn’t the only chef supportive of Hamilton and Merriman’s plans: Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri says he imagines Hamilton has good reasons and good intentions for working with Friedman. He tweeted, “Gab has always done the right thing, raised a family, worked her ass off, built a restaurant and great work environment, and rose to the top of our industry, through much turmoil... Excited to see what they do.”
Both Friedman and Bloomfield have remained tight-lipped through the dissolution of their restaurant empire, and about the Hamilton-Merriman news specifically. Elise Kornack, who spent time working at the Spotted Pig before opening the now-closed Take Root, sees the takeover as an insult to Bloomfield. She tells Eater, “I cannot compute how the spirit of place, so deeply connected to her vision and her voice, could ever be regurgitated through the mouths other chefs, especially while [Friedman] stands by and benefits, as if he needs to further profit from the horror show he allowed to play out.
“I fully recognize April has some reckoning to do, but she should not have to witness such an insensitive takeover of her flagship establishment after the recent unraveling of her partnership and career identity.”
Others question whether Hamilton really can change the reputation of a restaurant that is at the center of multiple sexual misconduct allegations. Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy in New York City, calls the decision “a complete failure on every level.” And while she agrees that “morally, it‘s cynical and shortsighted,” she also thinks it’s a bad business decision. “I don’t understand why you would want to tie yourself to a restaurant whose biggest attraction is something called ‘the rape room,’” she says.
Portland chef Maya Lovelace sees Hamilton as part of a generation of female chefs who believe they have to act like men to get ahead, sometimes at the expense of other women. “There is a certain generation of female chefs who still very much believe in taking hard knocks, giving abuse as well as you get it, being ‘strong’ enough to get through trauma endured at the hands of men in power, letting boys be boys and encouraging women to play by the same rules, and passing those ‘values’ down to the next generation of female cooks,” she posted to Facebook. “That’s the kind of mentality that leads to a decision like this.” (Lovelace notes that she does not know Hamilton personally and is not accusing her of abuse.)
Erin Patinkin is the co-founder of Ovenly, a New York City bakery that employs people from marginalized communities, including those who have been incarcerated. In an Instagram post, she explained that while she believes in redemption, it’s too soon for Friedman. She wrote, “There are very hard questions to ask and to answer about what to do with the men who have been ousted from their careers in the wake of [Me Too], but let them first do the work to redeem themselves before we accept them back in to our business community and into our kitchens.”
Ultimately, Pemoulie and Lo are not alone in calling for an end to the Spotted Pig. “Why can’t they just close the restaurant? Nobody needs it to exist,” says baker and cookbook author Allison Robicelli. ”There’s no juice bar or Soulcycle in that neighborhood for BLOCKS.”
James Mark, chef of Providence restaurant North, tweeted a similar sentiment from his restaurant‘s account, writing, “If this industry is going to move forward their needs to be permanent and real consequences, not redemption stories. No sacred fucking cows. Close this restaurant."
Or as Kornack puts it, “Sometimes the pig just needs to be slaughtered.”