Kitchen Bitches, ASSEMBLE

Kitchen Bitches, ASSEMBLE

The conference aimed at smashing the patriarchy "one plate at a time” literally smashes plates, figuratively smashes minds.

September 10, 2015

“I haven’t been this excited about feminism since Riot grrrl.”
  

It’s hard to say what people were looking to get out of Kitchen Bitches. At most, the conference—spearheaded by The Black Hoof’s Jen Agg after a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a female pastry chef against three former colleagues blew up the Internet—held the promise of validation for those who have suffered abuse in this industry. A rally for solidarity, maybe. At the very least, a general curiosity might be rewarded by hearing what the star-studded chef panel would have to say on the subject. Plus, there were piles of spicy coppa glistening on the bar, so, free meat. Heyo!  

Whatever the appeal, the crowd fills Toronto’s Revival Bar hall and leaks into the foyer, clutching complementary Prosecco and sweating a little in the sticky heat. Buttons with the likeness of the event’s mascot, a cheffed-out Rosie the Riveter type, gleam from lapels. Some of the group are cooks, or servers—or had been, once upon a time. Some write for a living, or teach, or accompany friends who had an extra ticket.  

Some are dudes. A great many aren’t.  

Agg, dauntless rabble-rouser of high Twitterdom, spurred this entire evening from a clever hashtag into tangible existence, a tremendous coup in an age of passive activism. What’s an even bigger deal is that Kitchen Bitches doesn’t appear to be a full-on rage-fest. Not yet, anyway.  

The program opens with testimonials from industry folk on the deplorable shit they’ve been on the receiving end of. Aja Sax tackles sexism behind the bar in verse (Don’t even get me started / on women’s uniforms vs men’s / If you want me to wear a skirt that short / Give me a job where I don’t have to bend).
Claudia Cornali Motta delivers a powerful send-up of white men (“I understand that this is an angry conversation and it’s emotional. But you have no right to tell us to make it more palatable for you to consume. I don’t need to back up my lived experiences with facts and figures”), which immediately galvanizes the room. This is what the people came for. Sorry, white guy sitting on the end of that row awkwardly drumming his fingers on his knee.    



The fervor extends pretty nicely into the chef panel, when Amanda Cohen of NYC’s Dirt Candy declares the worst thing to ever happen to her in a kitchen was deciding to actually work in one. “I woke up in my own nightmare everyday. How did I get here, why am I here, who are these assholes I work with at every single level of the kitchen, from the dishwasher to the chefs?” she says. There have been a lot of times in her 25-year career when she was far from happy. “I definitely came up in a time where you got what came before you. The chefs were assholes and people had been assholes to them, and it trickled down.”  

Hugh Acheson, possessor of an easy Southern nature and the token white dude on the panel, “is not the sacrificial lamb” but also is halfway treated as one. He came up in thoroughly French brigades. He’s been screamed at in kitchens stretching from Montreal to San Francisco, and has been pressured by a boss to make other cooks cry (“Who?! Who?!” the audience cackles, crowing for blood. “Oh, we’re naming names? Gary Danko,” he cedes. A satiated hiss runs through the room.) Acheson says we’re in a better place than we’ve ever been, that being a woman hardly matters anymore: five years ago, we had “women” chefs. Now chefs are just chefs. We’ve emerged from the Dark Ages, he says.  

Agg tilts her head, brow furrowing. The microphone rises slowly like a guided missile. “I’m sorry, but you think that’s a true fact?” she asks. “It’s not true! That’s the problem!”  

The crowd claps wildly, heads bobbing in solemn agreement. By believing things are better, she says, we fall into complacency! The noise level rises. No one mentions how one is expected to measure progress if pointing out said progress means we’ve given up.    

“I really just want to push it, because if we don’t grab onto it as leaders in our world, it will fizzle away,” she says. More amens. Acheson has fallen silent for the moment, seemingly unsure of how to encapsulate his experiences and avoid crucifixion. Cohen jumps in. “Everything that’s happening right here and right now, wouldn’t have happened ten years ago,” she points out. We’re having the conversation about female chefs now so we won’t have to in the future, she adds.

