Posted: Feb 16, 2018
In March of 2016, a year and a half before the Harvey Weinstein revelations ignited the #MeToo movement, before Brett Anderson’s remarkable reporting at the New Orleans Times-Picayune exposed the culture of sexual abuse in the kitchens of the restaurateur John Besh (who has since apologized and stepped down from his company), the celebrity chef Paul Qui was arrested at his home on charges of domestic violence. Qui had for a long time been a golden boy of Austin, Texas, a charismatic cook with an up-from-the-bootstraps backstory and a mini-empire of perpetually mobbed restaurants. In 2012, he achieved national fame when he competed on “Top Chef” and won. Now, according to a police report, he was found at home in his underwear, blood on his limbs and face; his girlfriend had a swollen jaw, with a cut and fresh bruises on her arms, and her young son was present at the scene; blood was smeared on the walls and floors; broken glass was everywhere. (Qui has denied the assault charges.)
Qui’s arrest was a watershed of sorts for the restaurant industry. Culinary stars had, in the past, tended to skate through P.R. crises without much friction from the food media, and without lasting damage to their reputations or their businesses. Also in 2016, the Napa Valley celebrity chef Michael Chiarello was hit with a sexual-harassment lawsuit by two former employees and a class-action labor-violations suit by others; the next year, he opened an “Eataly-style food emporium” that the San Francisco Chronicle called “a compelling experience.” (In a statement, Chiarello called the lawsuits’ claims “unfounded”; later, both lawsuits were settled out of court.) In the case of an act as apparently gruesome as Qui’s, though, the people who write about food for a living weren’t entirely sure what to do. In the year after his arrest, Qui closed his namesake restaurant. But then he opened a new one, in the same location, with a new name, Kuneho. So what could the critics do except review it? The Austin Chronicle’s Melody Fury framed the reopening as a play for public redemption, one that Qui ultimately earned, in her view, through the capability of his kitchen: “The question of whether Qui has redeemed himself lingered in my mind throughout the meals. When focusing on the food alone, the answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ ” In a glowing review in Texas Monthly, Patricia Sharpe tripped a delicate minuet around the assault arrest, mentioning only the chef’s “unfortunately well-publicized stint in rehab.”
It’s been less than a year since those reviews were published, but today, in the midst of a massive cultural reckoning with gendered abuses of power, they read differently. As stories of sexual harassment in high-profile kitchens continue to spill forth, food writers and journalists are facing a reckoning of our own: Why weren’t we addressing these questions earlier? Why didn’t we do more? And how should we approach knowledge of abuse moving forward? On Monday, the digital food-media juggernaut Eater (where I used to work as an editor) announced, in a newsletter, that its four food critics would no longer review any restaurants affiliated with people who are, as the site’s editor-in-chief, Amanda Kludt, put it to me in a phone call, “bad actors with credible public accusations.” Restaurants owned by Mario Batali, Besh, Chiarello, Qui, and others are also being scrubbed from the site’s maps and will be off the Instagram rotation. In her announcement of the new policy, Kludt wrote, “Why, with so much talent out there, with so many compelling restaurants to cover, would you review the one veiled in controversy? If you find yourself writing soul-searching paragraphs or essays about why you’re reviewing a place before you even get into the amuse[-bouche], maybe that’s a sign you shouldn’t be writing it.”
At publications without such blanket policies in place—which, so far, is everywhere except Eater—critics are left to make tricky calls on their own. The L.A. Times critic Jonathan Gold made one, for instance, in his recent review of the Hearth & Hound. The restaurant is co-owned by Ken Friedman, whose years-long pattern of alleged sexual harassment and assault was exposed in a Times report in December, which also highlighted the complicity of his business partner, the chef April Bloomfield, in allowing his behavior to continue. (Friedman released an apology and went on an indefinite leave from his restaurants; Bloomfield said in a statement, “I feel we have let down our employees and for that I sincerely apologize.”) In the weeks following the release of the Times piece, the Hearth & Hound virtually disappeared, going from L.A.’s buzziest newcomer to the subject of a veritable media blackout, with even its own social-media channels going dark. A friend close to the restaurant tells me that it was Gold’s review, moral grappling and all, that brought the restaurant back from the brink of shutting down. “I have friends who refuse to set foot in the place, and I respect their values. I think it may be more important that Bloomfield’s talent is heard,” Gold wrote, looking to reconcile his distaste for management with his appreciation for the restaurant’s excellent cod-roe toasts. “Whichever side of the question you lean toward, it is hard not to feel queasy at the result.”
