A Woman’s Place in the Restaurant Kitchen

Kerry Diamond, Barbara Lynch, Christa Quarles, Elizabeth Blau

When the #MeToo movement took off last fall, my first thought was, #WhoHasn’t? If there’s one thing that #MeToo has shown the world, it’s that no industry is immune from sexual harassment, and very few women have been able to avoid it.

Like so many women, I’ve been groped, hit upon, ogled by colleagues and bosses. In the early days of my career, I let those things pass, afraid that a complaint might cost me my job or get me labeled as a “problem.” So, I’ve been inspired by the courageous women who are stepping forward to say, “Time’s up.”

As in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Washington and elsewhere, the restaurant industry is now facing a reckoning, one that is close to home for us at OpenTable, where we are in business to help restaurants run, grow, and thrive. As an industry ally and as a restaurant regular, I’ve been sickened, but not surprised, by the allegations in some of America’s most celebrated kitchens.

It’s no secret that restaurants are some of the toughest places to work. The long hours, the close quarters and hot stoves, the relentless pressure to churn out plates of delicious food quickly and flawlessly, are not for the faint of heart, regardless of gender. But alongside these grueling physical conditions, a culture hostile to women — one that at best tolerated sexualized banter and at worst shielded criminal behavior — managed to flourish in too many professional kitchens.

A study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that 80 percent of female restaurant workers had experienced harassment from a co-worker while two-thirds had experienced it from a manager. But for years, such harassment — from inappropriate comments to assault — had remained largely unchecked. One could argue that it was even celebrated. Best-selling books, movies and TV shows glamorized the hard-charging, profane and sexist atmosphere in restaurant kitchens. Predatory chefs were often excused as rogue geniuses, captains of pirate ships with arbitrary and unchecked power over their underlings. But as the line cooks, servers and restaurants workers who are now calling out the abuse are reminding us, there is — and was — no excuse.

Who knows how many talented women chefs and restaurateurs were forced out of this industry, whose passion for food and hospitality were killed by the industry’s toxic culture. It’s difficult to find a woman chef or restaurant employee who hasn’t had to deal with some form of discrimination, harassment, or marginalization in the kitchen. And even the most successful chefs have had their moments of doubt. As Chef Traci Des Jardins, the owner and creative force behind Jardinière and five other restaurants in San Francisco said, “The work is hard enough; it’s disheartening to deal with [sexual harassment] on top of it.”

Recently, legendary Chef Barbara Lynch and I decided to bring together dozens of the country’s best women chefs and restaurateurs for dinner at Octavia in San Francisco. It was an invigorating and passion-filled event — and the first of what I hope will be a series of “Open Conversations” among women in the restaurant industry. We talked frankly about the recent revelations in the industry and the ways chefs and owners could change the culture and create kitchens that were safe and inspiring for both women and men. As industry luminary Elizabeth Blau explained, “You can support men, women and our industry — it’s not mutually exclusive.”

The attendees agreed that strict and basic standards of behavior had to be written out clearly for all to understand. That all workers needed to be trained on a few basic rules that they should have learned in kindergarten — hands to yourself, no unwanted touching, if you see something, say something. One attendee suggested publishing mission statements on restaurant websites. Another suggested designing an easy-to-understand poster setting out the rules of behavior — one similar to and as universal as the “choking poster” describing how to perform the Heimlich maneuver that currently hangs in the back-of-the-house of most restaurants.

But laying out and enforcing the rules is probably the easy part. Professional kitchen cultures will likely change more quickly if we can empower more women to enter and stay in an industry that remains dominated by men at all levels, especially in the decision-making roles of executive chef, manager, and owner. “Anytime you have more women somewhere, it creates a different environment,” Chef Traci Des Jardins told us a few days before the Open Conversations event. “The more women you have, the less it becomes a locker room.” It is true in Silicon Valley, and it was true on Wall Street. It’s true in restaurants.

On this front, just as in the Valley, there is so much more that can be done by so many more parties to get women to 50/50 representation in restaurant kitchens. In 2017, female founders got only 2 percent of venture capital dollars. Women chefs point to a similarly-limited access to capital — why is it, asks Chef Tanya Holland, the owner of Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen, that so many talented women chefs have just one restaurant when their male peers have managed to secure the capital to open second and third restaurants, or even build mini-empires?

Ellen Fort, Erin Cochran, Preeti Mistry, Tanya Holland, Scott Jampol

Even as women chefs lack broad access to capital, they also seem to lack access to an equally important currency for chefs — publicity. Women tend to get less press coverage, are less frequently reviewed by restaurant critics or named to “Best Chef” lists, and are nominated for fewer awards. As New York Chef Amanda Cohen recently pointed out, 28 of Food & Wine magazine’s 192 “Best New Chefs in America” have been women and a shocking six of the 72 Michelin-starred restaurants in New York are run by women. We absolutely refuse to believe that women are less talented than their male counterparts.

Still, there are encouraging signs. Until last year, just 81 of the James Beard Foundation’s previous 361 Awardees had been women. But this year, the Foundation made some promising new adjustments to its selection process, including “the values of respect, transparency, diversity, sustainability and equality,” as new criteria for its awards. As a result, 40 percent of this year’s nominees are women — up dramatically from last year’s 27 percent.

And just as in the Valley, we recognize that women in the industry who have made it can always do more to help those coming up behind them. Traci Des Jardins says that while in the past she “didn’t focus on gender when selecting staff” and ended up with many male leaders in her kitchens, she’s changed her approach. “I have a greater commitment as a female industry leader to seek women out, to encourage, hire and promote them.”

We intend to keep these Open Conversations going in the months to come. The passion that I hear from so many female chefs and entrepreneurs for their craft and for the future of the industry is truly humbling. My team and I will be working to help more women thrive in both the front of and back of house and to bring their unique culinary points of view to more guests. I know that this industry will only become stronger, more creative, and dynamic when more diverse voices are heard…and fed.