One writer’s experience in the traditionally male-dominated sphere.
Content Warning: discussion of sexual harassment and misogyny
When I was younger, I would always ask the waiter if I could take a sneak peek into the kitchen. There’s something about restaurants and their atmosphere that is energetic and creative like no other space. “Who am I without restaurants?” says zero-waste activist Lauren Singer, “they are catalysers of art and emotion that we need to explore every corner of ourselves and others. They are the foil to discomfort and the creators of change”.
After I graduated high school, I started an internship in a hotel kitchen which took me many months to secure. Out of about a hundred applications, this place – hidden away in the Swiss Alps – was the only one that would take a chance on somebody with as little experience as I had. I felt grateful and indebted to them. The first time I stepped into the kitchen, I felt like an imposter and spent many hours trying to compensate for what I had not learned before. Much later, I realised that “we love working with young people and introducing them to the industry” actually meant “we love working with people who are not aware of their rights in the workplace”.
I never failed to notice that I was the only woman in both hotel kitchens. During the first after-service meeting to discuss “mise en place” work for the next day, the sous-chef started by showing everybody the half-naked picture of a woman on his phone. Often, the “locker room talk” – which involved detailed discussions about the women who worked in service – was only interrupted by the sudden realisation that with a woman in the kitchen, somebody foreign had entered the chefs’ male space.
There is something about 12-hour workdays and living together in the staff house that blurs the line between private and professional – sometimes dangerously so. Suddenly, colleagues and bosses think they can comment on private relationships and people’s sex lives. “No wonder there is drama,” said the 50-year-old restaurant manager to the 20-year-old female chef de rang when setting the tables, “you are all so young, obviously sooner or later you’re all going to fuck each other.” Later, after I kissed one of the chefs at a staff party, he would tell me: “I’m not trying to say you’re a whore, but…”
When I asked people to stop talking about my private life, they would tell me to toughen up because “this is just what it’s like in the kitchen”. When I confronted one of them, he would ask me, “but what is wrong with being a sex object?” In the following weeks, colleagues and bosses would find it difficult to take me seriously at my job. I didn’t know how to respond. I understood that after the season, I would need professional references from the hotel. When I did mention the discomfiting language they were using, the head chef shut it down. Most of the kitchen team were close friends of his and they could do no wrong.
Those casual jokes during service or late-night beers when all the guests had left were neither funny nor casual to the women who worked there. Rather, they told us exactly how the men around us viewed us – privately and professionally. When we didn’t laugh, we were told to loosen up, and soon, we were no longer invited to late-night hangouts or after-work activities.
When I worked as a waitress the summer after, my middle-aged boss would tell me to step up on a chair so he could look up my skirt. “18 is too young,” he would say at the bar – winking, “but only for wine”. During the late hours of working at a wedding, he would give me a shot, wink and say: “Just chug it. I’m sure you know how to swallow.” Later, after spending an evening after work with colleagues on the beach, he spread the false rumour that I was sleeping with the sous-chef who was double my age. Again, in the following weeks, colleagues and bosses found it difficult to take me seriously at my job.
I encountered many guests: middle-aged men who have never worked in hospitality but still felt like they could tell me how to do my job; the men who were flirty, pushy and felt like they deserved all of my attention during a busy shift; and the ones that commented on my body and slurred double innuendos. Rarely could I tell them to fuck off – I was told to be nice to them because they left tips and reviews. When I told my boss, he told me to shrug it off.
These experiences are in no way unique. A 2014 Restaurant Opportunities Centre Report showed nearly 80% of women in the restaurant industry have experienced sexual harassment and I am aware of my extremely privileged position: I didn’t depend on my job in the same way that many of the women I worked with did. Some, who had experienced much worse than me, were unable to leave abusive work environments for years.
Unsurprisingly, restaurant kitchens still have many glass ceilings to shatter. Even though women are constantly told to “go back to the kitchen”, people never mean professional ones. Private and professional cooking are separated in such a way that one signifies a female act of caregiving and the other becomes an assertion of male perseverance and power. In those spaces, women become an alien other. In the UK, only 17% of chefs are women and just 2.7% of Michelin-star restaurants are female-led. Lorna McNee’s recent Michelin star win at Glasgow’s Cail Bruich and the three Michelin stars for Clare Smyth’s London restaurant Core represent important but rare wins.
When restaurants open back up and I return to my job, I hope to see accountability. When a guest behaves inappropriately towards staff members, restaurant managers need to step up. And when staff behave inappropriately towards other staff, restaurant managers still need to step up – even if the colleagues in question are their friends.