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It’s Not Just ‘Kitchen Talk,’ It’s Abuse

Words can do lasting damage to restaurant workers. Stop making excuses.

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The hardest years of my restaurant career were spent near a chef who did damage, not with physical assaults or rape, but with words. He’d pick people in the kitchen to badger. He regularly bullied the dishwasher, implying ownership and clearly trying to intimidate. He routinely berated and humiliated the sous chef who most looked up to him. It should come as no surprise that words like “fag,” “homo,” and “pussy” comprised the soundtrack of his kitchen — each tossed around as easily as an actual joke, all meant to attack perceived weaknesses in his crew. He sexualized the service staff, commenting on women’s skin or size. I remember one time he held a female server’s wrist in his hand, across the pass, and said, “Wow, your wrist is so tiny and delicate, if you weren’t married, we’d for sure be together.” As far as I know, he never sexually assaulted anyone, but that’s a low bar for what constitutes abuse.

A few weeks ago, Eater NY described a culture of abuse perpetrated by Thomas Carter, a high-profile restaurateur with a string of hit New York City restaurants in his portfolio. While I’ve long hoped to see this aspect of the restaurant industry exposed, I still found myself surprised to see on-the-record descriptions of such language, and to witness such claims being taken as seriously as abuse. I’ve been telling stories about the toxic culture endemic to restaurants for years, long before anyone wanted to listen. Now it seems it’s all anyone wants to hear. Despite exposing and excising a few sexual harassers and rapists, the industry has a long way to go toward making itself a comfortable place for those without power. Much of this has to do with words, and how we construct culture with and around those words.

Language can do lasting harm. Despite the schoolyard insistence that sticks and stones do damage and words don’t, broken bones heal, whereas a caustic insult, especially one designed to exploit shame or insecurity, can rattle around the brain and mess with the ego for years. Women in kitchens have to endure discussions over other women’s bodies and jokes where rape is the punchline. Gay men working in kitchens experience their identities transformed into insults, slurs being just the tip of the iceberg. The language we throw at people can have a profound effect on how they view themselves. Sometimes, sending cooks through an abusive system sets them up to perpetuate it. That sous chef I mentioned, the one who so looked up to my abusive colleague, went on to be an abusive leader himself. Others may struggle with whether to stay in the industry at all.

Language has always been linked to power. And restaurants generally need hierarchy to function — the line between strong leadership and abuse is at high risk of blurring. Kitchens are literally structured after military brigades, and your job as a soldier/line cook is to follow your superiors into battle/service. This means you are to heed orders no matter what. But right next to that is the assumption that you are a “team player,” a “culture fit.” That might mean when your boss makes a rape joke, you feel obligated to laugh along. Maybe when the chef mutters “nice ass” as the pastry assistant walks by, you fall in line and treat her the same way. With career advancement on the line, mirroring superiors in the kitchen is nearly a given. These systems, designed by and for men, are made well, enforced by years of practice. They won’t come down easily.

As we come to the moment in the #MeToo story when we finally ask what constitutes abuse beyond rampant sexual harassment, I’m distressed by the horrifying, circular, garbage-fire reaction that is “Have we gone too far?” (We haven’t. Asking the industry to clean up its language along with its behavior really is the bare minimum.) I’ve heard some of my peers question whether the restaurant world is getting soft. I too wonder about whether we’re losing some of our grit as the industry professionalizes. But hurting people was never actually character-building, and, certainly, sexualizing subordinates was never making the work better. Anyone questioning this necessary advancement is doing so from a place of fear — fear of power loss, fear of the unknown, and the extremely lazy fear of having to learn not to call people objectively derogatory names or, you know, harass them.

I urge every manager in this business to ask themselves whether the way they speak is in fact effective at all. I am not perfect, of course. I find myself questioning my tone, wondering whether my way of giving direction has ever veered into bullying, and whether I could get my staff to execute my vision with a gentler approach. (This, of course, is complicated by my womanhood, and I’m all too aware of the double standard when it comes to how we hear criticism and direction from women versus men.) Still, there are some basic principles that I know work: Be firm; don’t be an asshole. Do not sexualize your subordinates. Do not make a joke of someone else’s lived experience and identity. A bit of self-reflection and empathy goes a long way.

The oppressive systems, the bullying, and the hyper-masculine culture that envelope this business are the framework for “rape rooms.” The language shared by the men who have historically obtained and kept power in this industry is a key piece of scaffolding holding those structures up. Without that framework, it’s hard to imagine 90 percent of women in the industry experiencing sexual harassment. This is why I am done with brushing anything aside as “just kitchen banter.” It’s not just talk.

And so I fear most of my fellow restaurant operators will “bad apple” Carter and move on. Owning his language as a fact of life in our industry means acknowledging that sometimes those words sounded like our own. To dismiss it as “just talk” is to make excuses for the ideas such talk conveys. In restaurants, we’ve done that for far too long. We cannot afford to pretend everything is all better because we got rid of the most heinous bad actors, like Mario Batali. Batali’s behavior is what happens when you allow male perspectives to be the perspective. And we allowed that to happen with words, spoken and unspoken. Words matter.

Jen Agg is a restaurateur and writer living in Toronto.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan