Dear Food Media
This is an open letter composed of several rounds of email pitches sent to editors at Bon Appétit, Healthy-ish, and Eater NY. These ideas and stories were presented over the course of the year to date, and were considered for publication on at least three separate occasions only to be eventually turned down. As a result, the original story has evolved into an extremely telling example of just how deep issues of gender inequality run in the food industry at large. Not only do these problems continue to exist in the form of micro-aggressions within restaurants of every size, they are also repeatedly ignored by those who claim to be responsible for speaking for our industry.
At its core, the restaurant industry is built on exploitative and unequal workplace dynamics, including but not limited to issues of race, gender, and sexuality. As the food media industry reckons with their many shortcomings, stories of both overt and ingrained sexism and long standing gender dynamics continue to be swept aside, as shown here. I encourage any fellow food writers and editors to consider your role in perpetuating and willfully ignoring these inequalities, and hope that in doing so a transparent dialogue may finally surface.
Over two years after disturbing sexual harassment allegations were published, The Spotted Pig has finally shut its doors. In media coverage following the closing, owner Ken Friedman doesn't seem so bad—like a captain going down with his ship, he mourns the current employees being sent to find jobs elsewhere. His public statement assures us that he did everything possible to keep the business afloat, despite broken partnership deals and a refusal to relinquish full control of the establishment and his own financial shares. While Mario Batali—also named in the accusations—effectively and immediately vanished from the public eye, Friedman managed to carry on, fighting just below the radar to save a business built around over-sexualization and hostility towards female employees.
In this piece, I would like to assess the aftermath of these allegations and the events leading up to the eventual closing. It is my opinion that the story didn't get the coverage—nor the timely response—that it deserved. While other stories central to the #MeToo movement in media and entertainment businesses are widely known, I found myself shocked by the extremely low percentage of peers both in and out of the industry who hadn't heard of The Spotted Pig as anything but a ‘renowned gastropub’. The general goal of this story would be to open up a conversation about how we can discuss gender dynamics and create safe spaces within the food industry moving forward.
My central argument would be to critique the response of the food media community at large to not only the allegations but also the eventual closing of the Spotted Pig. The lack of attention given to Friedman as a responsible individual is coupled with bittersweet remorse for the restaurant upon closing (See Robert Sietsema on Twitter). This allowed Friedman to remain a profiting partner in the business for those two years in question, not surrendering his shares until just this month when the restaurant eventually closed completely. The general response—or lack thereof—from the food community only perpetuated the ways in which women are excluded from the restaurant space, fostering the idea that an iconic establishment may be valued above its female employees.
On a broader scale there is a glaring, underlying and somewhat universal gender issue in restaurants. This is something we've seen in more extreme cases such as the Spotted Pig, but what we don't really talk about is the everyday situations—little offhanded comments about a female server's appearance; raunchy stories told in good faith over drinks at the end of the day; an endless flow of sexual innuendos from well-intentioned line cooks. Men in the kitchen are expected to play the role of 'bad boy'; women are expected to brush it off. By ignoring this dynamic, or simply sighing and accepting it, we perpetuate an unhealthy and inherently sexist work environment.
As a queer woman managing a restaurant myself, I find this story to be especially poignant. Though I am fortunate enough to have landed in a comfortable workplace at the moment, I recognize this as an exception rather than rule—the inherent sexism and subsequent tendency to turn a blind eye is a glaring reality I have encountered more than once. Industrial kitchens have long been a male-dominated space, while front of house operations often breed objectification and belittlement of women. It is my strong belief that as food writers and reporters, we can do better.
It’s time to talk about what happens next. As a conclusion, I want to highlight ways in which the food industry can move forward. Despite increasing diversity, male-dominated restaurant spaces remain an institution—unsafe and inaccessible to many. This story would emphasize the drastic effects when we let something like this fall through the cracks.
I do agree that these topics are at the root of the #MeToo movement. However, I am also confident that the story I want to write is beyond that.
For some context, in my time working at one restaurant I assisted a female server in filing a formal sexual harassment complaint. As we were going through the form, she turned to me in tears and said she hadn’t even realized the incident was sexual harassment until I had encouraged her to file a formal complaint. It was only then that I realized I had also been the victim of similar behavior for months and even years, none of which could quite qualify for a formal claim but that had nonetheless been making me feel uncomfortable on a level so deep it was practically unrecognizable. I’ve grown so accustomed to this sort of thing in the context of the food service industry that I genuinely didn’t consider it to be a substantial enough issue to raise it with the rest of my management team. Here I was standing up for her, without even recognizing that I needed to stand up for myself as well.
Thanks in large part to the #MeToo movement, the line has begun to be drawn against outright harassment in the workplace. However, what still fails to be discussed are the underlying gender issues that cause this sort of ‘brush it off’ mentality in both men and women. I think the angle that’s missing in other pieces is to highlight the genuine perspective and position of women in these situations. While it’s proof of progress that these conversations are beginning, we as women are still living with internalized and residual sexism from decades of restaurants’ ‘bro culture’. I don’t doubt that awareness is increasing to an extent, but the only way for this industry to truly change is for us as the media to keep talking about it.
