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

Food Features

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.

“A lot of women I’ve talked to have told me, ‘I’ve never had that problem,’ and a lot of times I want to remind them, these problems do exist, just you’re so immune to the culture that has been created for you.”

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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Photo by Yuli Scheidt

The event wasn’t even an hour in and the tone had been set. Women were naming names of those committing sins in the kitchens. Prior to Kitchen Bitches, Agg had told me, “A lot of women I’ve talked to have told me, ‘I’ve never had that problem,’ and a lot of times I want to remind them, these problems do exist, just you’re so immune to the culture that has been created for you.”

The panel discussions kicked off on behaviors in kitchens with Jessica Koslow (L.A.’s SQIRL), Hugh Acheson (Georgia’s The National, 5&10, Empire State South, The Florence), Suzanne Barr (Toronto, Saturday Dinette), Sophia Banks (Toronto, The Beaver) and Rosy Rong (a cook and pastry chef from Fergus Henderson’s St. John in London, England). Almost immediately as the conversation started, Sophia Banks (trans-activist and kitchen manager) pondered to the crowd why there were not more people of color or non-binary faces in the crowd: had the event failed at intersectionality and creating a safe space for those who identify as such in kitchens?

The conversation continued with Hugh Acheson explaining, “There’s a very professional way of yelling at someone, honestly, that’s not belittling, not personal, not undercutting somebody for no reason. It’s purely on point as to the job that they’re doing.” Many in the audience did not agree. Jessica Koslow countered, saying, “I’ve worked in open kitchens and closed kitchens, and with closed kitchens I’ve found the amount of abuse and aggression much more extreme than I’ve found in open kitchens. Open kitchens require you to communicate and talk to one another.” Rosy Rong added, “I do see a day when we are not abusive to our employees. But I think a lot of employees don’t necessarily have a choice. They don’t know where to go if they don’t want to be abused.”

While both front of the house and back of the house staff have a large responsibility in how the industry is perceived, the media’s role in creating a sea change is responsible reporting. Noted panelists like Helen Rosner (features editor, Eater) and Peter Meehan (editor, Lucky Peach) alongside John Birsdall (writer) and Denise Balkisson (features editor, The Globe and Mail) represented the media. Rosner took the time to explain that great food writing is “sociological, it’s not just what am I eating, but why am I eating it? Then you have to answer that in a way that’s relevant.” Balkisson said that as journalists, we need to be cognisant of the “common white-centric perspective in food writing.”

“I think a lot of employees don’t necessarily have a choice. They don’t know where to go if they don’t want to be abused.”

However, it was Peter Meehan who candidly shared, “I came here to listen,” and took the brunt of the jabs on-stage regarding a controversial op-ed by celebrated chef Rene Redzepi which was published by Lucky Peach on his own abusive habits in the kitchen. Rosner explained to the audience, “For Redzepi to come forward and admit his own wrongdoings will put the issue of abuse in kitchens in front of those who might not have fully grasped the problem.” Meehan responded, “I’ll be the sacrificial lamb of the patriarchy,”

The panel discussions were not just emotional, but difficult, leaving the audience asking bigger questions: Can we not slut-shame employees for skimpy uniforms? How can the industry create bigger and better leaders? How do we remove the machismo and misogyny in our kitchens? How can women and trans-women feel comfortable about reporting and coming forward with these issues? These answers are still to be determined and worked on, but that was the point of Kitchen Bitches. Because of the event, Agg has opened up the floodgates for raw and honest discussion on how we can move forward in the industry. By amplifying marginalized voices, there is hope that change can come forward, slowly but undoubtedly surely—if the restaurant industry is open to it.

Amanda (Ama) Scriver is a full-time community builder and official ‘head bee in charge’ of the food, fat and feminism blog, Fat Girl Food Squad. When she isn’t busy kickin’ ass and takin’ names, she is having serious feels for all things coffee, hip-hop, the art of drag, Kardashians, pizza and Doritos. You can find more bylines from her at Eater, BizBash and Toronto is Awesome. Follow her on Twitter: @amapod.

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