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Opinion: How Chefs Cope in a Sexually Charged Kitchen

When I first read "Kitchen Confidential" during its release year in 2000, the book convinced me that I could never work in a restaurant, in spite of the fact that I already had a fairly successful personal cooking and catering business of my own. The shenanigans; the crude jokes; the culture of drink, drugs, sex and machismo had me thoroughly terrified at the prospect of approaching restaurant work. 

But I worked up the gumption anyway, and threw myself into the industry. 

And I instantly loved it. 

The shenanigans; the bad behavior; the culture of drink, drugs, sex and even the machismo. 

Or so I thought. 

Over a decade of cooking in restaurant kitchens, I once had to “pack up my knives and go” when the chef-owner literally grabbed me by the, uh, insert-euphemism-for-female-genitalia-here. (Sorry, Trump, but it seems you didn’t invent that particular move.) 

But for the most part, instead of leaving, I chose to “rise to the occasion,” and tried hard to become one of the guys—complete with a filthy mouth, a sailor’s capacity for drink, and my own reputation for bawdy behavior. In other words, I participated, making it difficult for me to think of myself as any sort of a victim, even when a chef quipped that I could perform a sex act on him before clocking out. True, I asked if there was anything else he needed, but I was thinking more along the lines of dumping the mop buckets or taking out the trash. I laughed, and came back to work the next day, barely thinking twice about it until recent current events brought back the memory. 

At that same restaurant, a female co-worker routinely grabbed me by the breasts, and outwardly pursued me sexually. I described it at the time as her “wearing me out,” but I didn’t think to classify it as harassment. Relaying this tale to another female co-worker, she reminded me how many times I had groped her behind in the kitchen, in full view of fellow co-workers in order to get a laugh. 

“Oh my God!” I shrieked. “Does that mean I was sexually harassing you?” 

She laughed and said that if that were the case, we wouldn’t still be friends. But we all clucked our tongues at her tale of a male co-worker subjecting her to the exact same treatment at another restaurant until she kicked him in the shin (kicking him evidently being an easier fix than reporting him. It worked.) 

But in reality, what was the difference? Was it only harassment if the perpetrator happened to have a penis? 

If you’re the sort who's never been much for cubicles, or 9 a.m. clock-in times, the restaurant is the polar opposite environment. It’s the first workplace where I felt like I could truly be myself and not just be accepted, but thrive. If I let an effenheimer fly at the wrong moment, I wasn’t going to be shunned or fired. If I let my own sometimes coarse personality hang out, it was a feature, not a bug. Eventually, the lines became blurry, even when my chef was running his hand up the inseam of my checks. (That night, I met some co-workers at a bar after my shift. When I told them what happened, they all stared at me, and said ‘You realize you can’t go back to work there, right?’ I hadn’t realized that, in fact.) 

Now that Anthony Bourdain is an older, wiser man with a daughter, he’s swapped out chef’s whites for a designer blazer and a writing career. He’s publicly cringing as he looks back at the realities of his restaurant life. A life that was hostile to women. I can relate, as I too am cringing at my own bad behavior as a woman that sometimes enabled, if not excused, an environment of hostility even as I myself endured it. 

I can even recall a time when a male colleague complained to our boss about my penchant for inappropriate talk in the kitchen. My boss’s response? He crudely told the guy to stop being such a wimp. Of all things to get upset about! In the kitchen! But in retrospect, I think I truly scandalized the guy, and I wish I hadn’t. As it turns out, the workplace is not the environment for profanity and prurient interests. What a concept. 

When a friend complained to me of the sexual harassment she was enduring in her own office workplace, I scoffed at her. She was planning to transition to kitchen work soon, and I told her to get ready. “If you don’t like being sexually harassed, then don’t become a chef,” I told her. She responded by saying that yes, she knew she would have to endure it there, but not in the office. Neither of us saw the irony, or the folly in any of this. 

All of this said, I don’t know if I could have survived the kitchen without that particular suit of armor, even if I did have my particular brand of offense cranked up to 11. 

Bourdain was quoted in his Slate article as saying “I was very proud of the fact that I had endured that, that I found myself in this very old, very, frankly, phallocentric, very oppressive system and I was proud of myself for surviving it. And I celebrated that rather enthusiastically.” 

If he thinks he’s proud of himself for surviving as a guy in that environment, imagine how women feel about surviving it. Move over, Bourdain, because I’m the one who’s proud. And yes, I sometimes even celebrated it. Rather enthusiastically. 

“... so many women were active participants in at the time, you know, the breed of women back then were f-ing tough and spoke like sailors,” quoth Bourdain. 

If he can celebrate us, why can’t we? Choose your cliche: “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Or, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Or, don’t speak at all and instead grab the closest phallocentric item and insert it into your fly and get a good offensive laugh. 

While those experiences without doubt helped to shape the woman that I am today—self-possessed, resilient, tough—I’m saddened that I, and other women like me, had to spend so much of our time polishing that armor, rather than focusing more closely on perfecting our craft, or climbing the chef’s ladder toward management or ownership. 

It seems like for every new knife skill or fundamental technique to master, there were a hundred inappropriate jokes, sexual advances to field and “proving myself” moments because I was a girl. 

For every woman who makes it to executive chef status or opens her own place, imagine how many drop out through attrition because they are exhausted or humiliated or both. I’d love to see numbers on the amount of female earning power lost through that attrition. 

As the years wore on, I found myself subconsciously gravitating toward female-heavy kitchens, where things were automatically calmer. We still made gutsy food, and we even had fun (!) I’m ready to go out on a limb and say things even ran faster, more smoothly and certainly more organized and communicative when women were in charge. 

Which is not screed on boys versus girls. But when the male-dominated need for competition and testosterone-fueled sexual tension is removed from the equation, real work gets done. 

I don’t know if I could, or even should have done things differently than I did back then, but I suspect I could have done better. Because while there is a place for badassery and women who can hold their own at the bar, what the world probably needs more is female leadership armed with chops and compassion instead of armor and profanity. 

In other words, women who are left alone, unmolested and unassaulted, to go about the business of doing their work. 

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