My Open Letter Back To Tom Colicchio And Every Other Guy In The Restaurant Business

Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio has a heart-felt essay on Medium about women in kitchens. I have some heart-felt thoughts, too.

Colicchio calls his essay, “An Open Letter To (Male) Chefs.” In it, he says “enough” to the bro culture (he uses a word starting with “d”) that permeates the restaurant business.

He also, to my surprise, decries the structure of restaurant work that wreaks havoc on family life. This is one of the best lines:

“It’s time we re-imagine the family averse work week that tells young cooks being a ‘real’ chef is incompatible with being a parent. That trade off is a Faustian bargain, and its own form of harassment.”

Damn. Finally, a guy gets it.

I am not a chef, but I have some culinary training, at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, with Patricia Wells in Paris, and in numerous classes of all types that I’ve taken for years.

The past decade, writing food stories, I’ve haunted kitchens, asking chefs to tell me about their business strategies, always keeping my eyes and ears open to the banter on the line and how men and women interact.

Restaurants are a tough business. That’s one reason why restaurants always have “Help Wanted” signs in their windows. Their jobs are the opposite of a sanitized world where everyone is glued to their computer screens.

You have to get your hands wet, you have to stand much of the day, you have to deal with demanding customers and vendors who don’t always show up when you need them.

For more than a century, however, restaurants have been a ticket to upward mobility in this country. Restaurant jobs were always plentiful for men and women.

In America, you could open a restaurant even if you didn’t speak perfect English. Even if people skimped on other necessities, they still needed to eat. So, restaurants became a place to get a foot in the economic door.

Until the Great Recession in 2008, restaurants just kept growing, at all price levels, in all parts of the country.

But that has come crashing down, just as there has been an existential change in the way people think about the restaurant business, and way they get their meals.

Fast-casual restaurants are closing by the hundreds. Dining out is being crowded out by cooking at home, and other ways to get good quality food.

So, this is what I want Colicchio and all the guys in the restaurant business to hear.

Women with culinary talent don’t need you any more. With a culinary degree or some hands-on training, they can have a successful career without ever working in your restaurants.

You might think your game of big-name, big-grossing restaurants is the only arena where people want to play. But you’d be wrong.

There are endless choices now for people with kitchen skills and the willingness to put in some hours. They can work in kitchens in upscale grocery stores, like Wegman’s or Whole Foods.

They can work for one of the delivery-only services that are springing up in New York and San Francisco and Chicago.

They can work for a company like Munchery, which delivers chef-designed prepared meals to peoples’ homes. They can work for a catering company. They can work from a food truck. They can be open just for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner.

Moreover, we diners don’t care as much as we once did about the surroundings where we eat.

The best new restaurant in the country this year, according to Bon Appetit, is a sandwich place in New Orleans, Turkey and the Wolf, that isn’t even as fancy as some other sandwich places where I’ve been. The tables and chairs don’t match and you stand in a long line to get your food.

You’re also going to stand in line at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, even though it’s 23F and snowing overnight. This week, people waited hours to get into the new Eataly in Los Angeles — what somebody described as a Disneyland of Food.

The playing fields have multiplied. And that’s what people in the restaurant industry need to realize.

Women don’t have to put up with sexual harassment in your kitchens and on the floor. They can walk through the door and get a job somewhere else. And once they have enough experience, they can find backers and open their own restaurants, and bakeries, and catering companies and food trucks.

And, if they run the right kind of work place, they’ll hire other smart women who are willing to put in the hours in an atmosphere where they feel safe and where there’s some flexibility so they can spend time with their kids.

These women won’t work for you. They will work for them, instead.

One of the best restaurants I ever ate in was a small cafe near Geneva, Switzerland. It was owned by a husband and wife — he was the chef, she ran the front of the house.

They were only open for dinner, and their children came to the restaurant to do their homework before guests arrived in the evening.

“It works out perfectly for us,” the chef told me. The food was top quality, the restaurant received one star from the Michelin Guide, and people drove up winding Alpine roads in order to dine there.

Customers will make the effort to find some place where the atmosphere is conducive to good food and pleasant service. Believe me, we can tell when restaurant people hate their jobs.

We can see it on their faces, and tell by our half-filled water glasses which don’t get replenished because there isn’t enough staff to do so.

Thanks to open formats, we can see if there are only men in the kitchen or waiting tables. It’s usually a sign that women aren’t welcome as colleagues, or haven’t stuck around.

It’s good that Colicchio talks tough to his fellow male chefs. It will be even better if they listen. The future of their businesses — and our dining choices — depend on whether the industry can allow women to excel.

(PS: in the original version of this story, I spelled Colicchio’s name wrong. As someone whose name is often spelled wrong, my apologies.)

Follow Micheline Maynard on Twitter @mickimaynard