By Alexandra Emanuelli
With the recent filing of an application to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal by a female Toronto chef with charges of sexual harassment against her previous employers, conversations on sexual harassment in kitchens have come to the forefront. I thought it was time to ask some women in kitchens what it really is like. I interviewed three women, who have worked in restaurants for seven, ten, and twenty-five plus years respectively, in roles as front of house, back of house, and management and operations. They share their experiences and what they have seen in their years in the industry.
Sophy, back of house, front of house, 7 years, Toronto
“I moved to kitchens with La Société, and that’s kinda when I first saw it (sexual harassment). I guess it’s a little bit like high school, you’re just trying to fit in. And the only way of doing that is by accepting the jokes and the physical abuse – they’ll slap your ass, they’ll towel whip you, but generally speaking, that was how they expressed comradery. It wasn’t anything malicious. I haven’t really seen a kitchen that doesn’t have that behaviour.
I found that staff won’t expect to go along with it, but at a certain point, you are to endure it, because it happens amongst everyone. It’s not just the girls. It’s the men that get dry humped too. They get slapped in the ass by other colleagues as well.”
What is special about working in a kitchen that could contribute to this kind of harassment?
“A very famous image of kitchens is Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and he says, chef is like the captain of the entire ship. It really is true to that sense, kitchen hours are long, you do the work that no one wants to do, with little amount of financial compensation, and generally speaking, some people are there because they have no other choice to get another stable job, that perhaps requires no criminal background check, or English, or an education. So in a sense, you are working in a collective environment of oddballs, and the only thing standing in the way of you being successful and not being successful is you being liked by the head of the kitchen or the group, for you to defy the group opinion, or what is asked of you, to participate definitively works into that factor, and it shouldn’t be like that.”
Flora, front of house, certified sommelier, 10 years, Montreal
Did you ever experience harassment, either sexual or physical?
“The answer is yes. In terms of sexual harassment, I think I’ve experienced a lot. So anywhere from having a manager or anybody in authority flirt with you on a continuing basis, to dealing with, I’m sorry, but, unsophisticated kitchen staff who objectify you, to dealing with customers who hit on you, to working in a restaurant where sections are assigned based on your physical appearance and sex appeal, to having staff and managers in restaurants really try to get sexual favours from you, so it’s really everywhere along the spectrum.”
Why do you think sexual harassment happens in kitchens?
“Mostly because as student and as a young waitress you’re kind of a vulnerable part of this whole machine and this whole industry that is the restaurant business. I think what also contributes to the sexual harassment, in the high end restaurant industry, is that it’s a luxury industry, and in luxury industries, we sell clients everything that they want, what looks good, what tastes good, we sell aesthetics. And in the restaurant business, what that means is, you get a nice plate with nice food also carried by a pretty lady. I think luxury industries really capitalize and objectify women a lot because that’s what the clients want.”
Marie Christine, 25 + years, management
On male vs. female wait-staff.
“I mean, just because your uniform looks like a stripper, but you’re still serving scallops, you get a comment from a customer that they would ‘like to eat your scallops’ and they’re looking at your boobs. What are you supposed to do? It’s sexual harassment. But everything is in place for it. You’re supposed to be stupid and bringing the scallops because you’re just a waitress and a waitress in life is nothing, but it’s the whole message that’s wrong, and then you get into that situation. You don’t tell the guy who is bringing you the scallops dressed normally in a uniform that is classy, you won’t say, even if you find him cute, you won’t say, hmm, I’d like to eat your scallops, because it’s not proper. The whole industry has to think about the message.”
The women I spoke with all discussed sexual harassment as something that was par for the course in the industry, whether it was to a greater or lesser degree. What struck me the most was the complex relationship between familial affection and protection between coworkers, on the one hand, and then on the other, environments that encourage power disparity and outright sexism. As women increasingly join the ranks of kitchens, we need to work harder to address these issues.