*Warning: this post contains strong language*
Dammit, Mario Batali. I liked you.
Today, news broke that Mario Batali has been accused of sexually assaulting 4 women during his time at the top of the U.S. culinary scene. Three of the women worked for Batali at some point, and another woman aspired to work for him. The jolly, Italian uncle we all wanted at our dinner table turned out to be the funny uncle that gropes women.
But it’s not funny at all.
The Old Boys (Supper) Club
I love chefs. There’s something super sexy about a man who can handle a knife. A worn out, dog-eared copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking is sexier than a copy of 50 Shades of Grey. Hell, I married a chef.
I spent years working in the restaurant industry, most of it in the “front of house” as a waitress and bartender. But I’ve spent some time in the kitchen, too. And I’ve seen some seriously unsexy things go down.
The restaurant industry is dominated by men. Men manage the restaurants. Men are the executive chefs. If you walk into the kitchen of most restaurants, you’ll see a bunch of sweaty, overworked, underpaid men. A bunch of men calling each other bitches, motherfuckers, and assholes. A bunch of men who offer to meet anyone with two legs in dry storage for a good time.
Most of the time, this is bluster. It’s macho bravado and peacocking. The fry cook isn’t going to bend the grill chef over a 50 lb bag of flour and have his way with him. But it’s how they talk.
And yes, I’ve seen my share of intra-restaurant hookups. I’ve seen a waitress go to town on a chef at an after-work party. I’ve seen chefs hit on waitresses through a hot window. Hell, I’ve been that waitress. But all the groping, fondling and sexual contact I ever had with a chef was consensual. I was never forced or coerced into anything I did. I never felt that my job was on the line.
So where is the line? Was it ok for the chefs to hit on me? Is it ever ok to flirt with a coworker?
What I do know is that coercion is on the other side of that line. Groping, blackmail, forcing sexual acts is not ok. Calling everyone your bitch is not ok. Joking about forced sodomy in dry storage is not ok.
It creates a culture where women aren’t welcome. Either male chefs feel like they can’t include women in their raunchy, sexually charged (albeit joking) conversations. Or women feel singled out and uncomfortable by the horrible language and actions that are so common in the kitchen. Either way, the women that “make it” in the culinary world are few and far between because of this horrible old boys club they pay their dues in.
This environment encourages otherwise decent men to partake in horrible behaviors. As I talked this over with my husband, he said, “Batali was kind of a product of the environment in which he worked.” He quite possibly was. After years of objectifying waitresses, grabbing at bartenders in the cooler, and talking smack about everyone else in the kitchen, he may have started seeing women as the tasty pieces of meat he was pumping out of his kitchens. Things to satisfy his appetites.
But that is no excuse. We don’t excuse the ex-con who was hardened in prison when he commits another crime. Each and every person is responsible for his or her own actions. Batali alone chose to grab women. He chose to be part of that misogynistic mindset that is so pervasive in the culinary world.
Furthermore, he had power over all of these women. It’s not just that he was another pig on the chef’s line. He was their boss. He was a celebrity with influence and power in the culinary world. A bad word from him could lead to a woman being blacklisted in one of the most influential culinary cities in the world. I’m not just making wild conspiracy theories, either. All four women remained anonymous because they were afraid for their careers.
But where can these women go to report harassment and assault? It’s not like these independent restaurants have HR departments. Often, it’s the managers and the people in charge who are the predators. And when a woman is faced with the choice of keeping their job (and not being blacklisted from the industry) or speaking out, they often go with the former.
Where does the culinary world go from here?
They stop assaulting women. Period.
Let me clarify. Male chefs stop talking about fucking everything that walks, whether seriously or “jokingly.” They stop grabbing every waitress, hostess, bartender or female chef that walks past them. They stop thinking of women they way they think of fine wines and choice seafood.
It won’t be an easy change. This misogynistic culture is so ingrained in just about every kitchen in the country. And if we think about it as thousands of chefs in thousands of kitchens, it’s an insurmountable goal. What we need is a couple of chefs in each kitchen to stand up and say, “hey, that’s not cool.”
We need managers, head chefs and others in power in the restaurant industry to stop sleeping with their waitresses. Women shouldn’t have to decide between getting good shifts and keeping her dignity.
We need to hold celebrity chefs to a high standard. So many chefs aspire to work for them, to be them. The most elite kitchens of the world need to be staffed with more than just good chefs; they need to be staffed with good human beings.
The culinary world isn’t holding their fellow chefs to a high standard. Few chefs were surprised by the allegations against Batali. Bill Buford chronicled Batali treating women horribly in his book Heat, yet Batali continued to build his empire. His behavior was an open secret and no one called him out on it.
We need women to keep telling their stories and standing up to the pigs frying the bacon. Ladies, we have a voice. Men, you have a responsibility. Let’s take misogyny off the menu once and for all.