Burn It All Down
On relinquishing our idols, and taking back our industry.
December 13, 2017 ● 3 min read
By Richie Nakano | Images Getty; Collage ChefsFeed
On Sunday night, something happened on Twitter.
First, Anthony Bourdain published a series of foreboding tweets. “No. Trust me. Monday is really gonna suck,” he wrote. He followed it up with, “It’s where you stand when the people you care about and admire do awful things that matters. Keeping head down and hoping it goes away? No.”
Thirty minutes later, journalist Yashar Ali revealed that according to three of his sources, a famous chef would be the new subject of a story about allegations of sexual misconduct, due out the next day. Bourdain had given us a glimpse of our future: another day of perverse revelations and spine-tingling grossness. Who could prompt such weary missives? It had to be someone big, someone close. My phone hummed with texts and DMs as the hours slipped away.
We began to speculate, wildly. Each guess tightened the collective knot in everyone’s stomach. Regardless of age or cuisine, every name adhered to a singular theme: prominence. Chefs of great influence and power in the restaurant industry. The ones who publicly represented the rest of us, with their faces splashed on billboards and front pages. The heavy-hitters. Our culinary heroes. The most disturbing part of this exercise was that, suddenly, everyone became conceivable. I wasn’t able to definitively say it couldn’t be them. Surely, there remained some big-name chef that seemed above reproach…a moral figure who stood above the rest. Was that naive to think?
On Monday, of course, it was Mario Batali, and to quote everyone who heard, it wasn’t surprising. The very notion that it was not “surprising” means that a whole swath of people lived with this knowledge and kept on trucking, day after day, while people in the dining room rammed pasta down their throats and he rammed his unwanted tongue down others’ in the back. Today, an expose dropped concerning Ken Friedman—best known for his collaboration with Chef April Bloomfield, a perennial favorite and another hero now tainted by association, at spots like The Breslin and The Spotted Pig. Again, people knew. They did nothing, perhaps because they were in positions that prevented them from doing so. Maybe they wanted to distance themselves. How much do you blame someone for doing what they have to do to survive?
One disturbing quote among many in The New York Times’s incredible coverage of Friedman by Julia Moskin and Kim Severson addressed the matter of his longtime partnership with Bloomfield. She’s winsome, hard-working, badass. Surely, she would have done something! “Several other employees say they also brought their complaints and concerns about Mr. Friedman to Ms. Bloomfield,” the piece reads. “Her response was always the same.” Ms. Nelson said. “‘That’s who he is. Get used to it. Or go work for someone else.’”
A few hours ago, NYT restaurant critic Pete Wells tweeted: “State of play so far: Besh was replaced as CEO. Batali will ‘step away from day-to-day operations’ and ‘spend the next period of time trying’ to ‘regain your respect and trust.’ Friedman is on ‘an indefinite leave of absence.’”
These men still draw checks from their restaurants, have cookbooks on shelves, stock generic pasta sauces in stores. Despite a very public record, one of the worst offenders is in the middle of opening a new restaurant. Johnny Iuzzini hasn’t stepped down or taken a leave of absence, or even apologized. People will dine at Babbo and The Spotted Pig tonight and tomorrow and the day after, and at a fundamental level, very little will change. Which begs the question: what exactly would we accept as penance? What makes this right?
In this very publication, we demanded a reckoning. Now that one appears to be rapidly unspooling, centered around a formerly unshakeable pantheon, how do we learn to trust our industry again?
We relinquish our former idols. We redefine what we value. It’s not good enough to leave it to the titans of our industry to do the right thing when the status quo has worked so well in their favor. There are too many dollars to be made and relationships to maintain to expect any sort of real change to come from the top, so I suggest we move on.
Give new voices funding to develop restaurant empires, ones not built on a foundation of abuse and fear. Reclaim the dry storage area as a place to cool off during a particularly hot service, instead of a refuge for creeps to do their dirty work. For once, let the private dining room be a place to escape the craziness of the kitchen, instead of a fucking “rape room."
Continue to take our industry back from this decades-long plague. It's long past time.