Building My Wall, Brick by Brick
#86this: Main Menu
By Christina M. Mercado
photo by liz clayman
John Besh, Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, Johnny Iuzzini… every time a new name appears on my news feed I sigh. I feel my heart grow heavy as I read report after report from brave women. And then I think that for every “celebrity chef” called out, there must be countless unknown chefs, managers, and restaurateurs who continue on with their behavior.
I do not understand. I do not understand how we have managed to sustain a culture that accepts such behavior as the norm. Outside of the kitchen: groping, offensive names, crude jokes, and unwanted advances in every form are denounced. We are taught, starting in kindergarten, to treat everyone with respect. You do not touch another person—keep your hands to yourself. You do not name call—treat others with kindness. And you most definitely listen to the word “no”—follow directions the first time they are given. So what happens that permits us to throw aside and ignore these elementary standards? Tolerance.
According to the dictionary, to tolerate is to “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference,” or to “accept or endure (someone or something unpleasant or disliked) with forbearance,” and lastly to “be capable of continued subjection to (a drug, toxin, or environmental condition) without adverse reaction.” We know these behaviors to be wrong, but we have learned to ignore them, to endure them, to accept them as the expected terms of our industry. The real question is, When did we start building this tolerance?
I’ll never forget the reactions when I announced my decision to go to culinary school and the day I told everyone I wanted to be a chef. “Christina, are you sure? A kitchen isn’t the best place for a woman. It’s a man’s world. Not the kind of environment you want to walk into.” And that’s when I put down my first brick. I have to admit that my first thought wasn’t, “I’ll change that. I’ll make it a better place for women.” My first thought was, “That’s fine. I can handle it. I am stronger than they think.”
I walked into culinary school with my head held high. I wasn’t swayed by the fact that in 75 percent of my lab classes I was one of at most five women. I wore it as a badge of honor. There I was, holding my own among the boys, succeeding. Despite the name calling, attempts at sabotage, and overall brutishness of some classmates, I rose to the top. I wanted to be stronger than anything thrown my way, and to me that meant “just dealing,” whether by ignoring them, or responding with sass. But there was never a report, never a complaint. When I learned that the nicknames for culinary students were “meatheads” and for the pastry students “dough-hos,” I didn’t blink. I was angered because the connotation behind the nicknames was that we were stupid. But I didn’t realize until years later how the names were also related to the gender makeup of the majors. Culinary students were male. Pastry, the dough-ho(e)s, female. There wasn't a moment where I stopped to think that anything I experienced was wrong.
I had a chef for one class who had the reputation of making girls cry; this was his way of weeding out the weak. As luck would have it, I was the only girl in his class that segment.
For most of culinary school, the time plays as a highlight reel in fast forward. But for this moment, it’s cemented as a feature length movie. I still remember the color of the tiles on the floor as I looked down with shame. “What are you doing here? Are you stupid! Didn’t you see the smoke?” He went on for about five minutes, getting louder with each second. I had burned fried chicken as a result of oil that was too hot. Black before it even had a chance to cook. The smoke was still rising from the cast iron pan behind him, almost creating the illusion that it was rising from the chef himself. A terrible mistake, sure, but not the first in this class of freshmen. Yet, it was the first that elicited such a response from him. I felt my cheeks getting red as my emotions took over; embarrassment at the moment and anger at myself for the mistake. And then I heard the phrase that still echoes in my mind, “What? Are you going to cry?” And, as if those words woke me up from my haze of disappointment, I simply looked up at the chef and said, with almost an annoyance in my voice, “No, Chef. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” There I stood, just looking at him. And it was over. My lab partner later applauded me for not crying, and I felt proud. Another brick.
There were a few more instances like that over the course of my education, but each time I just moved forward and saw myself getting “stronger.” After all, this was supposed to be preparation for the real world, right?
It was during one of my first internships that I realized I was experiencing sexual harassment. I had probably encountered it before, but mostly in the form of jokes that went over my head. I was 19, and further away from home than I had ever been. It was my first time working in a real kitchen, and I was excited. I had a female executive chef! Only, I never saw her. I was supervised by two men. In the beginning it was simple. I prepped, cooked, made mistakes, and learned. But as time went on and comfort levels rose, one individual, at least 10 years my senior, made his intentions known. He would “compliment” me and my figure regularly, until one day I had enough. I told him to stop and he asked why I couldn’t take a compliment. “You know, your attitude is why you don’t have a man,” he said. To further “prove his point,” he complimented the next female employee who walked by, who just smiled and kept moving. I told him that if being with a man meant dealing with people like him, I’d prefer to stay single. Feeling I had made my point, I walked away, proud that I had stood up to him. Yet, it was just another brick on what was beginning to look like a wall. Luckily nothing ever escalated beyond his comments, which became fewer after that conversation.
