Posted: Sep 05, 2018
The rise of the #MeToo movement has meant a new understanding of just how bad restaurant culture has gotten for those who work in the industry. But awareness hasn't necessarily brought about a whole lot of change. So we asked six chefs and restaurateurs to sit down and figure out what it takes to fix an industry.
We've long known that restaurants can be intense, sometimes hostile places to work—screaming chefs, creepy diners, personal and professional boundaries blurred by long hours and alcohol. But in the past year, it's become clear: The need for change, in the way the restaurant industry treats its employees and prosecutes abusers, is dire.
As the #MeToo movement gathered steam, restaurants had their own reckoning. We learned about Mario Batali's history of groping female employees; Ken Friedman, the mega-successful New York restaurateur, had a similar M.O. plus a third floor reportedly nicknamed “the rape room” in his West Village landmark, The Spotted Pig. New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh stepped down from his restaurants amid reports of the sexual harassment that allegedly ran rampant in his company. The list continues to grow.
Here at GQ, we love restaurants and desperately want them to be better to the people who make them such a joy to dine in. So we put six chefs in a room—a mix of old guard and new guard, restaurateurs with empires and chefs who are still in the kitchen every night—and got them talking about the state of America's restaurants and the work that needs to be done to fix them.
Cast of Characters
AMANDA COHEN, CHEF-OWNER
Known for: Dirt Candy, a gratuity-free fine-dining restaurant serving vegetarian food in downtown Manhattan.
JEN AGG, RESTAURATEUR
Known for: Three bars—Grey Gardens, Rhum Corner, and Cocktail Bar—and a nose-to-tail restaurant, The Black Hoof, all in Toronto.
GERARDO GONZALEZ, CHEF
Known for: The casual, cool, smart California-Latino food at Lalito in Manhattan's Chinatown.
MICHAEL SOLOMONOV, CHEF-RESTAURATEUR
Known for: Modern Israeli at his Philly flagship, Zahav. Also Federal Donuts in Philly and Dizengoff in N.Y.C.'s Chelsea Market.
PREETI MISTRY, CHEF
Known for: Semi-casual California-Indian cuisine served in Oakland at Navi Kitchen and Juhu Beach Club, both now closed.
TOM COLICCHIO, CHEF-RESTAURATEUR
Known for: Co-founding New York's iconic Gramercy Tavern and his flagship restaurant, Craft; judging on Top Chef.
GQ: So we're in a place where predatory behavior on the behalf of male chefs and restaurateurs has been exposed. I'm curious what you guys think needs to happen now. Do the offending chefs need to divest from those restaurants?
Jen Agg: Of course they should divest.
Preeti Mistry: They should just go the f**k away.
Agg: They're gonna try to come back, as we've seen. Ken Friedman is on the way to redemption and hasn't done anything to get there.
In June news broke that Gabrielle Hamilton—chef-owner of the much beloved Manhattan restaurant Prune—would be taking over operations at The Spotted Pig with her wife, Ashley Merriman. Controversy erupted over their decision to work with Ken Friedman after his abusive behavior was reported in ‘The New York Times.’
Tom Colicchio: I think it's too easy to say, “They should just go away.” They're not gonna go away—they wanna try to make a living.
Mistry: Why should they have the right to still earn a living?
Colicchio: Even if you come out of prison, you—
Mistry: But they're not going to go to prison! They're not going to be held accountable.
Colicchio: They are being held accountable, okay? But the question is—
Agg: How are they being held accountable?
Colicchio: Look at the tally. Three [of Batali's] restaurants were closed in Las Vegas. That's about $40 million worth of revenue gone.
Agg: A drop in the bucket.
Colicchio: It's not a drop in the bucket! You have no idea!
Agg: [laughs] I'm not trying to rile you. I'm saying that I don't think they're being held accountable in the right way.
Colicchio: No, no, I agree.
Mistry: When all of those cases came out last fall—it's not like anyone in this room was surprised by the people who were being accused. With Charlie [Hallowell, whose abusive behavior was the subject of a ‘San Francisco Chronicle’ report in late 2017; his most popular restaurant, Pizzaiolo, was an Oakland staple for California-style pizza.—Ed.], I didn't personally know how fucked-up it was. But I knew he was a fucking creep. I've told him to his face to fuck off, with a smile.
“You get to a point where you realize that you don’t have to yell. You don’t have to threaten to get your point across. It’s much easier to be quiet about it.”
Amanda Cohen: I don't understand why people aren't picketing outside of The Spotted Pig.
Mistry: I don't think people care. They care more about where the fucking meat in the burger came from than they do about the people cooking it.
Colicchio: They don't care about that.
Mistry: In California they do!
Cohen: So many people who are eating there don't know what's happening.
Mistry: When I think about The Spotted Pig and Charlie's restaurants in Oakland, those are f****ng really busy restaurants. As a front-of-the-house person, that is a really good job. Those people are walking out of there every night with anywhere from $500 to $800 in their pocket.
