Working in a restaurant is a notoriously tough gig. There are the long hours and the demanding patrons. Couple that with the relentless drive for perfection in so many kitchens, and the copious amounts of booze at the ready for when it’s time to decompress.
If you’re a woman, you also likely have to deal with a macho kitchen culture in which you’re the minority — even more so if you’re a woman of colour. As the #MeToo movement reverberated through the restaurant industry last year, allegations of sexual misconduct started to crumble the empires of prominent male chefs like Mario Batali and Ontario winemaker Norman Hardie. Women are at the forefront of encouraging real systemic change in the restaurant industry, creating working cultures supportive enough that a woman might actually consider starting a family, and humane enough to enforce zero-tolerance policies for sexual harassment.
But there are concerns the momentum for change might be slowing down. “The moment we stop talking about [the systemic problems in this industry] is the moment we start taking steps backwards — and I’m not sure we’re talking about them enough still,” says Amanda Cohen, the Canadian-born owner of Dirt Candy restaurant in New York City.
Chatelaine spoke with five women from across the country about their experiences navigating the challenges of an industry in flux, talking about everything from mental health to mentoring young women of colour and their ideas for how to remake restaurant culture for the better.
Amanda Cohen, 44
Toronto-raised Chef/Owner of Dirt Candy in New York City
After the whole #MeToo movement started and all these stories started flooding out from the restaurant industry, the first thing I did was sit down with my manager and say “Okay, what do we need to look at? Should we be worried? Have we done anything wrong? Have we ignored problems? Are there things we’ve missed over the years?” It was a really honest and serious conversation. And then we sort of took a step back and were like “Nah, we’re fine.” We’ve been hyper-aware for years.
I’ve told this story to a number of chefs and they’re like “really?!” And it’s like “Yes! You know this is happening, why wouldn’t you sit down and take a look at the inner workings of your restaurant and make sure you really do have fair and safe practices?” I was really blindsided by how few chefs actually took the time to explore that — even a lot of women chefs. These men’s empires are falling in light of #MeToo because they are not sustainable.
My whole thing is it’s not that hard to be good. You’re making a conscious choice to be an abuser. We’re at this tipping point. If we want to change how we run restaurants, we need to absolutely grow up. As an industry, we need to stop celebrating our stars, stop celebrating our drunken nights out and really start celebrating the good things that we should be doing, which is “Let’s figure out how to get healthcare into the industry, let’s figure out how to get maternity and paternity leave and to actually give people a real life, let’s talk about mental health care.” There are all these things we are not doing. But if we don’t do that, we’re going to collapse.”
Meaghan Murray, 37
General Manager at Tuk Tuk Canteen in Toronto
I started in the hospitality school of hard knocks when I was 19 – first hosting, then serving, then I was asked to help the bartend at a big event. Lo and behold, the bartender was too hungover to work and I myself was so drunk by the end of that shift, it didn’t matter I was tearing my hands apart popping off beer caps. I got to party, I got to dance and sing and have fun, and I made $200 doing it. It was intoxicating, no pun intended.
By then, I’d already been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, but I got my final diagnosis of borderline personality disorder only about a year and a half ago. In any industry, being open and honest about mental health is difficult. The hospitality industry is flexible but also so precarious — there’s no healthcare plan, no insurance, for the most part.
In this business, you’re expected to smile and just get your job done — so you get really, really good at faking. And it’s not like you can miss a shift, because then you don’t get paid. Once, I was honest about my mental health and all of a sudden my responsibilities were taken away, because “this person obviously can’t handle it.” For a long time, I did a lot of self-medicating. The process to get proper treatment is so long, you’ll do anything you can to numb yourself — drugs and alcohol work really well in the moment. It’s 100 percent part of the culture in restaurants: the access is right there.
It’s really, really bad the next day: I’d wake up an hour before my shift started, shower, put some makeup on, down some Gatorade and a handful of Advil and make my way into work. I’d feel terrible and try to manage until I could have my first drink — usually something easy, like a cider or a cheeky shot with the bartender. Then it’d be the end of the night and I’d think “well now I don’t feel so bad, but I don’t want to go home by myself. Let’s go out.” You’d go to your friends’ bars and get free shots. I don’t especially like feeling drunk, so the next logical thing was “OK so let’s grab some blow — that’ll fix you right up.” And so you’d party til 6 o’clock in the morning.
I ended up losing my last job because I hadn’t been taking care of myself and was completely unreliable and miserable. I knew it was getting bad again and I’d been ignoring it. That’s the thing with dealing with mental health, when you feel better, you’re like “I’m better!” even though you know that it’s coming back to ruin your life again. So I went back to my doctor, back on medication. It hasn’t been perfect, but it’s a lot better.
For me, a big part of it is talking about it and not being afraid. I’m in a place where I can be honest with my boss. When you have that supportive work environment, it really makes a difference.
There needs to be a conversation, there needs to be education there needs to be access to mental health resources for everyone in the industry. It shouldn’t just be available to people working in offices.
