When the New York Times revealed Harvey Weinstein’s predatory sexual behavior, the public consciousness shifted. As Time magazine demonstrated on its Person of the Year cover women could suddenly “break their silence” about rampant sexual harassment throughout the entertainment industry and beyond.
While many prominent figures have fallen from grace in the Hollywood Hills, there is another industry with even higher rates of sexual harassment: restaurants. In late October, the Times-Picayune reported on 25 women who claimed celebrity chef John Besh created a culture of sexual harassment in his restaurants. The accounts describe sexual propositions and actions by chefs, and blunt rejection if women attempted to report these incidents.
For many women in the industry, this is a familiar picture. A report by Restaurant Opportunity Center found 80 percent of women in the restaurant industry face sexual harassment from co-workers, with 66 percent facing “high-level” harassment from supervisors. These numbers reflect a widespread toxic culture that is largely unmatched — the restaurant industry is the largest contributor of sexual-harassment charges filed by women to the Equal Opportunities Commission.
What was unfamiliar to the women who accused Besh was punishment — he stepped down from his businesses. And now Top Chef, widely considered television’s most prestigious cooking reality-show, has edited his guest judging presence out of an episode. Head judge and fellow big-time chef Tom Colicchio applauded Bravo’s decision — and the extensive work needed to edit Besh completely out of the program.
Colicchio penned his own response to restaurant industry harassment in “An Open Letter to (Male) Chefs,” stating: “Assessing a woman as a body, rather than as a person with a mind, character, and talent, denies the full measure of her humanity. It’s wrong and it demeans us all. Real men don’t need to be told this.”
While Colicchio’s allyship is to be applauded, don’t get it twisted: women have been speaking up for themselves, their colleagues, and for women everywhere long before Besh (and Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, and countless other chefs) faced the sexual harassment gauntlet.
Prominent restaurateur and chef Jen Agg briefly highlights this recent history in the New Yorker. She cites Ivy Night’s recount of terrifying violent attacks from her sous chefs and Dominque Crenn’s denouncement of San Pellegrino for choosing barely any women for its 50 Best Restaurants List.
In other pieces, Chicago chef Miranda Rosenfelt described how she was forced to give oral sex to a colleague while trapped in a storage room. His reply? “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do this.”
Yes, they most likely want to do it. Some men — and their supporters — defend sexual assault by citing their inability to control their behavior. Their testosterone-fueled urges, the inner demons that can only be satisfied by forcing themselves on another, or the most obvious solution, that she was asking for it, that deep down she really wanted it, and they were pulled in by her femme fatale energy.
The vast majority of the time, men can control themselves. But in positions of power, where women have been systematically belittled, neglected, and hurt, they don’t have to.
Well, they didn’t have to. As some of the most prominent chefs begin to fall and disappear, perhaps the hypermasculine landscape is beginning to change. For every failed sexual harasser, there is a talented woman who can take his place.