Acheson’s voice, over the din: “No, but if you’re not seeing the progress we’ve made…chefs are becoming more empathetic and more understanding of situations overall. We’re hopeful. Those who are harassing and exploiting people will not survive in business anymore. It’s so hard to find anybody to work in a restaurant these days. If you are not a good person providing a good work environment, you’re fucked.”  

The crowd claps in fits and starts, slinking back on board.    

“I employ about 240 people now. I can’t treat them like shit, I can’t work them for 16 hours. Those days are gone. I was told to be a soldier in the kitchen, and I hated it. I left fine dining because of it,” he explains.  

Agg doesn’t see the evolution. This is because she is talking about better treatment of women and he is talking about better treatment of cooks in general. It’s a small but notable distinction, and the same hinge that keeps derailing the larger conversation.  

Jessica Koslow of Sqirl in Los Angeles has worked in open kitchens, and closed ones. The amount of abuse and aggression in closed kitchens, she says, is much more extreme, and her open kitchen requires staff to talk to one another and diffuse any heated interactions in the moment with civility. Patrons of Suzanne Barr’s restaurant always think her husband is the chef. Sophia Banks, who has worked in kitchens as both a man and a woman, has been unable to find work worthy of her experience since her transition. She also believes hierarchy breeds misuse of power and privilege. The other chefs are silent on that one.  

The panel ends abruptly when none of the speakers quite know how to define the call to action, beyond leading by example. Do you boycott restaurants who abuse their employees? How do you know which those places are?  

A brief interlude, which consists of people crab-walking along the rows of chairs to the bar. It is a hilarious exercise in social weirdness. Wine glasses lie in wait, like swanky dead soldiers, under every chair.
 

An internal alarm seems to have gone off reminding everyone to use all four of their free drinks tickets at this very moment. As a result, not many are listening during a brief back-and-forth between Agg and Koslow on the differences between back and front of house. Repeated “shame shushes” do nothing to settle the crowd, because booze!  

This restlessness overflows into the media panel, stacked with editors from Eater and Lucky Peach and Toronto's Globe and Mail. The first half accidentally veers off into a vaguely self-serving discussion over what good food writing is, and what good editing is… a frighteningly gorgeous young woman with a nose ring curls her upper lip, cocks an eyebrow and leans over to her friend. “Ugh, WHAT is this,” she whispers, which is a little unfair but kind of true. This will eventually be a conversation about responsibly crafting the editorial conversation, but people begin to filter out.  

And then, voila, the goods. It doesn’t take Peter Meehan of Lucky Peach long to bring up Rene Redzepi’s now-infamous essay on the need for happier kitchens, in LP’s recent issue. The same essay that was torn apart on Twitter the day it showed up online, by the very same people he now shares the stage with, you ask? Correct. Touchy, but good television.  

Eater’s Helen Rosner hopes that when Redzepi reads what he wrote ten years from now, he’s ashamed of himself for not “doing enough.” What isn’t explained is what might be considered enough. Does his position of crazy far-reaching influence and celebrity dictate that he self-realize faster? Meehan is quiet.  

This seems to be the part where you fall into one of two camps: either men have had their chance to rule the world and thus must shut the hell up, or you see progress only coming from equal collaboration—or you kind of awkwardly straddle a fence you're afraid of landing on either side of. Either Redzepi bogarted the conversation women and the LGBTQ community were ready to own, or every little bit counts and his essay was a realistic step in a positive direction. There is a lot of talk about control, followed by grand drop-the-mic moments.      

The important thing to note about the division of these groups is that they both reach for the same goal, but manage to oppose one another in the details. A conversation about progress develops into an argument over syntax. A conference about smashing the patriarchy is hard to govern, because not all men are sexist pigs, and not all chefs are power-wielding maniacs. Some of them are.  

There is no time for elaboration because it’s been about four hours by now. Everyone is a little buzzed, glasses keep clanging on the floor somewhere, and then the time for talking is over. In closing, Agg brings a little porcelain plate onstage.

“Here we go! What if it doesn’t break?!” she asks, breathless, coyly prancing in place, and brings it over her head.  

It does. A quiet volunteer moves in to sweep up the spectacle.  




By Cassandra Landry

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