The Heart of the Matter
#86this: Main Menu
By Jessica Quinn
I vividly remember the first time I felt violated working in a kitchen. It was my first job and I was fresh out of culinary school, working at a prominent New York City restaurant. I was training on the line to be a pastry cook, so young, so excited, and so naive. Everything about the kitchen felt like a sacred temple to me. The pristine crisp white chef uniforms. The neat stacks of white plates, the feel of the cool glossy marble beneath my fingertips, the sound of metal spoons chiming, and the clicking of the stove’s flames being ignited; everything sent a shiver of anticipation and relief through me. I had made it.
As I stood behind my station, nervously clutching my side towel, the sound of tickets rolling in filled my ears with a sound that still sends chills down my spine. The sous chef walked over to me. We hadn’t been introduced just yet, but I was a big fan of his food and thrilled to be working with him. He put his hand on my lower back and leaned into me and said, “Welcome to the team, it’s so nice to have you,” not once taking his eyes off my chest. And, just like that, my euphoria ended. I stood there deflated. Full of limitless hope and possibilities just a moment ago, now destroyed by the realization that I was nothing to this man other than something to leer at. I was not his peer. I was an outlet for his oppression.
This would be the first of many similar encounters in my 10-plus years working in restaurants. No matter how hopeful each began, they always ended the same way.
Now though, the Mario Batalis and John Beshs of the culinary world have been exposed for the perpetrators that they are, and for that I am thankful. It feels like the end of an era and the beginning of an age where women are allowed to rise up higher than before. It’s not that we haven’t been relentlessly climbing; it’s that we’ve been constantly knocked back down.
However, when The New York Times published an article about the Spotted Pig's Ken Friedman, I was genuinely surprised by the events that followed. Of course, there was the wave of people expressing shock and disgust at the allegations, but then there was the less obvious result: the siege upon April Bloomfield. Women were rallying together, calling for the excommunication of the once-golden girl. The unified masses screamed for her restaurants to be boycotted. They called her an accomplice and a traitor to women. With the release of the Times article, a pattern emerged, which was the assailant, the actual person accused of the egregious behavior, was let off with a slap on the wrist and the woman standing beside him became the martyr.
In the matter of one day, April Bloomfield, a celebrated chef, restaurateur, and veteran of the industry, was stripped of her accomplishments and reduced to a nursemaid, somehow responsible for the actions of another.
This is not to say that April Bloomfield is completely blameless, but there are multiple factors at play that need to be examined. The easiest to dissect is the simple fact that women in the restaurant industry are at a disadvantage. When I interviewed Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy, a couple of years ago, I asked her to tell me why there are so few female celebrity chefs and restaurant owners. Her answer was stark and painfully truthful. Women are more of a liability, she said, at least in the eyes of investors. Cohen explained that even though women in the field have made enormous advances, they are still less likely to get financial backers to invest in them. The reasons? They ranged from women being viewed as less marketable, making them therefore less profitable, to the fact that women are still viewed as nurturers and caregivers. Unlike male chefs who are viewed as cash cows who will work themselves into the ground, female chefs are walking expiration dates that will eventually settle down and have kids, making them no longer lucrative.
Even though April Bloomfield is now a household name in food circles, that wasn’t always the case. In an industry that already makes it almost impossible for women to find the proper funding to excel in the field, Ken Friedman provided Bloomfield the resources essential to her success.
A question repeatedly asked after the article was published was how could Bloomfield know what was happening and be complacent in her silence. However, here is an alternative point of view from someone who has worked in the industry for over 10 years. Asking whether she knew may not be the right approach; asking whether she truly understood what was happening is another matter. For women like myself, who have worked in the trenches, words lose their malice after time; actions are deflated of their threats. The body and mind can grow accustomed to harsh environments if exposed to them for long periods of time; a veteran like Bloomfield is no different. Working in a field that normalizes sexual harassment and the exploitation and abuse of women, the line of what is acceptable and what isn’t begins to blur and eventually disappears altogether. That is not to say that every kitchen condones or even exhibits this type of behavior, but this system has been in place for a very long time and isn’t going to change overnight. It will take countless steps in the right direction from something as small as having a zero tolerance policy to having the proper channels in place to effectively deal with these types of occurrences. A good example of this would be the Besh Restaurant Group and their lack of a proper H.R. department, which resulted in countless unanswered complaints and calls for help.
Working in restaurants is a privilege for many of us and over the expanse of my career, I have encountered some of the greatest human beings on this planet. Yes, working in restaurants is mentally and physically battering, but it is also rewarding. To survive, it takes commitment, ambition, loyalty, and that desire to create something worth putting all that energy into. The few at the top who have forgotten that privilege, or who use it to exploit those beneath them, are not the norm; they do not define what it means to be a chef. These chefs are dark smudges that need to be wiped out and no longer tolerated.
To understand what it means to work in kitchens one must first step foot into one. When that threshold is crossed, the individual is irreversibly changed for life, for better or worse. Changing institutions take time, but any change starts with words. Now that the dialogue has begun, I am optimistic real change will come to the hearths many of us call home.
Jessica Quinn is a chef and food writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her wife and their two fur babies.