Colicchio: Do you think that restaurant should close?
Colicchio: Then [the employees are] not getting that money.
Mistry: But someone [in that environment] being able to say, “I'm being treated this way. I'm gonna go get another job”—it's not easy when you're working in a place that is phenomenally busy. Going to get another serving job somewhere else is not necessarily gonna pay the same bills.
Agg: And you might be blacklisted!
“I have an employee right now who’s like, ‘I need to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant, Amanda. I need a lot more motivation. I need to be yelled at.’ ”
Colicchio: You know what I think really s****s: There's some big people that got taken down, but there's some f*****g chef somewhere in Nebraska that just cornered someone in the walk-in and is gonna get away with it because he's not known. Even if they fire him, he's just gonna walk over to the next place and get a job there.
Agg: This is my big thing right now: You're not rapey enough to be brought down, but you're still a terrible person. It might not be sexual harassment. It might be, like, emotional abuse. There's all of these other categories.
Mistry: I had a line cook for a while who had worked in some top places—I was super excited about his skill level. But he honestly believed that being a d**k was cool. I'd sit down and I'd reason with him: “Hey, we're a nice kitchen. We respect each other.” And he was like, “Oh, I didn't take the Rosetta Stone on nice.” [laughter]
Agg: It's funny when you say it.
Mistry: He thought that was really fucking hilarious. And then I was like, “We have an open kitchen. Be fucking nice to the servers. Don't treat them like dumb girls. See it as a business decision: Customers are gonna have a bad experience.” And he still wouldn't get it—he believed that being an asshole was what it meant to be a chef.
Colicchio: I've had kids say, “I can't work here. You're just not yelling enough.”
Agg: Nobody said that! Nobody said that!
Colicchio: Absolutely. “You're not yelling and screaming enough. You don't seem to care enough.”
Cohen: I have a kid right now who's like, “I need to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant, Amanda. I need a lot more motivation. I need to be yelled at.”
Agg: Why are we all such f****g masochists?
Gerardo Gonzalez: 'Cause that's what success is in this industry. I think sometimes you have to refine your idea of success to just being a decent person. You see these people who can't even look at their staff in the eyeballs or acknowledge them as human beings.
Agg: Oh, my God.
Gonzalez: I saw the direction that I could've gone, in the [traditional sense] of what it means to be successful in this industry. I got a review in The New York Times, and that week my grandmother was in the hospital. I was like, I'm gonna go visit her in California. And my co-worker's like, Why would you even do that kind of thing—you're jeopardizing the week after a review.
Mistry: Good for you. Because I've been that a*****e.
Eric Ripert, Chef, Le Bernardin
My first restaurant job was at a fine-dining restaurant in Paris called La Tour d'Argent. The kitchen had an extremely disciplined, military mentality: The chef or the sous-chef is directing the chef saucier, for instance, who is going to give orders to his commis. It's very dogmatic in a sense—you do not question authority.
There was a lot of pressure from the top. Sometimes there was yelling in the kitchen, sometimes even some physical contact—being punched in the shoulder or being kicked in the butt. Not in a mean way, but it was not a joke. There was no terrible abuse, though, because it was so structured. It was not like the chef was going crazy and throwing pots and pans.
There were no women. I saw one American woman who came in for training, and we were like, wow—we had never seen a woman in the kitchen. Her name was Jane. One smart-*** guy went to her and said, “Hi, Jane, I'm Tarzan.” And she said, “You're more like Cheeta”—the monkey—“than Tarzan.”
GQ: I'm curious as to how your early jobs in cooking have shaped the way you run your kitchens now.
Cohen: I had the worst boss. So I've learned so much of what not to do.
Gonzalez: It's amazing once you stop to think about how easy it is to be respectful and run a kitchen that promotes acceptance. It doesn't have to be a violent kitchen. That's what I really appreciate about the restaurant that we've created as a team. Everybody is just accepting—there's not even a second thought about it.
Colicchio: You get to a point where you realize that you don't have to yell. You don't have to threaten to get your point across. It's much easier to be quiet about it.
Agg: I was just talking with this guy on my staff, and he's like, “You actually do things in a way that is terrifying—but not because there's yelling. You're very stern. You make it clear this can't happen again.” That is unfortunately how you lead a restaurant. You can't just say, “Hey, could you please not do that again?” That is not effective.
Colicchio: But that's such an honest conversation to have. It's much easier to yell at someone.
Agg: Sometimes it has to be during service, so that the impact lands. Unfortunately, restaurants are dictatorships, not democracies. Otherwise they'd fall apart.
Gonzalez: Right, I mean it's tricky. I would say from my experience running places, you can get very kumbaya, and the problem is, at the end of the day, [your employees] actually want some kind of structure. They thrive off of it. When they don't have the structure, they feel like you don't have the tools to actually achieve something or succeed.
Agg: [Cooks] need to learn how to be leaders, not angry parents.
