What It's Like To Be An Employee Of a Maligned Restaurant

Jill Bartolome is the pastry chef for Paul Qui's new spot, Aqui. Yes, she knows what you're going to ask about.

January 20, 2018

By Richie Nakano | Photograph by Rachel Bays

 

Where do we go from here?


In the face of recent public takedowns of some of our industry's most powerful, that’s what we all want to know. Of course, we've never been comfortable stewing with our demons for too long; we immediately feel the need to work out how to prevent it, retroactively. We should have seen it yesterday, last week, last decade. We should have said something then.
  
Now, as the lava flow of rage begins to cool, we face questions. Lots and lots and lots of questions. Among them: Do we boycott the businesses of bad men? Do we address the persistent conflation of victimization and complicity? What is the correct, fair, moral thing to do? How do you carry out realistic justice for such perverse, personal sins?
  
Is divesting enough? Is banishment enough? Should redemption be on the table—and do we need to afford these men courtesies when all they have offered are feeble apologies and cinnamon rolls? Conversations over the past few weeks have ping-ponged between the accountability of employee-owned places and the threat of being tainted by association. It’s all as messy as we all thought it would be.
  
Something that’s been nagging at me is the inevitable reflection six months down the line to see if anything has changed. Getting things right now will matter later; these are the questions we need to face if we’re going to rebuild our whole system—especially since we’ve never known anything else.

Paul Qui isn’t part of the old guard of chefs. He came up the right way, paying dues and generally keeping his head down. He was a cook's cook. One of us. When his mugshot wound up strewn all over the internet it served as a cautionary tale to the restaurant industry: if you rise to the top, beware the fall. Now, as he’s being grouped in with the other offending chefs the allegations against him have an even uglier distinction: he’s the only chef accused of outright violence.

Jillian Bartolome, a baker by trade, spent three years at the helm of Houston’s Common Bond Bakery & Cafe. In July of last year, she joined the team at Aqui, Qui’s new spot dedicated to Southeast Asian cuisine. The opening was predictably tainted in the press—but the food got some well-deserved praise. Bartolome is still there and plans on staying. Here’s what she told me about why.


Bartolome: When I accepted the job and people heard that I was doing this, I received a lot of unsolicited opinions, even in my personal life. People never really asked for mine. I think the assumption was I didn't have any thoughts about it—that I just blindly took the job—when it was something I had thought quite a bit about. It did contribute to my decision to work here. Of course, it comes up every time there's something written about the restaurant, positive or negative, [so] I have to hear about it more often that I thought I would. It's either glossed over real quick, or it goes into great depth. I'd hear from people that they couldn’t come in because their significant other doesn't want to come here, or they themselves don't want to come. It's nothing personal against me. They don't feel like it's the right choice for them, and I respect that.

Richie Nakano: People are talking about boycotting lots of different places now. What's your feeling on that?

However you want to take a stand as an individual and support your own beliefs, that's fine. If you don't want to come here, you don't want to work here, absolutely: you choose whatever you want do. But I don't believe in condemning the choices of other people. I don't think those who do come here as guests or who seek out employment here should be held accountable for anything that Paul allegedly did. [The judgment of those people is] what bothers me.

If you could tell people something about the place you work, what would be the message you’d want to get across to them? Are you proud of where you work?

I am, because of the people. There are a lot of really talented individuals who work here, who have had very different journeys in their own lives, and we've all found ourselves here for whatever reason. It's one thing to have these opinions about Paul, but that doesn't mean that you can't also understand that there are individual human beings that work here.

It’s a complex business. There are people here who are also victims of domestic abuse and violence; we still choose to be here. For me, this is an uncommon opportunity that I took to advance my career. It’s been an incredible [experience] for me. I don't expect anybody to agree with my choice, but none of those people are standing in my shoes, or know anything about what my journey has been.

What are the advantages of working there?

Most of my career has been in a bakery, and this is my first time in a pastry chef position. I'm learning a lot more about this side of the business. I have 100% total creative freedom. I find that I'm actualizing my ideas and my perception of food in a way that I never have before, that’s much more true to my style and my perspective of the world. It's incredibly gratifying. I work for people who support my vision and facilitate an environment for me to grow creatively. I have complete agency in my own job. It's an incredibly supportive environment, with people who respect me and what I do and what I have to say through my food and what I have to say, period.

A lot of people, when they talk about this, the conversation comes to, "Well, they can leave or go somewhere else.” There’s no shortage of jobs out there.

It's not that simple. Anybody who's saying that doesn't know anything about us, or the job we have here. I can't speak for anybody else who works here, but I know that I've never felt more connected to any food that I've made the way that I do here. As a Southeast Asian woman, as a Filipino woman, to be surrounded by food that I find familiar and to be surrounded by people who understand this facet of my culinary experience is crazy. To say that I could find that in any other restaurant…I haven't so far, and I've been doing this for about a decade. I'm not saying this is the only place I could get a job at, the only Southeast Asian restaurant I could ever work in. Anything’s possible, but to say it's apples to apples is not true.

As a woman, does what allegedly happened ever enter your mind, or do you try to put that out of your head and just do your job?

I definitely consider it. I've heard various versions of what happened. Is there a separation [that’s] necessary? I know what I've accepted is true. I stand behind that. If I didn't have that, then I wouldn't be able to work here. The allegations aren't something I can ignore.

Let’s talk about forgiveness. On one hand, it’s like, let's leave these people in 2017. Leave them behind. Let's totally destroy their businesses. There's been measured responses and not-so-measured responses. What should the standard for forgiveness be? At what point should we be able to say, "Okay, you fucked up, but here's how you can make amends." Do you have any thoughts on that?

I don't think that there is one solution to fit them all. The gravity of somebody's actions is not something that's quantifiable. So I don't think that there's a measurable solution. You know what I mean? I don't know what the right response would be in order to ... I don't know what the right thing to do is. Maybe we're not at that point yet. I think starting a conversation that honors the complexity and nuance of each situation is the beginning of understanding this. I do find a lot of these conversations lack nuance. Everybody wants to stand on the right side of morality, and to even acknowledge the other side sometimes opens the door to a very slippery slope.

It seems like this whole discussion has been painted with very broad strokes—

Absolutely, absolutely.

—and no one's gone with a tiny brush to get the details right. That's why I wanted to talk to you, because it feels like a voice that hasn't even been acknowledged—the people inside the restaurants, especially women—even though everyone’s worried about what we do about the employees.

I find that a lot of us are trying to listen more than we speak. Partially because we're not given the opportunity to speak, but it does allow you to listen a lot more intently than [the] people who are speaking the most.



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