When the Kitchen Isn’t Safe for Women

New York Times
October 30, 2017

By Tracie McMillan

In 2010, I took a job at a New York City Applebee’s. I said I was considering culinary school and wanted to get some experience in a real kitchen, but I was actually there to write about the experience for a book. I had grand plans to take a genre steeped in machismo and tell a woman’s story instead.

I got what I was after, though not in the way I had hoped. My kitchen stint included sexual harassment so common that it became background noise, and a sexual assault, which did not.

In the wake of more than two dozen women asserting that the Besh Restaurant Group in New Orleans fostered a culture of sexual harassment, I have been torn. Half of me is rolling my eyes at how predictable it is. The other half is blind with outrage: At the people described as perpetrators, and the industry leaders who’ve stayed silent. But I’m most confounded by the people who have profited off the mythology of kitchens as places where, as a famous chef once said, “conversation tends to center on” — to paraphrase — male genital proportions and preferred sexual acts.

You don’t need to find a secret text from a chef to read a more specific and colorful version of that. It’s in Anthony Bourdain’s best-selling book, “Kitchen Confidential,” which has been a siren song of kitchen machismo in food media since its publication in 2000.

These kinds of stories, which aren’t limited to Mr. Bourdain, have set the standard for what people expect working in a restaurant to be like. For anyone inclined to believe in American meritocracy, they offer a raunchy yet appealing vision of the world: So long as a woman has a thick skin and works hard, she’ll be just fine. This is powerfully seductive. I should know, because I once fell for it, too.

In the kitchen, I aimed to prove I was tough. I rolled my eyes when men ogled me; I responded to attempts at flirtation with epithets and smiles. When a manager reprimanded a cook for calling me mamí, I brushed it off. “It’s cool,” I said. “I’ve been called worse.”

On my last night on the job, I drank on the line, like most everyone else. Everything from there is unclear, because — from what I was able to gather — one of the cooks had drugged my drink. Apparently, a crew of colleagues, all but one of them men, took me to a house to “party” after work. I’ve been told that the man who drugged me tried to take me home with him, but the other woman who’d come along prevented this. I got into a bed in the apartment, and some other guy decided to do what he liked with me.

I do not remember this. I reported the assault to the police, but could never bring myself to ask for specifics. The handprint-shaped bruise I had on my thigh gave me enough to think about.

For a long time, I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid. How could I have missed that I was in a dangerous place?

Here’s how: I bought into the idea that talk in the kitchen was just talk, and that a thick skin would indeed protect me. But it wasn’t and it didn’t, because a sexualized workplace is a dangerous workplace for women. When the entire culture of a place is lewd, it makes it impossible to tell which men are dangerous. The raunchiest man in the kitchen had no part in the assault, but a quieter cook apparently did. In the din of dirty kitchen-speak, I could not have told you the difference between them.

The urgency of this problem was harder to see a generation ago, when kitchens were relatively marginal workplaces. That is no longer the case. Today restaurants are central to our culture and our economy. As the cult of celebrity chefs has grown, annual restaurant sales have more than doubled since 2001 to just under $800 billion. The National Restaurant Association says its industry employs nearly one-tenth of all workers. Last year, restaurant jobs exceeded 9.1 million, more than half held by women. This makes restaurants mainstream, professional workplaces, and that is true for both a social media manager for Mr. Besh or a teenage server at an IHOP.

Whatever degree of glamour in a particular job, harassment in restaurants is nearly universal. Two-thirds of female restaurant workers reported experiencing sexual harassment from management in a 2014 survey, and 80 percent reported it from co-workers, according to research from advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United. The most common kind reported was kind of the sexual teasing and jokes that had preceded my assault. Most women responded the same way I did: They ignored it.

Women ignore such behavior out of self-preservation, but men ignore it because it is easy and acceptable to do so. It sounds as if that was the strategy for Mr. Bourdain, who gave an interview to Slate last week. Around bro culture, he said, “I was so uncomfortable.” But when it came to being the bad boy, he also “played that role and went along with it.” So have most male chefs and food writers.

Like me, women who experience the darker side of kitchen work don’t need men who’ve benefited and profited from its pervasively sexist culture to apologize and shrug. We need them to actively disown it, and then work, loudly and alongside women, to change it. We’re waiting.

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