Gonzalez: They need to learn how to communicate, honestly. As a cook, I learned to repress things. Personally, I don't believe that my cooks have to leave their baggage at the door. If you're carrying something with you, we can talk about it. Giving somebody a f***king hug is enough to get them through the day so they're not, like, eating their own stress.
Cohen: You hug your staff?
Agg: I hug all my staff.
Mistry: There are times when I've been too nice. Yes, I also hug my staff. But at a certain point you have to decide how much do you care about a person versus how much do you also need to be really clear. Especially being a person who looks a lot younger than they actually are. They forget that I'm actually the owner of this restaurant.
Agg: Which is how so much of this ***t happens in the first place, too. Not with you, but this is how we get down that road with these blurred lines. And, like, it's booze! I know a lot of restaurants are canceling staff parties, and I think that's bull***t.
“We go forward by owning our ***t, by having these conversations, by understanding where we’ve erred.”
Colicchio: Oh, I did that years ago.
Colicchio: I mean, we had three restaurants [in New York]. It was a large party. And there was always someone—sometimes several people—who I had to fire after parties.
Agg: That's a good way to find out!
Cohen: I've had people show up drunk.
Michael Solomonov: For the first couple of years, everybody [at our parties] was partying, and there were inevitably fights, and people hooked up, but they do that anyways.
Colicchio: It's gonna happen.
Solomonov: But it's weird when you're liable for that. Like, “Come to this party. We're gonna buy all your alcohol. Now get home safe!”
Colicchio: Right, good luck.
Preeti Mistry, Chef
There's an idea that child care and maternity leave are this issue that's keeping women out of the upper echelons of the industry, and I just find it to be really myopic. What it really comes down to is the environment.
There was an article a couple of years ago from René Redzepi about his fantasy for a kinder kitchen. He said something about instructing his chefs not to use such vulgar language or make inappropriate jokes, and I'm like, This is a restaurant that people say is the best restaurant in the world. You're still at the phase of lowering the amount of locker-room talk? To me, that's why women don't want to be in kitchens anymore. And most of the ones who stay decide to continue to put up with it.
To really change things, it requires people at the top to f****g listen. How many times do women, queer people, people of color have to voice our issues and have people roll their eyes at us or say, “She can't take a joke. They didn't mean anything by it”? The kitchen should be a place for all different types of people to work in, not a domain that is ruled by straight white men where everyone is secondary to that.
GQ: Have any of you revised your H.R. guidelines in the past year?
Solomonov: We have almost 300 employees, and so we take it very seriously when there's anything happening that requires us to address it. It always starts with an updated [H.R.] manual. And then we address problems as they come. What I've realized is now my job as a chef-owner is basically an H.R. director.
Agg: And a psychiatrist.
Cohen: And a plumber.
Colicchio: Does anybody do sexual-harassment training?
Agg: We have conversations about it, I don't know if I explicitly follow that. We talk with everyone about it.
Colicchio: We bring an outside firm to do it.
Solomonov: Yeah, we have somebody come in and do it. It's the Wild West when you decide to open your own small business. There's nobody that teaches you what is right or wrong, and the H.R. things that we go through are just liability stuff. There's nobody to teach you how to behave properly, you know?
GQ: So what is the next step in the conversation? Once we've figured out what to do with all the bad men, what happens next?
Agg: I think we go forward by looking back properly. We go forward by owning our s**t, by having these conversations, by understanding where we've erred.
Colicchio: I've never done the rapey thing.
Mistry: Okay, yeah, but every single freaking chef has rubbed someone the wrong way. Do you just go, Oh, well, they're f***overly sensitive? Or do you actually look and think, Oh s***, that was not my intention, and try to grow from it and learn from it?
Cohen: I think all of us can only do so much. I can tweet a lot. I can write things. But we each can only do what we can in our restaurants. I place the burden on the media, because you guys are the ones who are gonna continue telling the stories. And at some point these stories aren't gonna be sexy anymore. You know people are gonna be like, “Ugh, I read that. I read that.”
Agg: They're already so over it. My frustration is that nobody gave a s**t until, like, this year. And then when you watch white men get the cookies for the bare f****g minimum—and you happen to maybe know that they're monsters—that s***s, too. I mean, obviously I want male allies. It's such a hyper-male industry. And they listen to dudes—they don't listen to women. So it's really nice when there are men amplifying your voice. Which is something Tony [Bourdain] was really good about.
Cohen: The next thing is, really: How do we make this industry sustainable? Because it's not sustainable right now. Financially, we need to raise prices. We need health care. There's a million little things that go into it.
Amanda Cohen, Chef-Owner, Dirt Candy
Sexual-harassment training is expensive. If we had a governing body where we could get resources, I would totally use them. But there's nobody who's watching over what we do.
In any other profession, if you were abusing your staff, you would get disbarred. You would lose your license. You wouldn't be able to practice. You would also have an actual punishment.
Ideally, you would also have places for employees to get lawyers and health insurance—everything that would make it harder for people who have done really shitty things. They would know there are real repercussions out there.
By Marian Bull
August 31, 2018
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