Taking Sexism in Foodservice Head-On at the Kitchen Bitches Conference

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It was was a Saturday afternoon in mid-June when a headline hit a local Toronto paper: “Former pastry chef alleges sexual harassment at top Toronto restaurant.” The headline sent shockwaves throughout the Toronto restaurant industry as Kate Burnham, a former pastry chef, alleged she was subjected to sexual harassment throughout her tenure at Weslodge, one of the city’s most popular, high-profile restaurants.

While the kind of harassment Burnham related is hardly uncommon for members of the foodservice industry, it’s largely not discussed in public forums. Burnham’s coming forward exposed one aspect of the seedy underbelly of restaurant culture that gritty Anthony Bourdain-esque narratives can’t romanticize, and it was her brave actions that encouraged others to step out and share their own experiences about the persistence of toxic workplace culture in restaurants.

Weeks after the article appeared, noted Toronto food writer Ivy Knight decided to expose “the man behind the curtain” from her earlier VICE Munchies pieces (originally posted anonymously) about being physically attacked by the sous chef she worked with at the time. She took her story to the Toronto Star, the same paper Burnham spoke with. Knight claimed that while it was her sous chef that gave her the brunt of the physical attack, it was another woman (Donna Dooher, CEO of Restaurants Canada) whom she thought she would find solidarity with when she reported the attack to her. But Knight says Dooher told her to “suck it up.”

While allegations were being made, men across Toronto’s food scene cried about “false accusations” or “not having the whole story”, and one restaurateur was on the front lines of social media, listening and making her move to destroy the rampant misogyny happening in kitchens.

Jen Agg, owner of The Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar, and Rhum Corner is known by some for being difficult. She was called “Toronto’s most loved and loathed restaurateur” by Toronto Life and recently landed a memoir deal with Random House for a book titled I Hear She’s A Real Bitch. Agg explains, “Men aren’t called bitches when they share their opinions, it’s a double-standard.”

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Jen Agg at her restaurant. Photo by Jenna Marie Wakani.

So when she proclaimed on June 14 that she was going to create a conference to discuss sexism and misogyny in professional kitchens, the 11,000 Twitter followers of The Black Hoof account (which Agg explains she uses because “The restaurant is me and I am my restaurant. I gained the pulpit that I have through the restaurant. The Hoof is intertwined with who I am and I have never thought about separating it.”) quickly spread across to others in the industry within North America.

The result was Kitchen Bitches, a conference aimed at “smashing the patriarchy one plate at a time.” Agg explained to me, “The patriarchy would fall if women would work together,” as we discussed the unregulated, systemic misogyny within the industry. Putting herself at the forefront of the conference (and a movement of sorts), Agg said, “I don’t want to be an activist, that’s the last thing I want to be.” However, she also said that if it wasn’t her bringing this message to the forefront, then she wondered who would?

The conference, which took place on September 3, had over 250 attendees ranging from industry workers, food media, and feminists. Agg curated an evening that would speak to those not just in the industry but also the “normals”, as she described typical avid food industry supporters. Throughout the course of the standing-room-only evening, a frenetic energy filled the air, as the audience (primarily women) of the one-night forum held at Revival Bar was hungry for change, dialogue and discussion.

To kick off the evening, industry workers including Aja Sax, Lily Hu of Scaramouche, Claudia Cornali Motta of Momofuku Daisho, and Christine Fancy shared their stories of abuse in restaurants. Their stories included everything from being shamed (Hu shared how a male coworker put a bowl of scraps on the floor, gesturing to her, “That’s your meal right there”) to physically assaulted (Rosie Prata, a former server at SCHOOL, claims that head chef Brad Moore threw a high chair at her) to dealing with the racial mind-games.

As a woman of color, Cornali Motta called out white men in kitchens, saying, “This goes out to white men.There’s a lot of things you can do. Because it starts with being a decent human being. The first thing you need to do is Google intersectionality. Secondly, you need to stop derailing the conversation. 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.”

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