Accepting the Unacceptable, Until a Celebrity Chef Pushed It Too Far
#86this: Main Menu
By Rebecca Marshall
illustration by jessie kanelos weiner
It was supposed to be a photo op with a celebrity chef whose work I admired. As I walked out of an exclusive, spectacular charity dinner last winter, I noticed him sitting alone at one of the now-empty tables, with a group of acolytes and admirers circling. Since we had a mutual acquaintance who wasn’t in attendance that evening, I approached with feigned confidence, gave the name of our shared friend, and asked for a snapshot to send him. Chef chortled and enthusiastically agreed, slapping his generous thigh as an invitation to take a seat. I draped my arm over his shoulder, leaned in, and signaled to my companion to grab the shot with my iPhone. She started snapping, and Chef decided to up the ante, kissing me on the cheek. When I turned to return the favor, he planted a great big wet smooch on my lips. I was so startled and unnerved, I started laughing. Hard. At which point, he stuck his tongue down my throat. If I still had tonsils, he would have tickled them.
Trying to deflect my shock, I exclaimed, “Wow! That’s the most action I’ve had in ages!!” Chef kept trying to get his tongue into my mouth, and replied, “Give me 10 minutes!!” He was holding me tightly, and I was struggling to dodge. I leaned back as far as I could, laughing out loud. I used the momentum of returning to a seated position to propel me out of his grip, smiled, and wished him a good night.
As I mentioned, there were photos. A lot of them—and they were shocking, and still a little bit funny. It seemed a perfect Instagram moment to celebrate how groovy the night had been, and to create a mini-viral moment for the charity. A moment of “If you put a lot of your money on the table, you, too, can get up close and personal with a celebrity, and do some good in the meantime.” So, I selected one of the photos to post on my feed—one where I am barely in touch with gravity, and laughing. And Chef is going in for more. As I wrote the caption, I made a food pun and hashtagged the hell out of the charity, but I didn’t tag or name the chef. Granted, it was pretty apparent who he was, but I didn’t want to upset his wife, his children, or his friends.
I wanted to PROTECT him from his bad behavior—it was obvious he had been drinking, and it was a private event. And hey, it had been funny, right? Like funny haha, not funny icky?
And it’s not like I’m new to all of this. I started working professionally in fine dining kitchens in the late 1970s. I was often the only female working the line, learning to put my head down and let my food talk. In one kitchen, there were two women on a crew of five. We were both named Rebecca, but never called anything but “Fucking Whore” or “Fucking Bitch”—and it wasn’t clear who was whom. In another, my direct manager, married with young children, would treat me to stories of vulgar dreams he had about me and demand a full body hug before I left every day. When it came time for year-end reviews, I received a mediocre one, even though the numbers told a different story. When pressed, he just said that my male coworker needed the better grade and, hence, pay raise, more than I did. I did a stage in a two-star Michelin restaurant in Brittany. Chef threw a box of artichokes at me to catch, and tersely told me to “tourneé” them. Those damned thistles were dinner-plate sized and I popped my thumb on the knife. He screamed that the entire case was now contaminated and had to be thrown out and it was the stupid American housewife’s fault. A single tear escaped down my cheek, damn it, and that started the whole kitchen laughing at me and telling me that “Il faut que tu suffre.”
Why did I keep going back for more? I am far from a martyr, but I AM a quick learner. I wanted to cook. I needed to cook. So, figure it out. When I tried to play along and be as down in the dirt as my male colleagues, I was told to “keep my nose out of the maid’s ass.” I tried to just keep quiet and do my job, but when you are working 80 hours a week at minimum wage ($3.75 back then) with no overtime and no benefits, the people you spend your waking hours with are your community, and the closest thing you have to friends. So, I talked. And got fired. And when I went to what passed for H.R. in the ‘80s, I was told to not pay any attention to the remarks; that was just how guys behave. If I didn’t like it, maybe this profession wasn’t for me.
The way to make it work was to use the tools you are given. So, I flirted. I let the sous chef cop a feel in the walk-in.
I pretended not to notice that Chef always brushed my bum as we switched positions at the stove—but a tiny voice in the bottom of my brain wondered why he always chose to go behind me, when it wasn’t the most efficient. And I built a paradigm in my head that this business is sensual—the atmosphere is full of smells and sweat and touching—whether it is butchering a carcass or crying over a vat of minced shallots. That this was the price of admission to a breathtakingly beautiful world of great cuisine. Grow up and shut up.
I worked for 15 years in the high-end restaurant and catering world. I loved more things about it than I hated. I had no idea that I was learning to accept the unacceptable, until I looked at that photo two weeks after the event. A wave of revulsion and sadness washed over me. Now nearly 60 years old, I saw that same young woman, trying to figure out if the price of entry is worth the cost. I felt, rather than saw, the fear of doing the wrong thing and upsetting the great man, and derailing a career that I so desperately and passionately wanted to explore. As a child, when we came home with a tale of woe and unfairness, my mother always demanded, “What did you do?” My default position, when confronted with conflict, is to take responsibility for my actions, and to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Did I do anything to make Chef think it was okay to stick his tongue in my mouth?? I can say, with the hindsight of nearly a year, absolutely not. I am flabbergasted that he thought it was okay. And I am even more staggered that I thought to protect him and his reputation after the fact.
But here I am. And there he is. And I will not protect him any longer, nor anyone else who thinks they are entitled to behave with impunity.
Rebecca Marshall travels the world as a private chef; recent projects have found her cooking in Morocco, Ireland, New York City, the Hamptons, and Virginia. She also creates bespoke kitchen environments and meals for clients as The Kitchen Curator.
Jessie Kanelos Weiner is an illustrator, and food and prop stylist living in Paris and a frequent contributor to Cherry Bombe. She is co-author of the upcoming Paris in Stride: An Insider's Walking Guide (Rizzoli 2018) and author of Edible Paradise: A Coloring Book of Seasonal Fruits and Vegetables (Universe).