When a 24-year old Toronto pastry chef went public earlier this summer with allegations of sexual harassment in the restaurant where she worked, it caused a great kerfuffle in the city’s restaurants — not to mention a maelstrom of controversy. Sure, there’s nothing new about sexual harassment; it’s an issue as old as restaurants themselves. But these recent allegations brings to light that as much as we think there’s been progress made on this front, there’s still a long way to go.
While in the past, many women have remained mum on the subject for fear of being viewed as responsible, given that as a society we tend to protect our abusers, recent allegations against comedian Bill Cosby and, closer to home, ex-CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, have opened the discussion in ways never before imagined. After years of suffering in silence, women are now armed with a new-found strength and conviction. They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore, as witnessed by last month’s launch of the Kitchen Bitches conference, held in Toronto (see story on Sexual Harassment on p. 30).
As with any problem, the only way to solve it is to shine a light on the issue and deal with it. Keeping it under wraps and spouting rhetoric that states this kind of behaviour is the exception and not the rule only perpetuates bad behaviour and deludes us into believing the problem isn’t real.
Understandably, sexual harassment is a delicate topic fraught with emotion. Most operators don’t want to be quoted on the subject for fear of reprisal, especially in today’s hyper-connected social media world where the wrong comment can spark a viral storm of controversy and cause potential untold damage. There are others who blithely believe women today are being too extreme in the way they approach this topic.
Let’s not kid ourselves, the stereotype of the temperamental chef is legendary and exists for a reason. In the past, kitchens have been known to be hotbeds of bullying; add a woman to the mix and the flames intensify. Even respected chef René Redzepi, who owns and operates Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant rated the world’s best on the San Pellegrino Top 50 list, recently penned an article in David Chang’s Lucky Peach newsletter, admitting that for years he was guilty of treating his staff harshly.
But a kinder and gentler Redzepi now states, “We’ve let really talented people go because they had a bad attitude or weren’t respectful. We put a purposeful emphasis on making the environment friendlier to women, so we’re not just making obscene, pornographic jokes all day. It’s not about losing a sense of humour; it’s about being more clever in all things and letting the humour follow.”
Hopefully, the ensuing dialogue and discussion arising from this summer’s allegations in Toronto and the public acknowledgements by Redzepi and others like him will move the industry forward. At the end of the day, isn’t it time the industry starts dealing with this issue? Isn’t it time all stakeholders came together to eradicate the problem, ensuring the workplace is a safe environment for all concerned? Isn’t it time to make the hospitality industry more hospitable to its own employees?