OPINION: Our Track Record On Speaking Up Sucks, And It Shouldn’t
We braced for a wave of accusations and none came. Why?
November 14, 2017 ● 3 min read
By Richie Nakano | Image via iStock
The restaurant industry is touted as a place of sanctuary. And yeah, at its best, it can be a place to escape, to start anew.
In the heat of the kitchen, what you do in the moment matters more than some murky moment in your past. Being locked up on a drug charge last year doesn't matter to any of your coworkers, as long as you can hold down your station tonight. Some of the culinary world's biggest names tell tales about how the restaurant industry saved them from themselves, and because we love stories about redemption and second chances, we forget the darkness that brought them and only remember the fable.
And we’re fickle with who we forgive. We accept a station-crushing alcoholic, a misogynist, an abuser; but we can't quite accept Guy Fieri because he has frosted tips. There are whisper networks about who the creeps are, and direct messages sent about who not to hire, but rarely, if ever, do we call anyone out in public. That silence trickles down and infects a restaurant’s culture and its employees.
When the flood of accusations came out against Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Kevin Spacey, and on and on and on, everyone in the famously ill-behaved restaurant industry held their breath and thought, HERE IT COMES. Then came the news about John Besh, which kicked off a small wave of essays and hand-wringing about how broken our industry is. And then? Nothing. The tidal wave never happened. Everyone went about their business.
The troubling thing is, the restaurant industry will seemingly forget all past transgressions so long as you have the right PR company and make tasty food. Michael Chiarello has allegedly said some of the vilest shit I have ever read in my life, and yet he still has two restaurants on The San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list. And after being arrested for beating his girlfriend in front of her child, Paul Qui’s food still remained in the national spotlight. He continued to open restaurants and appear at events and receive breathless reviews.
Listen, at a certain level, food cannot be separate from those who cook it. If a chef’s food is a “personal expression” and they’re an abusive asshole, then we probably shouldn't eat, or laud, or support that person’s food with awards anymore. Looking the other way because of a nice plate is cowardly and shameful.
Despite heartfelt and well-meaning articles by Rene Redzepi about improving his kitchen’s culture, or Amanda Cohen’s reminder in Esquire that time and again, we only sprint to cover women when they’re victims, the overall state of our industry feels unchanged at the everyday level. As a professional chef that moderates social media comments here at ChefsFeed, I can tell you that sexism and racism are alive and well in our community, and every single bit of it comes back to the culture of bullshit machismo that serves as our bedrock. All the essays in the world won’t mean anything as long as the bros in True Cooks hats towel-whipping each other on the line aren't reading them.
Every single male chef needs to look themselves in the mirror and ask how they have contributed to the problem by looking the other way, or giving a cautious laugh when someone says or does something that creates an unsafe workspace for others. No one wants to be That Guy, the one who calls out his fellow cooks? Get over it. For a group that sees ourselves as so tough and visionary, we fail, every day, to stand up for the people who stand beside us.
We need to get better at calling out bad behavior in the moment and pull support from abusers. Until we do, they will continue to poison our waters, and our industry will continue to fester.
I don’t even have a good conclusion to close with, to give you hope for an easy solution. But this thing sucks, and we need to start talking about how we got here—and what we need to do to get to a place where doing blow and pretending a baguette is a dick isn’t cool. Guys. C’mon.