This post is dedicated to the women who have saved my life- they’ll know who they are.
This blog post is… well, it’s going to be a little rough. I’m going to be talking about kitchen culture, of course- but in particular some of the big problems with it. Ones that we ourselves are causing and perpetuating- the abusive, macho, meathead culture that we have glorified, and how it hurts our female comrades and ourselves. We have seen icons fall, and powerful culinary empires crumble, simply because the man in charge decided he was going to be a “guy” rather than a man.
I promised myself a long time ago that I would never EVER discuss politics on this blog, and I am holding to that. Regardless of the political twists that other pundits have put on the topic, this state of affairs transcends political philosophies- it cannot be allowed to continue.
This blog post is aimed mostly at the guys in the audience, and especially those who are frowning or wincing after that first paragraph. If this is a little much for you, then carry on- hopefully the next topic will be a bit more lighthearted, maybe with some goofy pictures or foodporn.
Guys, I hope you stick around though- because fixing this is absolutely, 100% on us- all of us- and I will tell you exactly why.
I’ll start with one time I was a coward.
A young friend of mine from back East was embroiled in a political argument with an older man through a friends posting. I will not say what side anyone was, because I think you will agree in a moment that it doesn’t truly matter.
As I read through the argument, as my friend was trying to make her points, the older man grew increasingly irate and derogatory- calling her “sugar,” “honey,” “babe,” and other such things amid insults based on her political views.
Finally, my friend called him out on it and asked him to stop- that she didn’t like being spoken to that way, and was finding it very insulting and rude. His response: “Sorry to burst your bubble, babe, but I can say and think whatever the hell I want. Deal with it sugar.”
My friend is a good person, and she was scared. She runs a small business, and the man who had just flagrantly disrespected her over a stupid Facebook argument, while not directly involved in her business, is locally influential and numerous friends in places that could make life hard for her.
Not a single man stood up for her, or told the guy to knock it off. Not. Even. One.
I could have said something. I could have jumped in and told him to step off. But…
“It’s a conversation from earlier in the day, I’m too late.”
“I don’t want to make things worse.”
“I don’t want to make her a target for more.”
These were all the reasons I just stayed silent. I got in touch with her later on- I wanted to express sympathy and make sure she was ok.
She said she was- but that she was still scared. She was worried for her business, and whether that man might use his connections to make things difficult for her. There was no one to report it to, no one to bring it up with. There had been no threats- just the implication of menace.
She thanked me for checking in, and hoped I was doing well out here.
I’ve felt sick with myself over not doing more ever since.
It is not the first time I was witness to a female friend or coworker getting disrespected or hassled. Sometimes, like this, I only heard about it second-hand, or after the fact. Once or twice, I benefited from it- being given an opportunity that had been denied to another, more deserving female coworker- and I simply was too scared or confused to speak out about it.
None of these are excuses. I was a coward- that sums it up well enough.
In a recent article, Anthony Bourdain spoke out about his own feelings regarding the wave of sexual harassment/assault claims against major figures, one of which was a friend. One thing he said really hit the nail on the head for me:
“Any admiration I have expressed in the past for Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, whatever I might feel about them, however much I admired and respected them, is, in light of these charges, irrelevant. I will not waste anybody’s time with expressions of shock, surprise, or personal upset, beyond saying that I am ashamed that I was clearly not the kind of person that women friends who knew — and had stories to tell — felt comfortable confiding in.”
Why? Well, that’s simple… because we are all guilty. By action or (like me) inaction, by turning a blind eye or using an off-the-cuff remark to dismiss such situations,in or out of the kitchen, we have aided and allowed them to continue. I know for certain I have.
In the past, I have moved in for a kiss when I wasn’t totally sure it would be reciprocated.
In the past, I have treated women with hostility when they didn’t respond to my romanticism.
I once believed in the “friendzone,” and that women owed me sex for treating them decently.
I have ruined friendships for pushing too hard, or at all, and acting possessive when there was nothing there to possess.
There are no amends I can make for any of this, except that- thanks to a few exceptionally loving and patient women in my life- I know much better now. Most of this occurred when I was in college, and some of my female friends have said this is all in my head, that they have no memory of it- that I was always a good man and a dear friend. It’s an immense kindness, and I hope that I can now live up to their memories of me.
It is perhaps appropriate that I am writing this so soon after many culinary schools are having their graduations, and launching a horde of fresh young cooks and bakers into the field. Anthony Bourdain recently gave the commencement speech at his alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America, and echoed many of these sentiments:
“In his remarks to the newly minted class, Bourdain invoked a refrain that has become common when he speaks in public these days. He starts off gently, reminding the future chefs that they are “essentially in the business of nurturing” and—never one to miss a chance to be self-deprecating—quips that he spent 30 “not particularly distinguished years” in the industry. However, he quickly changes the topic to the work that made him famous, Kitchen Confidential. Repeating a line he’s mentioned before on Late Night with Seth Meyers–he says that he “wrote [the] book intending to entertain a few line cooks,” but that it became “a meathead bible.”
“It has been dismissed many times by women in this industry and rightly so as the bro bible,” he adds. “If there’s a harasser in the kitchen who’s a jerk at work, chances are he’s got my book at his station, and I am going to have to live with that.”
Historically, misbehavior was permitted or even encouraged. We were driven to “toughen up,” “get a think skin,” “quit bitching and carry harder,” “no guts no glory,” and all that crap. We were told that abusing stagieri and students was part of the fun- you weren’tHAZING them, you were “preparing them” for life in the kitchen. That’s how it was “back in the old days.” You got by on little sleep and a lot of substances. That was how you showed your “passion.”
It was also how you got arrested, died young, or killed yourself.It wasn’t “manly” to ask for help, or to need time off. You were a “pussy” if you called in sick. You had to carry more, work harder, work longer, do the drugs, drink after work, drink ON the job, to make your life not a living hell- all the while being reminded that “this is what your signed up for.”
NO. For fuck’s sake, a thousand times over, NO.
That may have been the way it was- it CANNOT be the way it continues to be, for our sakes or for the sake of the industry. This legendary machismo must end in our industry, before it completely kills our industry.
Some time ago, I wrote a letter to new pastry grads. If you’d like consider this next bit a P.S., or an addendum- an amalgamation of everything I’d written on the topic before.
“If you think an addiction to tobacco/alcohol/hard drugs/work will earn you respect, you’re going about it all wrong.”
“It’s ok not to be ok. You aren’t made of stone. If you are depressed, or need a therapist, find one. You aren’t weak for looking after yourself.”
“You don’t have to like football. You can love baking and knitting and being quiet. It’s ok to go to a party and talk wine and music more than sports and hunting. Don’t let others tell you what to love.”
Now there’s something else that clearly needs to be said:
“Screw the bro code- there are times when the line has to break. You’re not doing screwing up by calling out your friend. Your friend did it by relying on you to cover for him while he does something you both know is wrong- and you’re screwing up if you do.”
We are ALL, ALWAYS our brother’s keeper. This is on US. We can’t just expect women to come forward and expect justice when we are horrible to them, and those of us that aren’t either don’t listen, don’t understand, or don’t want to risk being ostracized. That is not a club I’D want to be a member of.
This is on US, guys. FIX IT.