When you’re told ahead of time to expect misbehavior, you begin to think that you’re the odd one out when you complain. Am I too sensitive? It was just a joke, right? Thankfully, I’ve always had a relationship with my parents that allowed me to divulge some of my experiences. They both worked hard to raise strong and independent women. My dad would say, “No. You don’t ever accept that behavior. You have to demand respect.” His words have helped keep me above water to this day.
As I rose through the ranks, I thought my authority would add weight to my words.
In one particular kitchen, I discovered just how deep the culture of the boys’ club ran. It wasn’t always the sexual comments—those I shut down pretty early and, at the very least, the cooks would keep quiet in my presence—but it was also the isolation. Being the contrarian comes at a price. I was excluded from decision making. My bosses held different standards for me versus my male counterparts, and they promoted blatant hazing and harassment. New young cooks were coddled until their first mistake, and then they were ripped to shreds in a public manner. This went beyond education and critique; the chef was making sure they felt beyond repair, only to then give them a small compliment the next day on completing a menial task. A compliment that the cook would hold onto like a life raft, until the next mistake. And the cycle continued. It is, and was, an abusive relationship. I wish I could say I lasted in that kitchen. It was the first time I had started to fight back instead of building a wall of tolerance for the behavior. And while the result was negative, it was the most proud I have ever been of myself.
Now that I’m more established in my career, I have the luxury of being selective with my employers. I turned down a job due to the kitchen environment, and I accepted a job due to the reputation of the management. But not everyone can afford to do this, and nor should they have to when it comes to finding a safe work environment.
The biggest challenge was, and is, creating a voice loud enough to be heard. When you are one new voice amid a wave of established voices, you’re easily drowned out. Even more so when you are fighting the tide of a successful business. Money and public reputation built through the media hold the power, and we are taught that in culinary school as well. Internships attached to big restaurant names and chefs are held in much higher esteem. Culinary students fight for a chance to be in the room with some of these chefs, many times at the expense of their education. We are constantly reading the trade periodicals that laud these individuals. Those same magazines have recently come forward stating they have “stood up” by giving less coverage to chefs they have deemed “creepy.” I don’t understand why these individuals are getting any coverage. After all, the media has the loudest voice among us.
It is time for us to reevaluate our tolerance, rediscover our voices, and support those who take the chance to do things the right way. We have to have a critical eye on ourselves and each other. For those who have experienced harassment, or still are, it is important to speak up and out. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. If we keep quiet, we are allowing it to continue. I thought I could rise above, but I was allowing the behavior of others to persist. I was protecting myself but not addressing their actions. We need to call out those who participate, and those who knowingly turn a blind eye—male or female. Again and again I see talent or skill put before the person. The art is not separate from the artist.We excuse a chef’s behavior because of the food he cooks, we excuse a manager because they keep the restaurant running and they’re making money, and we excuse the line level staff because they’re good at their job and we don’t want to be short staffed, right? Well, when does it end?
One of the best chefs I worked for taught me what it means to truly value your employees. He laid off a male cook, whom he direly needed, due to his attitude; and more specifically, his attitude toward working under a woman. The young cook was talented, and more importantly, he was a pair of hands in a very busy season. Working without him meant longer days and more stress. But the chef pointed out that his attitude would have a worse effect on our team than extra shifts. He was creating what should be the standard: a positive work environment.
I can only hope this is the beginning of true change, and not just a series of written statements from harassers serving as apologies. I hope the next generation of women who want to enter the kitchen are told to “go for it!” With no hesitation.
Christina Mercado is the beverage manager at the Grace Vanderbilt and a trained pastry chef. She creates unique cocktail recipes for the luxury boutique hotel in Rhode Island and oversees the wine and spirits menus. In her short amount of free time she loves to read, write, photograph, dance, and travel. She believes this movement is the beginning of a long hard road toward change, but it’s more than worth it!
Liz Clayman is a New York City-based photographer specializing in culinary, lifestyle, and portraiture. She is the photo editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She shoots for a range of freelance clients as well as in-house for Union Square Hospitality Group. www.lizclayman.com