A Note on Powerful Men Behaving Badly in the Restaurant Business
#86this: Main Menu
By Anna Atanassova
Before this essay was published, someone I’ve been friends with my entire adult life, and part of my childhood, was accused of sexual assault. It was an earth-shattering day. I do not support any abusers and I am horrified by the stories surrounding this case. In the week since this article was published, I’ve received a number of messages from women concerned that I am defending or supporting the behaviors in these stories. That is not true. I am committed to supporting women and believe deeply that we need each other to move forward, heal, and end abuse and harassment.
I am terrified by men.
In college, a sweaty, hammered man pinned me against his mattress and put his hand under my shirt. It took a superhuman feat of strength to push this fat motherfucker off my body, but I did, and I ran—left my keys, left my phone, and sprinted down a set of stairs so fast that the sound of my sneakers matched my heart in my chest perfectly. A couple of years go by, and, after a series of amateur sexual encounters with other kinds of motherfuckers, I absorbed this trauma into my body as just another possible indication that men were a mistake. One night, as I’m out to dinner with a group of friends, my eyes start to wander around the restaurant—front-of-house syndrome—scanning for unbussed tables, empty glasses, and crumpled napkins… and in a room full of the aforementioned, I zero in on that fat motherfucker. I instantly look back at my table as if the dimpled, sweaty back of his head had eyes that could see me, and gingerly look back again. He’s standing at expo, and he’s wiping plates.
With his hands.
The hand that he put in my shirt in college, on the mattress, touched my plate, touched my food, touched me, touched me, touched me, he found another way to touch me without asking. Fuck, I almost vomit in my pasta.
The male gaze is a misnomer. For me, the words depict a slow movement of the eyes, like a lift toward the ceiling in a yoga class. A gaze is something you cast gently, something you land on the soft parts and reveal the shadows. What women live inside of, what I live inside of, is more like a light beam from a projector in a dark room. It’s unforgiving, it’s blinding, and everything inside of it is captive—a billion specks of dust, suspended and backlit in one ruthless beam.
A good friend of mine told me that recently, while grabbing an apron to wear for her shift, her general manager came into the linen closet and stuck his tongue down her throat. She pushed him away, and then she smiled at strangers for eight hours.
Honestly, fuck Harvey Weinstein. Fuck Louis C.K. Fuck literally every single man who has ever touched somebody the wrong way.
But something about the way this happens in restaurants—in the presence and cultivation of food service—in a business that exists for the purposes of consumption—needs to be talked about, and frankly.
Our business is hedonism. We dedicate our lives, both personally and professionally, to gluttony, lust, and pride. We revel in decadence, in appearances, in accolades, and we put foie gras on pork belly because we want capital I “it all.” Alcohol, and lots of it, is part of the deal. And I love this shit, because this is my industry, and this is what I want to do forever.
At a cocktail bar, my bar manager asked our service bartender to “make drinks for those sluts that just came in.”
Restaurants don’t have a human resources department. In fact, most restaurants don’t even really have an office—you’re usually getting reprimanded, paid, emotional, and promoted in the same damp supply-closet with a stack of Great Lakes price books and an extra case of Libbey glassware. If you are lucky enough to work somewhere with a desk, any complaint you may have will go, without protocol, directly to a person who spends 70 hours a week at your restaurant, has deep and boundless relationships with staff, and has no clerical obligation to so much as document your concerns. When you feel smaller than a dust speck in a light beam, your chances of coming forward about anything get even smaller.
And so we let it go. We let men put their hands on the small of our back when they walk behind us, stare at our ass while we walk up the stairs, grab us across the bar to get our attention and pull us by the arm to hand us a credit card. We let total fucking nerds who have never caught a ball be jocks for the first time in their life at locker-room bars. We let vagrant, terrible line cooks get wasted on their shift drinks and don’t hold them accountable for what they say afterwards. We let the owners of our restaurants get drunk at work, we let predatory chefs take young girls who work for them on dates, and we let entire staffs of an establishment be white men. That fat motherfucker is always, always, always fucking touching me, and I don’t even think he lives in Detroit anymore. And there’s nobody to tell. When the hand that you feel without welcome is always attached to a man, you stop knowing how to believe that a single one is on your side.
It takes a certain type of person to love this work. This industry, with its ruthless hours, physical labor, and triage-unit levels of stress retains a small drip from its employment funnel—and it often drives a man in search of a power trip. The endless, unabiding circle-jerk that is the boys' club of this business is real.
How many times have you heard a line cook refer to a rough service as rape?
I’ve had to tell two sous chefs that “rape” is an unacceptable term to use in the kitchen. One complained—about me—to our general manager. He was not disciplined.
Not all men are bad. Not here, not in politics, and not in show business. But that’s not the point. I know that there are men reading this essay right now who know I’m talking about them. I know that last month, with the Mario Batali story, a few specific men are scared. But even in the face of proven systematic sexual abuse, the media has shaped our dialogue to the man’s experience.
Famed ______ accused of ________. The media uses names, accolades, and titles to humanize the monsters who do this, and they choose only one victim: the collective woman. Maybe, to other men, or to those fortunate enough to have lived outside of victimhood, a difference exists between each offender. Not to me. In fact, I know exactly who that man is. I saw him that night in college, and I’ve seen him every day since. Every cat call, every drunk guy at the bar, and every single headline I’ve read about the men who get away with this.
I don’t believe I need to call anybody in this essay by their government name for you to know who I’m talking about. These stories are just the beginning. To the women around me who are floating in the light—I am with you. And to everybody in this business, and elsewhere, hiding behind a business card, a bar, or the door to that tiny office—I swear to god, you’re next.
My name is Anna Atanassova, I live in Detroit, Michigan, and I am the beverage director at Flowers of Vietnam. I also co-own a record store. I spend most of my time cooking for other people and serving them wine, and have started to write about both as of late. I believe that we in this industry are in the business of dispensing bliss.