Craig LaBan, the restaurant critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, expressed no such discomfort in a January 23rd essay titled “It’s Not My Job to Pass Judgment on a Chef’s Character.” “I’m troubled by the notion that now restaurant critics individually are expected to focus on a dining experience, but also simultaneously make casual character judgments before doling out reviews on a weekly basis,” he wrote. It’s “a crazy notion,” he added, “to suggest that a professional diner, in the course of their normal duties, can somehow look through a plate of heirloom carrots and swirling sauces to see beyond to a dark heart at the stove and foretell a future of abuse and personal destruction.” The glibness of this argument quickly became clear even to LaBan. When I spoke to him by phone last week, he acknowledged that expecting critics to confront allegations of abuse is hardly the same as asking them to be clairvoyant; as A. O. Scott put it in a recent essay about Woody Allen, “No judgment is ever without a moral dimension.” LaBan posited that the current moment might be comparable to the beginnings of the farm-to-table movement. “Over the years, we critics have subtly and subconsciously promoted those people more than the people buying from the Sysco truck,” he said. “It’s become part of our moral values. And maybe we now have a new thing that’s part of restaurant culture, a new moral value—I’m totally open to that.”
LaBan was writing from a purely hypothetical position—so far, no chefs currently working in Philadelphia have been outed as abusers in their personal lives or in their kitchens. Back in Texas, by contrast, the problem of how to handle Paul Qui has collided directly with the demands of the #MeToo moment. On February 5th—the scheduled date of Qui’s trial, which at the last minute was postponed until May—the Web site of the Houston Chronicle published a review by its restaurant critic, Allison Cook, of Aqui, Qui’s newest restaurant and his first in Houston. Qui was once covered regularly in national food publications like Bon Appétit or Food & Wine. In the two years since his arrest, those magazines haven’t mentioned him at all. But Aqui, which opened in the summer, is the biggest opening in Houston in years; barring a policy like Eater’s, the critic at the city’s major paper has to say something.
In the end, Cook gave the restaurant four stars, the Chronicle’s highest honor. The paper published the review in print on a Wednesday; on Friday, it also published a long companion piece by Cook explaining why she decided to review Aqui at all. “Though nobody contends Qui’s sins extended to the kind of systemic abuses now being exposed in some kitchens,” she wrote, “he’s a reminder of poisoned male/female relations at a time when sensibilities—including mine—are rubbed raw.” Out of trepidation, Cook says, she waited four months after Aqui’s opening to visit it—longer than she would normally wait to review a restaurant—and when she finally did go she found the food “terrific,” the staff radiating “intelligence and esprit de corps,” and Qui nowhere to be found; according to his employees, he only comes into the restaurant around once a week. Ultimately, Cook emphasized that her four stars are an honor that belongs to Aqui’s chef de cuisine and pastry chef, and not to Qui himself.
Does this reasoning hold up? In the Web version of her companion essay, Cook linked out to an interview with Aqui’s pastry chef, Jill Bartolome, who spoke about the rare opportunity that working at Aqui offered her. “As a Southeast Asian woman, as a Filipino woman, to be surrounded by food that I find familiar and to be surrounded by people who understand this facet of my culinary experience is crazy,” she told the Web site Chef’s Feed. “To say that I could find that in any other restaurant . . . I haven’t so far, and I’ve been doing this for about a decade.” Perhaps this is the silver lining: no matter which approach individual publications take in confronting abuse in the industry, the culinary world will, I hope, finally be pushed to elevate more women and minorities in an industry that has been historically hostile to both. On Thursday, the James Beard Foundation, guided by a new set of “values,” announced its semifinalists for the 2018 James Beard Awards. Bartolome made the list for Outstanding Pastry Chef, an individual honor; in the Best New Restaurant category, both Aqui and the Hearth & Hound were pointedly excluded.
By Helen Rosner
February 15, 2018
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