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As a Chef and a Woman, I Regret Joining the Boys’ Club

I was too busy emulating and living through the toxic kitchen bro culture to see it for what it was. In the wake of #MeToo, we can’t pretend it’s okay any longer.

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I have long admired Gabrielle Hamilton. I saw her as someone who took no shit from anyone. That’s what I need to do, I thought when I started cooking professionally 20 years ago in Portland, Oregon. As in every aspect of private and public life in these yet-to-be United States, I saw and felt patriarchy and misogyny all around me. Morning. Noon. Night. I wasn’t going to let it hold me back.

I opened Beast in Portland as a chef-owner in 2007, after following a decidedly non-traditional path into the restaurant industry. Coming at it as a home cook turned professional who ran several of my own restaurants with my ex-husband/business partner, I was well aware of the pitfalls of toxic male kitchen culture. I count myself among the lucky ones in this industry to have a busy restaurant and a bunch of accolades under my belt. But when I look at my career in light of the #MeToo movement, I see how I let myself down. Sure, I worked my ass off to make my own place, but I also got there by acting like the men around me, even men whose behavior I knew was wrong. A lot of other women did, too. We thought we had to.

Not so long ago, when Anthony Bourdain was writing about the kitchens of the 1980s and ’90s, and echoing the traditions of not only decades, but centuries past, he seized upon the fact that the kitchen ranks were made up of misfits and degenerates. The sheer number of hours and dangerous working conditions nearly guaranteed that the only respite was going to come at the end of a long-ass day, punctuated by a few rounds of Jameson, washed back with a few beers and maybe some T&A you’d find at a strip club.

This was true for the women who muscled their way into those kitchens, too. We fought to get a leg up by being “one of the guys.” We partied with them, let some of them slap us on the ass. We learned that the real way of handling it and getting ahead was maintaining (if not even creating) the bro code. Sometimes WE started slapping people on the ass. And it was working. We were getting ahead!

Back in my early days of trying to prove myself as a chef, I remember getting trashed with my sous chef and prep cook (all three of us women) around 8 a.m. on the way to the farmers market in downtown Portland, heading out to buy all the food for the weekend at the restaurant. We then stopped on the way home at the Acropolis, a strip club cum steakhouse, to see indifferent but willing tits and eat terrifying biscuits and gravy while staring at vaginas. We were hardcore. I guess we felt like if we did everything that the successful guys were doing, we could reach those heights too.

I ran my kitchen with the same mentality. When I felt like I needed to, I yelled at my staff. Sometimes I threw things. Everyone on my team knew I had the power in my kitchen. I got angry when people would criticize my management style. Men yelled and screamed and got fawning profiles. Why shouldn’t I behave the way I saw worked for them? I was one of them, I thought.

I look back on that time with real sadness. What were we saying when we told cooks that they needed to be willing to sacrifice family time and work 70-plus hours a week, all while paying paltry wages and belittling them when they made mistakes?

That sexual harassment is pervasive in our industry has everything to do with all of us agreeing, back then, that bad behavior was normal. We agreed it is normal because “everyone has to let off steam somehow.” We were taught in the kitchen fray to never take anything said on the line personally.

But #MeToo ripped that apart. It showed us what we put up with for so long as normal is deeply, unequivocally wrong. We sort of knew it, but we were too busy emulating and living it.

Industry titans — John Besh, Mario Batali, and Ken Friedman — have used their power and influence in disgusting ways, chronicled in outlets like the Times-Picayune, Eater, and the New York Times. One reason we as an industry couldn’t make the changes we need to make is that money is power, money is control, and money fuels a major divide between staff and successful owners. Even women who do ascend to a position of power may find themselves coming up against the “money = license to do whatever I want” issue. I know that I’ve felt like I had to entertain and amuse people in ways that sometimes made me feel uncomfortable, simply because I felt I “owed” them some special treatment. But even sanitized accounts of what has been a day-to-day existence for so many women working in restaurants reveal we are in the midst of a great crisis.

When I saw Besh, Batali, and Friedman exposed, I started talking more with other women in the industry. These were leaders — of both the restaurant world and the often sexually exploitative culture within it. They too saw how they perpetuated the sexism of our industry, and I breathed a sigh of relief. We were calling ourselves out. Maybe the culture of hard partying and crossed boundaries was finally, truly in the past. It seemed like enough people had finally realized that there is no truth or reconciliation to be found in these too-frequented channels of apology and faux redemption.

But then last week, Gabrielle Hamilton, someone who I looked up to, who I thought might be a leader of this new order, who herself had endured and suffered along with the rest of us, turned toward that behavior instead of away from it.

“In some ways we’ve been throwing the same parties that Ken’s been throwing: booze, drugs, celebrities, money, after-hours super fun shit, sexual innuendo, jokes, camaraderie, fraternity, etc,” Hamilton said. It’s a two-steps-backward statement that sweeps the harm done by employers who hurt their staff members under the familiar rug of “fun.” I don’t want to go to or throw those kinds of parties anymore. I’m not sure who does. But moreover, I do not want anyone minimizing the damage that has been done to the women hurt by men like Ken Friedman.

Ken Friedman had — and continues to have — a lot of power in this industry. The Spotted Pig remains a restaurant with incredible reach and cachet. Before the expose, Friedman allegedly used his power to harm his employees. Now, he’s using his power — and, presumably, a lot of his money — to craft a comeback, with the help of two accomplished women. As far as I can see it, he’s done nothing to show he remotely deserves it.

This disappointing continuation of an old behavior (and value) system is completely avoidable. Burn that shit to the ground and start again. If a new restaurant is what’s on the horizon, don’t tarnish your names (and the rest of us) by allowing these assholes to flourish. As women leaders in our industry, it is our duty to put into place a new set of rules. Let’s all rethink and redefine what “after-hours super fun shit” really means. We’ve come too far to turn back now.

Naomi Pomeroy is a chef, restaurant owner, florist, and cookbook author in Portland, OR.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan