2017 saw the exposure of sexual harassment and the abuse of power that has been a systematic characteristic of Hollywood. Many hope now that 2018 will see the movement disseminate across all sectors and walks of life. Indeed, such exposure has already been heralded as the next great step in the feminist cause. But is it possible that such optimisms and exclamations are all a bit of wishful thinking?
All the hype got me thinking about my days as a chef. After quitting university, and training at Le Cordon Bleu in London I felt sure that a career in the restaurant business was what I was set for. My time at college however could not prepare me for being the only female chef in a working kitchen. The mutual, jovial, innuendo filled banter between us while training was a totally different beast to the one-sided flirtations and inappropriate attitude towards women in the restaurant environment that I experienced.
After my trial shift, whilst being offered the job, I was made to feel as though I should be thankful for being the successful applicant: something about hiring a girl being the risky option. Upon arrival my nickname was instantly “Princess”, and my intentions to be a restaurant chef promptly mocked due to my age (20) and gender. I will never forget the breakfast chef’s first words to me. When I was introduced as the new commis he jibed that my attempts were sweet and that at least while I was there I would learn how to make top quality dinner party food for entertaining my rich City husband’s friends…charming. While I’m still waiting for my rich husband, the misogynistic breakfast chef was right about one thing: I didn’t last 3 months.
I did not experience any particularly violent acts of physical sexual harassment, and it would be wrong to say that I was treated like a piece of meat from the moment I accepted the job to the moment I left for good. In fact, in many ways I was treated well. They took my mentoring seriously, and gave me responsibilities that matched those of my male colleagues. I often felt included, and when the pressure was on we worked utterly as a united team. It was during the hours of prep before the pressure hit, or at the end of shift when the last cover had been sent out that the gender divide became apparent. I was the easy target for a cheap joke, or the obvious vehicle to inflate their egos. Of course the “Princess” could not carry an industrial sized mixer across the kitchen; how frail she must be. Of course she could not whip 2L of cream by hand in less than five minutes. Oh how they sneered as they announced their assumed superiority. My sous chef, when I couldn’t find something he’d asked for, used to mock pity me, take me by the hand and march me like a naughty child to show me where I should have looked. How mighty and masculine he looked rescuing me from my own feminine incompetence.
And of course it wasn’t just chauvinistic power play they were concerned with. Flirtations were put upon me without any notions of their efforts being desired or requited. They would relinquish their boredom, take out their frustrations or express their double-shift-plus-hangover-induced exhaustion by whipping me with their oven cloth or asking me endlessly about my sex life. I could not touch a piece of meat with out being asked if that was how my boyfriend liked it. I could not be friendly with a female stage without being labelled a lesbian. My every movement was sexualised and ridiculed. In my attempts to avert attention, laughing along and plainly ignoring them were equally redundant responses. And if I didn’t play ball they regaled comparisons between the previous female chef and me – who ended up sleeping with some of them – as some sort of yardstick by which to prove my insufficiency. Their game was relentless.
That is why Jo Brand’s comment on Have I Got News For You was so poignant, and gained such an uproarious applause from the audience. It is not just the presence of rape or explicit acts of sexism that need to be combatted. The #metoo and Time’s Up movements are also about the continuous, subtle, implicit degradation of women in the workplace that make us so exhausted, feel so exploited and that lead to many of us just giving up.
New waves within the food industry show signs of rebuking the bigoted culture I describe. The Supper Club phenomenon for example seems wonderfully anti-chef-y. I did a trial shift at a health café prep kitchen not long after I quit the restaurant job and the bosses there said that it was set up for the sole purpose of escaping restaurant life. And not surprisingly, most (but not all) of the employees were women, the hours were 9am-5pm, and everyone seemed happy. Having said this, whilst such a revolution in food production suggests that the food industry may have actually been ahead of the game in terms of fighting structural misogyny and harassment, the mainstream section of the industry remains as backward as ever. What about those who wish to remain in fine dining?
There are reams of further examples which I could include here of the infantilisation and sexualisation that I endured during my time as a restaurant chef, but my point is this: many women in restaurant kitchens are not in a position to change their working environments like the women of Hollywood are. It’s absolutely right that in many industries, even in parts of the food industry, women have reached a place where they are able to, and should take control of their future. However I would also argue that large swathes of the hospitality industry, especially high-pressure restaurant kitchens, are not ready for #metoo. Time is very much not Up for some these men. Individual women do not have a voice loud enough to change the heavily macho culture, often led by middle aged men who do not sleep enough and who like their narcotics a bit too much.
If change is to happen it needs to come from the customer. We need to concern ourselves with the make-up of kitchen staff, and the treatment of them. From there we need to make ethical choices about where we eat and whom we support. Just as anyone with moral integrity wouldn’t watch a Weinstein movie in 2018, no one should be eating in a restaurant whose kitchen is living in 1818. For the #metoo and Time’s Up movements to really make a difference, and not just in Hollywood, every member of society – worker and consumer – is going to need to take responsibility for the treatment of others. It cannot be left up to the fragile, often silenced individuals who already have to deal with constant and continual attrition of their self-worth while trying to make ends meet. If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that a united voice can be a force to reckoned with. Let’s make 2018 the year we use that force to help ordinary people.