So yes, these are issues mentioned in tandem with the #MeToo movement, but there is more to it. The angle I want to introduce is more centered around the ingrained sexism that exists in this industry, and how to not only combat that on a case by case basis, but to really work towards healing it on a broader scale. I want to discuss the more specific things that fall in the grey area—things that are easily dismissed from being ‘sexual harassment’ and are therefore dismissed altogether. I also want to discuss the ways in which men in the industry can be better allies by understanding the fundamentally imbalanced and privileged position they are in, as well as how difficult it is for women to come forward and speak about sexism in any form without feeling vulnerable both personally and professionally. And most of all, I want women like myself and my staff to see that they don’t need to brush things off, no matter how small—that they are heard and cared for and supported.
In the weeks since the coronavirus decimated the restaurant industry, a lot has happened. Major chain restaurants laid off millions of staff members. Chefs and small businesses have made pleas to the government, only to be drowned out by big name celebrity chefs and large corporations. The White House unsurprisingly portrayed the industry in a list of advisors which consists only of men, large chains, and European inspired fine dining restaurants.
Also in the last few weeks, hundreds of thousands of dollars has been raised in small restaurant relief funds. Some independent businesses are pivoting into corner stores or delivery hubs, while others donate meals to healthcare workers and support the community however possible. Female chefs and chefs of color are leading with strong voices of encouragement, fighting back for the diversity that is so central to the food industry. Just last week, Gabrielle Hamilton released a feature article in New York Times Magazine detailing the emotional and physical toll of the crisis on herself and her peers, offering a raw glimpse into our current and future reality. She ends the piece by offering hope—restaurants will be forever changed, but we can decide what that looks like.
I would like to write this story as both a look back at the COVID crisis, in addition to a look forward to what can come from it. Too many of us have fallen into the mentality that restaurants will never come back, or that if they do it will be nothing but a sea of golden arches and classical French cuisine. I would additionally like to look even further back to the fundamental structures that exist in our modern restaurant world, and specifically the roles of gender and race. For far too long, the loudest voices of the industry have been powerful white men—people like Danny Meyer, Pete Wells, and Adam Rapoport who hold an alarming amount of authority over the culinary future of New York City and beyond. With the opportunity to rebuild restaurants comes the opportunity to rebuild these warped power dynamics.
I've already done much of the heavy lifting for this piece, as it involves a deep look into the core identity politics that exist in our current restaurant industry. The main takeaway is that our industry is inherently flawed—and this is not new information. The coronavirus is not destroying us singlehandedly, but merely exposing the broken and exploitative beast that has been allowed to sleep for far too long. These issues will not go away overnight, but we have a unique opportunity to highlight them and move forward with a healthier model.
For this story, I want to outline these concrete systematic issues within the food industry that exist and have existed for quite some time. This includes things such as the media dominance of white male chefs and restauranteurs, as well as the day to day reality of restaurant culture, which is that despite the progress of the #MeToo movement, restaurants remain a largely uncomfortable and unequal space for women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks.
I don’t doubt that awareness is increasing to an extent, but the only way for this industry to truly change is for us to talk about these fundamental issues. In order to discuss the future of restaurants, we have to look back at the foundational structures upon which our industry is built. In looking forward, I think the goal needs to be acknowledging these divisions and establishing a more equal system from the ground up; a system in which gender is irrelevant, rather than a qualifying factor of a chef's merit or position in the kitchen; a system that does not favor a classically trained French fine dining chef simply because he is such. None of this will happen naturally in a world after COVID-19. In fact, it will remain stronger than ever if not challenged now, as we collectively decide what our future will look like. In my opinion, if in months from now we are celebrating the return of an industry still tainted with rich, white, male privilege, we have failed greatly.
As I've said before, I firmly believe that these issues are important so that women like myself are able to feel safe and heard in this speculated future of restaurants. Much of the inequality has existed since long before any of us can remember, but there is a misconception that it has been resolved. While the past few years have certainly seen an increasing presence of female chefs and people of color in the industry, these groups also face steeper obstacles and higher expectations in order to reach the same level as their white male counterparts. The only way to break down these built in barriers is to actually acknowledge that they exist, something that we as the media have been failing to do for far too long.
As far as reopening goes, I think a lot of this ties into a sort of balance between public and private space which is coming specifically out of the COVID situation. This is something we're encountering on an obvious level with social distancing protocols, but it is also a line that has long been blurred within restaurants. The culture of many restaurants is inherently straddling a border of professional and unprofessional, something which has had both extremely positive and negative results. We spend long grueling hours together and form tight-knit communities, which lends itself to lasting, genuine relationships as well as a freedom to push these more personal boundaries. I have been at bars after a long shift with line cooks who jokingly make sexual innuendos or crude comments about female anatomy and have turned a blind eye despite much internal discomfort. Situations like these are encouraged within our current system, as the division between personal and professional remains extremely unclear.
