In Restaurant Kitchens, Words Can Cut As Deep As Knives

haven's kitchen
haven's kitchen
Working in kitchens can harden a chef. Photo by Clay Williams.

Thanks to a movement to call-out high-powered men, talking about sexual harassment no longer has the same stigma it once did. Recently, the restaurant industry has been having its own moment. But the harsh environment is nothing new for those familiar with the industry. Unfortunately, it’s enough to drive many away from the heat of the kitchen, including me.

“You look like you need to get fucked hard,” the server said to me while leering over my petit fours trays, pâtes de fruits and mini macarons observing back impassively. I was wearing a baggy, man-size chef coat—because ordering coats for the female staff was an unreasonable request—and sweating profusely.

It was around 10 p.m. and the pastry line was just getting hit with our first big rush of the night. I almost didn’t hear him over the dull roar of calls for pick up and the melodious clank of quenelle spoons against metal gelato pans.

But here’s the funny thing about that: You almost never miss it. It drowns everything else out and echoes like a tin can rattling around in your head.

I silenced the tin can. Pick up or get out of the way, I said. Service continued.

I was barely 21 years old, in my first big New York kitchen job, and the last thing I wanted to do was screw up. His long-standing tenure and age, at least double my barely legal years, would be no match to mine. This was a Michelin-starred restaurant, after all, and we were expected to hit 400 covers that night. Nothing else mattered.

I remember finally telling my chef about the numerous creepy things that had spewed from the server’s mouth. We had just left a late-night party with the pastry team. I was sandwiched between him and our newest sous chef in a cab with the taxi TV blaring one of those, “Driver turn around and bring us to Nordstrom”–type ads. I didn’t want to be chauffeured to a department store. I wanted to be heard.

Chef turned the words over in his mouth multiple times, bewildered. Of course he was confused. I was telling him that their most beloved server was a total creep. Emboldened by my chef’s horrified response, I slowly began telling others. Instead of solidarity, five words repeatedly fired back at me like bullets: “But he’s a nice guy.”

End of discussion.

That’s just how it is. It’s a long-standing social narrative in kitchens. These “nice guys” keep their jobs and move up in rank through the companies, and the rest of us silently slip away to another job or career. We’d all go out after the restaurant closed and he’d buy everyone a round: nice guy. Afterwards, I’d be cornered multiple times by male coworkers telling me to let it go, even by the server himself, because that server was so great and “you know he really didn’t mean it.”

No, I didn’t know. And he did, by the way.

In another job, my boss, the head pastry chef, “accidentally,” he claimed later, posted a to-do list on the kitchen’s public bulletin board that directed me to be stupid and just kill myself. I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the gist of it.

He’d been yelling at me for months, screaming about my worthlessness. We all knew he was unhappy, and we all took the abuse because it was expected. No one talks about it, because we want to be able to continue to work in the industry. You talk, you leave. Even as I write this, I fear the backlash.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported in 2016 that up to 85 percent of women in the workforce have experienced sexual harassment, and earlier in 2015 estimated that up to 75 percent of these cases go unreported, especially in service-based industries, like kitchens. Wonder why? That same study indicated that over two-thirds of those harassed faced retaliation at work after reporting their incidents.

I immediately ripped the offending sheet of paper down, handling it like a rotten corpse, and marched over to our supervisor, the head culinary director. This was the last straw, I told him. “Now, don’t make any rash decisions,” said another chef to me after showing them the paper. “This happens, it’s a kitchen. Just deal with it, finish your shift and come back tomorrow. It’ll be better then.”

Spoiler alert: I didn’t finish my shift. That rotten corpse was my kitchen career.

The kitchen mind-set tells us to just suck it up and give it right back. In the recent articles about the allegations against chef John Besh, the opening paragraphs still say prominent and celebrated chef. A woman on Twitter responded to Anthony Bourdain’s call to step-up against harassment by saying, “I am a chef…you guys are for sure assholes but rarely are you sexually inappropriate.”

Other women have told me stories of popular chef Johnny Iuzzini, who harassed so many women, especially hostesses, that he was forced to leave his high-powered position at Jean-Georges. It had been billed in the aftermath as a conscious uncoupling of sorts, a chance for this chef to spread his wings. They didn’t want to tell the truth and sully his career.

He’s not the only one. Groping in the walk-in, screaming during service and throwing hot pans; common harassment techniques go on in kitchens everywhere. Out of 300 hospitality workers surveyed by United Voice, an Australian-based trade union, 89 percent said they had been harassed in some form.

I’m not here to name names or scream #metoo. I’m asking for people to believe us the first time. Not the second time, and not after 30 women come forward. The first, please.

While people are applauding the meager HR policies restaurants are touting in the wake of allegations against prominent men of the industry, I’m wary. I brought that same paper to the HR department of this company—known, and lauded for, their great employees-first mantra—and was promptly swept under the rug. They considered shifting me to another one of the company restaurants, but no one wanted to take on a harassment liability.

I found out recently that my former chef still has his job and his reign of terror over his team.

I’ll be the first to point out that no one ever laid a hand on me. But they didn’t have to. Words are a vice grip unlike any other. Numerous pieces have been circulating around recently to the tune of: “If you’ve done any of these, it’s harassment.” Pay attention, because it’s true.

But that incident marked the last time I would set foot in a professional kitchen. In the brief years I’d spent cooking my heart and soul out, I cultivated a salty exterior and biting personality that still lingers today. It reads as a comedic routine, not a giant “back off” sign.

Much later on, a friend would remark, as we stood in a crowded bar, that I had just disarmed an aggressive come-on from a drunken man rather easily. “Well, I worked in kitchens,” I told him. And that’s all there was to it.