No One Should be Surprised
#86this: Main Menu
By Katy Severson
illustration by babeth lafon
I’m guessing I’m not the only woman whose reaction to all the recent sexual harassment allegations was a resounding “duh.” This isn’t news to me—not as someone who’s worked in the restaurant industry and not as a woman who’s lived in this world for 29 years now. Like most women, I’ve had my ass grabbed more times than I can count; I’ve been talked to lewdly, shamed for my appearance, lured into alleys and bathrooms, and yes— at one point—a cab with Ken Friedman. This isn’t news to us.
Ten women came forward to the media about Ken Friedman, five about Mario Batali, and 25 about John Besh, but there were many more of us. And there are still many more of us, all across the country, at much less glitzy places than the Spotted Pig. It wasn’t until I read these articles that I started to digest what I’ve witnessed. The truth is, I knew about what was happening and I largely ignored it.
I didn’t say anything when Ken Friedman tried to kiss me at work. I just slowly scooted my stool away from him until I was up against a wall across the room, which suddenly feels very symbolic. I didn’t say anything when, at my first New York City restaurant gig, a lead line cook said “behind” as he squeezed past me, then grabbed my waist and whispered, “Well, not yet.” I just smiled and kept working, as not to escalate things. I didn’t say anything when my male friend put his hands in my pants while I was sleeping. I just softly moved his hand off me, as not to be rude. I didn’t say anything when another man in power told me that I wasn’t “hot enough to grope.” I just laughed, even though I didn’t think it was funny.
Now I’m reliving those experiences through a different lens and I feel strange—even guilty—for not recognizing it as problematic; for being quiet, complicit, compliant.
This is a guilt I share with many women, and it is two-fold: we feel guilty for throwing our bosses, our mentors, our friends under the bus—and we feel guilty for not doing so sooner.
I have friends who were afraid to speak out because they felt like maybe they’d played a role; that they’d used certain words, even emojis, that might have seemed flirtatious. I know women who feel guilty for feeling flattered, for smiling, for flirting back. Maybe we liked the attention—maybe we felt like it gave us an edge at the restaurant, an opportunity to be introduced to some influential people in the industry? Maybe we did flirt back. But what else do you do when someone in power expects you to? What do you do when you feel like your job depends on it? What do you do when you feel like your life is in danger if you don’t comply? Sometimes we just don’t have it in us to use every incident of sexual harassment as a soap box to stand on. Sometimes we just want to get the f—k out of there.
We need to forgive ourselves for that. We need to dismantle that guilt.
So how do we move forward? How do we guarantee that these headlines don’t disintegrate into the ever-growing black hole of breaking news? How do we speak for the women across the country whose stories aren’t making the press? Because for every woman brave enough to say something, there are hundreds more still silenced, still ridden with guilt, still unable to risk their jobs by coming forward.
I think we start here—by telling our stories and empowering others to tell theirs, until there are so many that society has no choice but to believe them. The more women who speak out and label this treatment as unjust, the more we convince ourselves it is.
It’s time to air our grievances, to let things get ugly.
It’s time to hold all perpetrators accountable for their actions—not just chefs and restaurant owners but sous chefs, line cooks, back waiters, dishwashers. Because what we need to change is greater than the actions of a few individuals. We need to change the culture that excuses them.
It’s time to 86 the internalization and acceptance of this behavior under the guise of what we call “kitchen culture”—a culture of “dick talk” (to quote Tom Colicchio), bawdy jokes, ass-grabbing, aggression.
It’s time to put more women in power positions and make it easier for them to achieve ownership—not to toss out our male counterparts, but to even the keel a bit. It’s time to restructure our staff, our schedules, our finances, to make room for things like maternity leave, health benefits, reasonable hours, actual H.R. departments.
As women and as female leaders, we need to support each other. We need to stop participating in the machismo; to stop parroting the dick talk, stop slut-shaming female coworkers, stop laughing at jokes we don’t think are funny, stop competing against each other, and start lifting each other up.
We need to stop redirecting the blame, to ourselves and to our female business partners. We need to stop making excuses for our harassers. We need to stop pretending that it has anything to do with being “hot enough to grope.” Because we all are.
Ironically maybe, I chose to work at the Spotted Pig as a young cook because the kitchen was female-run. I was exhausted by male-dominated kitchens where I felt pigeon-holed and disrespected. At the Pig, I saw a kitchen rooted in respect, talent, and hard work. It made me feel elevated to be surrounded by successful female chefs who had it in them to push me—but also to respect me. It made me feel like there was gratification left in an industry that was starting to feel dead-end and belittling. Even now, despite its obvious issues, the kitchen I saw that first night serves as an example of what’s possible.
We can do that for each other. We can atomize the industry as we know it and rebuild it as a better one. We are long overdue.
Katy Severson is a private chef, freelance writer, and feminist based in Brooklyn. She cooks, eats, sleeps, and writes all things food. Her latest obsession: baking naturally-leavened bread. Check out her travel and recipe journal at freethepicnic.com and on Instagram at @katyseverson.
Babeth Lafon is an Parisian illustrator currently based in Berlin and a regular contributor to Cherry Bombe. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, reading self-help books, and traveling to tropical destinations whenever possible.