Sophia Banks, 38
Chef-owner of Vegan Canteen in Val-David, Que.
When I came out as trans, people stopped hiring me. At the time I was a wedding photographer and quickly I went from making $100k a year to about $10k. That’s how I ended up back in restaurants, where I’d begun my working life as a young man in the dish pit, moving on to kitchen work as a cook because it paid a lot better. There were so many challenges going back as a trans woman. In interviews with potential employers it was “What change room are you going to use?” At one of my first jobs, I was putting on my work clothes and got yelled at and kicked out of the change room. I was like “Okay, I guess this isn’t going to work.”
It was just such a miserable experience working at such low wages — I was 35 making the exact same wage as I made at 13, despite 15 years of experience in the business. And this time around I was experiencing misogyny — constantly being doubted and having my authority questioned. When I was a younger man and I’d say “Hey, do this,” it was just done. Now I’m having to ask people 12 times to do things. This complete lack of respect blew me away.
When I started my own business I made a point to hire openly trans and queer people. A lot of the big changes that need to happen in the business is making more room for marginalized people – trans, queer, women – who work in kitchens. For all of its pitfalls, it was a really cool experience to go work as both a man and then a woman, and understand the world in that sense and see the differences between how each are treated.
Suzanne Barr, 42
Head Chef, Avling Kitchen and Brewery (opening Spring 2019)
My first menu item at my last restaurant Saturday Dinette was lox and eggs. I didn’t know what the food was going to be about, I was trying to get inspired and be like “What do I want to be known for?” I fought so hard against putting fried chicken on my menu – I didn’t want to be the Black chef doing that. Even though there is so much pride we put into our fried chicken – the sweet tea brine, the coating, the cut. When I got to a more stable and confident place, then I made a shift – it really came when I had the opportunity to create a menu in honour of my mother during a guest stint at The Gladstone Hotel. Creating that Caribbean food, where all of my influences, all my travels came together – that menu really gave me the confidence that Caribbean food is not just the food you get during Caribana, not just from styrofoam containers from takeout spots. It took that to make me go back and think about my mom to say “I’m ready to talk about diversity in the kitchen.”
We’ve been talking about the lack of women represented, but diversity in kitchens is something we don’t want to talk about. There’s still a lot of shame, but we need to be seen, we need to be heard. When I looked at the sea of people at the Dinette after it got a great review in The Globe and Mail – it was not Black faces, it was all white faces. I was like “damn, now I’m making food that is talking about me, food that is talking about my culture, food that is talking about people of colour but there ain’t no people of colour here.” I was yearning to have them come in and say “That was the best damn fried chicken I’ve ever had.” Or “‘Let’s support a Black business, see a Black woman running this restaurant with her family and her team of Black girls.” I wanted a sense of validation.
One thing all of us can do is mentor young people of colour in kitchens. I recently took part in an event at Centennial College and received an email from a young Black woman from the hospitality program who was considering moving to the culinary program. She wanted to know if I was taking any apprentices. “We don’t see enough of us.”
I’ve brought her on and have been able to mentor her. For the next generation young cooks coming up, they need to feel like “Can I really prosper in this industry?” “Yes you can! And yes we are!” We need to see more faces of colour out there so they can feel represented, connected and like their food is not just served out of a styrofoam container. I want them to be able to say “I can cook the hell out of fried chicken, and I can cook the hell out of a French terrine.”
Crystal Porcher, 35
Pastry chef, baker, owner of Bals Provisions in Montreal
I worked in a pretty big restaurant in Montreal for about five years, running the pastry department. I’d work the production line, coming in when the night guys were finishing at around 11 p.m. The night line crew was usually mostly men — 75 percent at any given time. I came into the kitchen one night and said hello to everybody as they were cleaning up. While I was setting up, the head kitchen cook thought it would be really funny to grab a rubber glove and tell me he was going to take me out back and fist me.
I was like, “Excuse me?” I shut that kitchen right down in that minute. “That’s not acceptable,” I said. “That’s straight up sexual harassment.” I told them “I’m not saying that you can’t talk about sex in kitchens because that’s never going to happen. But it’s really different when you guys say you’re going to do stuff to me. That’s not the same — it’s threatening.”
He got pretty defensive and was like, “It’s just a joke, you know?” I’m pretty sure he would’ve either been suspended or fired on the spot had I told management, so I was like “This is your one chance. If I ever hear of you pulling this kind of stuff with anyone, guys or girls, that’s it. I’m going to go to the management and you’ll be done. I won’t stop until you’re out.”
Truthfully, I would’ve felt some sort of responsibility if he lost his job even though I wasn’t the problem. But I think that’s a real trait of women— to take responsibility for things they’re not responsible for. This happened about seven years ago, but it’s stuck with me ever since. To feel the agency in that moment to address it was a powerful thing. I still feel good about it because there was another woman in the kitchen and I was like, “You don’t have to take this shit.”
As long as these kinds of things happen, women will leave kitchens or will decide to go out on their own path because they don’t feel welcome. Until the environment changes, you’re not going to see women thrive.”