For many, the most shocking aspect of the #MeToo movement isn’t that so many Hollywood deals are still made on the casting couch, or that so many seemingly charming celebrities have turned out to be brutes.
It’s that so many women subjected to workplace sexual harassment, or worse, write it off in frustration or fear.
In the past few years, media reports have put a spotlight on powerful men in entertainment, business and other industries who have been accused of everything from sexual harassment and assault to rape. Many of these men have stepped down from their leadership roles, while a national conversation continues to swirl about how to ignite change.
New York Times writer Kim Severson has found the trend is particularly endemic in restaurants and the culinary industry, and not just from rock star chefs like Mario Batali and John Besh, who faced accusations of misconduct in addition to fostering a toxic culture in their restaurants.
“Work is where we all learned to be sexually harassed, and for many of us, that started in a restaurant,” says Severson, whose investigative work contributed to The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.
The intersection of the culinary world and the #MeToo movement will be explored in two panels this week.
On Oct. 4, a panel called “Food Media and #MeToo” at The Durham hotel will feature Severson; award-winning journalist and cookbook writer Sandra Gutierrez of Cary; Colman Andrews, a founding editor of Saveur and an authority on food and wine; and Chef Andrea Reusing of The Durham and Chapel Hill’s Lantern restaurant.
The next day, Severson, Gutierrez, and Andrews will be joined by anthropologist and James Beard Award-winning food journalist Kelly Alexander of Chapel Hill for a panel titled “Violence in the Kitchen” on Duke University’s West Campus.
In The New York Times and other media outlets, hostesses and servers, line cooks and dishwashers all have shared encounters with verbal intimidation, unwanted touching and outright demands for sex. Their candor led many women with restaurant experience to acknowledge the abuse to which they had been exposed.
Severson has seen this type of behavior first-hand. She recalls that she lied about her age when she was 17 to get hired at a restaurant, where she soon learned that the manager kept a cot in the basement.
“We’d all try to dodge him, but that’s how people become victims of sexual assault,” she says. “Everybody knew this was a problem at restaurants, but nothing happened until now.”
Severson’s reporting resonated with Alexander, now a ph.D. candidate and Lecturing Fellow at Duke. In the 1990s, while living in New York and writing for Saveur magazine, she brushed off frequent sexual harassment while working at a famous bakery.
“I just became inured about jokes about my butt, for example,” recalls Alexander, who was often the only woman on her shift. “I had to make 220 scones before 5 a.m. or I’d get fired. At the time, that seemed more important than giving someone the what-for about sexual harassment.
“I’m lucky that it was just people talking about my butt and not touching it,” she adds.
Meanwhile, the reports also have cast a glare on lesser-known kitchens where women and immigrant employees are routinely bullied and threatened.
Gutierrez hasn’t worked in a restaurant before but has interviewed countless women who shared frightening stories about being cornered in small kitchens or subjected to demoralizing bullying. Particularly desperate recollections have been shared by immigrant women who are not fluent in English.
“They literally have no voice with which to defend themselves,” Gutierrez says. “They have a right to be safe at work.”
Gutierrez credits North Carolina chefs like Reusing, Vivian Howard of Kinston and Ashley Christensen of Raleigh for setting a high bar for professional standards.
New Orleans chef Alon Shaya, who worked with Besh in New Orleans before scandal forced Besh to resign, told The News & Observer earlier this year that Christensen, a James Beard Award winner, is a model for how he established and operates his new hospitality group.
Gutierrez adds that these leading female chefs “truly are at the helm of a new moment where women are taking control in the kitchen and are no longer subservient.”
“If anybody owes other women a degree of sacrifice, it’s the women who are ahead,” she says. “If people at the top don’t take a stand, the ones behind us have no chance.”
Severson agrees and cautions that while a few bad actors have been exposed, much remains to be done, especially in regard to male chefs and owners who believe they can continue mistreating employees.
“A lot of men are wringing their hands over this,” Severson says. “I’m much more interested in men who want to be part of the solution. Expecting women to fix it is probably not unlike expecting a minority group to fix a racial problem. It’s up to the majority group with the most power to get involved and make it right.”
Severson’s work on this topic continues. In August, she broke the story that actress Asia Argento, a leader in the #MeToo movement, quietly made a deal with a male actor who accused her of sexually assaulting him when he was 17. Argento called the report “absolutely false” and has denied the actor’s allegations, though her lawyer recently said in a statement that the actor had allegedly assaulted her, according to media reports. But she said in a statement that her boyfriend, culinary TV star Anthony Bourdain, had paid the actor $380,000 to help the actor “economically” and to avoid “negative publicity that such person, whom he considered dangerous, could have brought upon us.”
Bourdain died by suicide in June.
When Alexander first started planning Friday’s panel, she wanted to invite Bourdain to talk about food activism and #MeToo advocacy. The charismatic Bourdain had been quick to use his platform to call out Batali and others who use their power to take gross advantage of women in their employ.
“The whole idea of chefs as rock stars, as performers, has in a lot of ways put the food world in line with with the entertainment industry — and that aligns the exploitation,” Alexander says. “Conversations like the ones we’ll have keep the focus in the right place, especially for women and minorities, so these things do not happen in secret.”
▪ “Food Media and #MeToo”: Oct. 4, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., in the Mezzanine of The Durham Hotel, 315 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham. Free, but reservations are required as space is limited. Go to foodmediametoo.brownpapertickets.com. Cocktails and snacks included. Co-sponsored by the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University.
▪ “Violence in the Kitchen”: Oct. 5, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Old Chemistry on Duke’s West Campus. Free and open to the public. Light lunch served. Hosted by the Forum for Scholars and Publics.