One of the biggest and most specific things to mention in reopening is the establishment of a more concrete vision of what sexual harassment actually looks like within restaurants. I personally have encountered many an uncomfortable comment about my appearance from both cooks and patrons alike and have a tendency to dismiss the behavior as simply part of the job. At a former workplace, a staff member responded to an incident of overt sexual harassment by shrugging it off, something which I myself am guilty of doing as well. After a bit of encouragement from the rest of the management team, we were able to help her file a formal complaint and the man was fired. That being said, this sort of outcome is extremely rare. In discussing the complaint, both of us noted that this was not an isolated incident throughout our many combined years in restaurants—rather, we have become so used to such situations that we were hesitant to even acknowledge this as a problem. In reopening restaurants, there needs to be a conversation within the broader scope of food media about creating these structures to make it clear that such behavior is not accepted as a natural part of the industry.
In terms of larger cultural examples, there is a fundamental division and gendering that takes place for both major celebrity chefs as well as everyday line cooks. Men are often at the forefront of industrial kitchens, serving as icons and figureheads for a dated and deeply ingrained form of structural sexism. Women are expected to be the faces of hospitality, often filling front of house roles rather than back of house. This is not because female chefs and cooks do not exist, but rather because the format of the industry lends itself more readily to their male counterparts. In a chapter of Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton that I recently revisited, she mentions being identified as 'one of the best female chefs in New York City'. She then goes on to explain how being a woman is a qualifying aspect of her career, and outlines the ways in which she would have to work two shifts at once—one doing her actual job of cooking a meal, and another of playing the role of 'cool girl' in the kitchen. Some 20 years later, this dynamic continues to exist, as female line cooks are often expected to perform a certain way in the traditionally masculine role. In order to change this, we need to address the long history of gendering that creates such an unsafe and unequal environment. The end goal is an industry in which there is no 'best female chef', there is just 'best chef', period.
Once again, the biggest message to drive home here is that none of these issues are new. I would imagine that none of them are too surprising to you, nor would they be to your readers. The biggest thing we can do as far as reopening is to actually talk about these things and address the problems that we are all so acutely aware of but so hesitant to admit. As both a member of the restaurant industry as well as a voice in food media, I firmly believe that these are things which have been brushed under the rug for far too long and am adamant that this opportunity for change cannot be wasted.
In thinking about the future of food publications, and specifically Bon Appétit, I have found myself coming back to this pitch. Not the narrowed down and refined version, or the version that was altered for print publication, but the original story. It is a story of harassment and inequality and ignorance. It is a story of many women working in the restaurant industry who have continued to be brushed aside at every single step of the way. It is a story of the food media industry and its white male editors and gatekeepers, who dismiss tough subjects and brutal truths under the guise of being 'too broad' or 'not relevant at this moment'. It has become a story of rejection at every level, as even in trying to speak up I have been silenced and turned away. This is something that I have personally experienced for too long, and that I would imagine is not foreign to you as a woman in this industry. This is something that needs to change.
My question for you as you begin to transform Bon Appetit from the inside out, is when a story like this will finally be considered relevant. In my opinion, the answer is not only right now, but always. In full disclosure, I have tried to place this story at two other publications, only to be told that it's not quite right for the news cycle, or that there needs to be a more concrete angle. I pitched it to you personally several times and in several formats as well, over the course of what has now been nearly 4 months, only to be told that now isn't the time, or this isn't the right angle. While I admire you stepping up to challenge the realities of Bon Appetit's internal inequalities, I have been struggling to balance this with some level of anger and hurt that I continue to feel as my story is repeatedly turned down. To continue ignoring the deep and structural gender inequalities in the food industry is counterintuitive to all the work you are claiming to be doing, and I simply can't sit by and stay silent any longer.
The angle I want to present to you now is this: Women in every area of this industry are in pain. We are oppressed time and time again by men in power, and by the system which has put them there. We are told to keep our heads down and do our jobs and let our work speak for us, all the while turning a blind eye to offensive comments and sexist workplace dynamics. Women of color face even more monumental battles, which neither you nor I can even begin to imagine. Gender is a food issue. Race is a food issue. None of these things are isolated, and neither are their solutions. We know this, and yet we continue to stay quiet and passive and perpetuate a system in which we cannot be heard. This story is about more than my personal experience. It is about the future of the food industry, and the future of our world. As we fight for the equality of BIPOC and beyond, we have to address the role of gender. This is a long battle with no clear path, but to me the first step is simple—we need to talk about it.
Once again, I realize the position you are in is extremely difficult for a variety of reasons. I realize you may not even be the right person to pitch a story to, and that you likely aren't accepting or publishing outside pitches right now anyway as you focus on rebuilding your company and your brand. I want to respect that as well as the movement to defend Black lives that continues to push forward. However, in order to support that movement, I think this story needs to be shared. Our voices have been silenced for too long. I ask you to please reconsider this story, for a final time. If not now, then when?