It was only a matter of time – any woman who has worked in the culinary industry knew this reckoning would come. After Hollywood, media, theatre, tv networks and Congress, it is now the turn of restaurateurs all over to bear the brunt of the #metoo groundswell.
Next to Alabama’s upset by Doug Jones that took place last night (thank you America, for restoring some faith in you), this morning, with breakfast, I read the long, investigative story the NY Times ran on Ken Friedman, the owner, with April Bloomfield (the English Michelin starred chef) of numerous and seminal restaurants in New York, San Francisco and, now, Los Angeles, such the as The Spotted Pig and the Breslin.
Mr. Friedman is not the first to be accused. Mario Batali just recently removed himself from theday-to-day operations of his empire, John Besh in New Orleans also stepped down. But this particular tale of heavy flirting, screaming matches, humiliations big and small, groping, not so subtle sexual innuendos and private parties that, fueled by alcohol, made the upstairs room at the Spotted Pig known, among employees, as the “rape room”, is the most corroborated so far. What is so striking is that, at the helm of every single one of Mr. Friedman’s kitchens, is a woman, April Bloomfield.
The culinary industry having being, traditionally, an entirely male domain, is still dominated by locker room banter, profanities, wolf eats wolf attitude and women wanting to pursue a career had to adapt. Some quit, some gritted their teeth and ignored the sexism or the abuse and others joined the boys’ club and gave back in kind. I suspect Ms. Bloomefield went the latter route.
In a way, everybody is somewhat complicit in these tales of sexual harassment that are finally leaking out of the gilded world of fancy restaurants: the male owners, chefs or managers who are doing the abuse but also the servers who acquiesce and don’t report it because the perks are so good. At a restaurant like The Spotted Pig, an experienced server can earn up to a six figures income in a year – so they swallow and go on, knowing that coming forward can mean being ostracized in such a small industry and that the grass is not greener anywhere else.
And then there are the HR departments who seem to work more to protect the company than the employees. I have vivid memories of opaque investigations myself, never aimed at fully supporting an employee but meant to stave off lawsuits.
And, finally, there are the women at the top, still too few. I had the privilege of working in a kitchen that was helmed by women – yes, I heard inappropriate comments but they were quickly quashed and while a few screaming matches here and there occurred, I experienced nothing but respect and encouragement. Stories like mine are few and far between. The women I worked with scattered in different directions, disseminating the culture, but too many are still shell-shocked or inured.
April Bloomfield is now caught between a rock and a hard place. Some employees apparently went to her to find some relief from the abuse, and she says she referred them to the appropriate channels, and once confronted Mr. Friedman. As the case may be, it is not enough. Mr. Friedman is her business partner and her career and financial success are inextricably linked to him. I have the feeling she tried to navigate the complexities while closing an eye, or never properly confronting a behaviour that couldn’t have been unknown to her. In a wishy-washy statement, Ms. Bloomfield said “My energies are directed to the kitchen, food preparation and menu development.” While apologizing for letting her employees down, she also said she did everything she felt appropriate and she relied on Mr. Friedman to uphold company’s policy.
It doesn’t work that way – even at the creative level, once you build an empire, you are still responsible for all the moving parts. You can’t hide behind the “I am just the creative brain” excuse. And, as a woman, her story is undeniable proof that supporting other women and confronting evil head on, early on, is still the better business proposition. The alternative will come bite you in the backside in the end.