This commentary by host Francis Lam was part of our episode "Behind the Restaurant," which originally posted online on February 2, 2018.
Over the past few months there have been lots of news stories about the widespread issue of sexual harassment and assault in restaurants. I'm hopeful that this will start an industry-changing conversation. It's one, frankly, that many professionals, mostly women, have been having for years while seeing it fall on mostly deaf male ears.
But the work culture of restaurants can be such a complicated thing to talk about. In a lot of places, it's a culture where there's a lot of gray area in terms of what's acceptable. I've heard and frankly said things in a kitchen that I would literally never think about saying in a publishing meeting, for instance. And we said things that were out of line precisely because we thought, like 13 year olds, that it's fun to say things that you're not supposed to say. “Hey, it's all right, you know, because we're a team and we all knew where we stood.” That's what I thought, because truthfully, things can get messy when you start blurring the line between okay and what's not. When “I'm just kidding” can either be a real apology, or an excuse for making people feel uncomfortable and threatened.
And now when I look back on it, as much fun as we were having, I can totally see why that environment could easily turn into one where people feel entitled to act truly terribly. It's even more complicated when someone with bad behavior is deemed okay by the people affected by it. I remember one chef I worked under who thought I was an idiot, and he was never shy about letting me know. Now, he never actually harassed me, but he definitely scared me, and I hate to say it, but I thought he made me a better cook that way. Eventually, I thought of him as a good guy in spite of, and maybe because of the fact, that he made me feel terrible about myself.
Now, again, I'm a man. Like Amy Thielen and I were talking about, I've had the privilege of never having to think about whether any of those taunts were because of my sex. I didn't have to do the emotional work of having to fit into a boy's club, and I've never had to walk home from work late at night looking over my shoulder and just, in general, having to live in a reality where I had to be wondering if I'm going to be targeted. So, I've always had the freedom to think of that chef's put-downs as just tough love, and I could well have spent the rest of my life saying. “Yeah, being a jerk works, and if you don't like it, find another job.” The people who survive that atmosphere, who thrive in it even, is there any surprise that they might think that's the right way to treat the people under them?
But I don't know. I think as the restaurant industry keeps growing in cache, the expectation of professionalism is growing too. What is becoming clear is if you burn too hot, you might not burn for long.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.