Sexual harassment is widespread in the foodservice industry — and virtually everywhere else

am a woman working in the restaurant industry, so you bet I’m going talk about sexual harassment. I let you off the hook for the holidays with a fluffy little piece about cookies. But now it’s cold, harsh January, and I am exhausted. It has been a year of shenanigans, and my only truly happy hours are those in which I can completely unplug from news updates. 

I’m going to go out on a limb to say that if there is one silver lining to this rumpus, it is that women are being believed. Another president — say, one without an Access Hollywood tape — would probably not have prompted the surfeit of discontent that led to investigative reporting and the subsequent wave of accusations. As a woman, I say, “Finally!” As a chef, I’m going to stand here waving my arms until someone notices that these problems are still rampant in the service industry, and there is little being done about it. 

High-profile harassment and assault accusations get attention because there are famous, beautiful people involved. In comparison, the cases of hotel maids, prep cooks and waitresses still go unnoticed. They also get very little help. And it’s a hundred times worse for the undocumented. The New York Times is not exactly clamoring to interview your dishwasher and barback. 

I have friends with stories that are much more upsetting than mine, and I feel lucky to have passed through relatively unscathed. But we all have stories. Sure, I have had to look at a supervisor’s penis before. Who hasn’t? I was working as a hostess at a Big Boy.  It’s about as low profile a position as can be had in foodservice, which made it easy to immediately quit. (Side note to men — no one wants to see that junk. Even your mom didn’t want to have to look at it when you were a little boy.) Not everyone is so lucky. The ability to quit at a moment’s notice is definitely a privilege.

Waitresses surely have it the worst. Of course there is tableside groping. And propositioning. Why wouldn’t there be? You are there to serve, after all. And if you’re a good girl you can get a big tip. But the customers are not the only danger. When I waited tables at a Coco’s in college, there was a line cook who, miffed at my rebuff of a storeroom proposition, proceeded to repeatedly push every ticket I had to the end of the line. Just as my orders were about to be fired, back to the end of the line they would go. All my customers walked out that day, but there were no consequences for the cook. It was his word against mine. Yes, it was just a crappy diner, and perhaps he would have been penalized in a high-end restaurant. But it was the 1980s, so I doubt it. No matter where you are, there is always some jackass on a power trip. 

The human resources department at that company was a joke. But the fact that such a department existed at all was an anomaly. Most restaurants barely have employment policies, let alone an HR department. (Some high-profile chefs are taking it upon themselves to hire outside HR firms, but this is still pretty rare.) Even if there is a harassment policy, there is no guarantee you will be believed, or get any justice. The waiter spewing vulgar, demeaning, sexually charged threats to me at Postrio, where I worked in the ’90s, got a reprimand — but then continued to taunt me for the remainder of my tenure. I could have quit that too, except that Wolfgang Puck is a great resumé line that carried a lot of clout back then. My unwillingness to put up with abuse was challenged. The industry seems large but is connected. Everyone knows everyone, rumors spread and the “troublemaker” label is real. It’s not just the filing of a complaint that will give you a reputation — quitting without notice is possibly the most abhorred trait in foodservice. 

Groping, walk-in assault, storeroom rape, disgusting language and innuendo — these are all part of the culture. It is not made up, and it is encouraged by the glamorization of such behavior by the bad-boy chefs we see in the media. The seedy tales in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential memoir, the constant verbal abuse of Gordon Ramsey, the culinarily offensive and physically abusive movie Burnt and the cooking competition shows that pit contestants against each other in unsportsmanlike ways all portray the kitchen as a mean, cutthroat place to work. And it can be. 

By the time I was in my mid-20s I had it figured out: Develop a thick skin. Be one of the guys. Swear a lot. Laugh at dirty jokes. Don’t appear weak. It is a hands-off armor that I have perfected. I also began to consciously work mainly with and for other women; another option that I acknowledge is a privilege.

Still, when I go to work alone in the wee hours of the morning, I walk from my car to the kitchen with keys in my fist protruding like iron knuckles. I lock myself in behind gates and doors, and I keep a set of knives close at hand, in case I need a quick weapon. I don’t really live scared, but I do live prepared. It’s important that men understand this. I am not alone. Every woman lives this way.

The majority of people who work in this industry do so because they have to. Putting up with and dealing with harassment is a skill not everyone develops. Nor should they have to. I was willing to work through it, but not everyone is, which is another in a long list of reasons why American foodservice is a high-turnover, high-failure-rate industry.

So what is to be done? The first thing is to tell your stories. The more there are, the more they will be believed. And if more high-profile female chefs speak out, as has happened in other sectors, the neighborhood barista is more likely to feel empowered. Only when we feel safe to accuse will the accusers be safe.

More women in powerful positions would help, too. We are not all perfect, but at least we won’t flash you. 

An increased minimum wage, and an industry salary standard, would make it easier for workers to leave abuse for a more secure position without fear of a reduced income.  Similarly, universal health care would prevent workers from staying in dangerous situations for fear of losing benefits. 

Hand in hand with calling out the bad guys is celebrating the good guys.  Let’s see more supportive chefs in the media.  And how about some stories about female chefs that cook for a living, are not Julia Child and are not just trying to please a man?

Oh — and let’s try to raise some decent boys now, shall we?