On June 13th, the Toronto Star broke the story of Kate Burnham, a former pastry chef at Toronto's Weslodge restaurant, who alleges that she was routinely sexually assaulted and harassed at work. In response, Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg, of The Black Hoof, took to Twitter, calling out the industry for what she sees as systemic gender bias. She got a decidedly mixed reaction: Some fellow food people agreed with her assessment, others reacted defensively or angrily, while still more were silent on the issue. (Agg recapped the Twitter brouhaha in a Canadaland piece.)
Obviously, sexual harassment is not a problem unique to the restaurant industry, but Agg said in an email that kitchen culture makes this a particularly intrenched problem in restaurants—one that needs to be addressed. "Kitchens are a bit 'wild west' to begin with," she said. "The hierarchical/militaristic structure also lends an air of 'shut up, keep your head down, do what 'chef' says and maybe you'll ascend the ranks.' So it's already a place where speaking out against traditional practices (appalling though they may be) might make you a pariah. And if you're young, new to the business and just want to succeed in it, the cost benefit analysis of objecting to treatment you either experience or observe may not seem worth the risk."
Speaking out is one of the things Agg does best, however, so she decided to turn the moment into a push for change—she's launching a conference called Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time. The first will be held at Toronto's Revival Bar on September 3, and Agg has recruited some heavy hitters to start the conversation about gender equality in food (and the lack thereof). The food industry panel includes Sqirl's Jessica Koslow, restaurateur and cookbook author Hugh Acheson, and Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen, and the food media panel includes Eater's Helen Rosner, journalist Charlotte Druckman, Lucky Peach's Peter Meehan and journalist John Birdsall. Plus, Agg promises a few surprise guests.
Tickets have just gone on sale on the website and all are welcome, though Agg hopes that it will be heavily attended by those in the restaurant business. "All in all it's shaping up to be a banging talk and party," she said.