To fight sexual harassment and unfair workplaces, the chef tells Food and Wine, we need to make sure systems are in place to support women—and that starts with policy

Maria Yagoda
December 12, 2017

On Monday, after news of Mario Batali's alleged decades-long sexual misconduct broke on Eater, Tom Colicchio tweeted, "And no one should be surprised." The Top Chef host didn't mean to say that everyone knew, he clarifies, but rather that the investigation had been going on for weeks—several people in the industry had been asked about it by reporters. Plus, Batali's behavior was well-documented in the 2006 Bill Buford book, Heat, in which the author details Batali saying to a female server: "It's not fair I have this view all to myself when you bend over. For dessert, would you take off your blouse for the others?"

"It's not like it was discussed, or we all knew," the chef says. "But the assumption is: It's going on everywhere. It's pretty clear that this isn’t an issue for just the restaurant industry. It’s a problem with our culture"—which is yet another reason that his surprise was minimal, because, clearly, sexual harassment is prevalent. 

Colicchio, who has been outspoken about the culture of sexual harassment in kitchens, says the problem is everywhere, and he credits the #MeToo movement, the Women's March and even the 19 women who've accused President Trump of sexual misconduct (plus Trump's "open admission") with opening the floodgates; men who abuse their power are finally being held accoutable. 

"This is where it starts—with women who are abused telling their stories," he tells Food and Wine. And he thinks the current moment is ripe for change, as powerul men are finally facing real consequences when women come forward. That wasn't always the case.

"If you were a woman and you felt sexually harassed in the workplace, what tools did you have? You can go to an HR department and they usually just 'dealt with it,' but you couldn’t really sue someone," says Colicchio. "You had to pay for that, and the penalties aren’t that great in a civil law suit. What recourse did women have? All of a sudden we’re seeing the recourse. We’re seeing men get fired and losing their power. That’s the recourse. And that's where we have to keep going."

Colicchio, who says he's had women running his organization for the past 17 years, has made a point of instating clear policies for when his employees feel uncomfortable, one of which is the encouragement to go straight to HR, bypassing a supervisor. "We are also very quick to suspend and investigate and fire people," he adds. But even Colicchio admits he's had trouble keeping female employees at his restaurants, which is an industry-wide problem that needs to be thoughtfully examined.

"Right now we're all struggling to get staff," he says, citing high employee turnover for women in the industry. "It should be a selling point: We're going to make sure you're safe here. We need to ask: What are we doing to make sure women stay in the industry?" Because even if the ethics of these questions aren't compelling to business owners, surely they care about their bottom lines. Restaurants benefit from reduced employee turnover—and from retaining top talent, which is lost when women leave. 

Policy changes will encourage a culture shift, Colicchio maintains, and that requires looking at the "microtransgressions" that aren't so blatant as groping. Structural inequities, from wage disparities to inaccessibility of day care (which disproportionately affects women), are a good place to start. The chef also wants to enlist the help of some of the country's top culinary schools.

"Call Tim Ryan at the Culinary Institute of America," he says. "Call FCI. See what they're doing to tell kids that this behavior is unacceptable. Call ten women who are culinary students and see what they have to say. That’s where the change is going to come from. We’re passing the baton over, and we have to make sure that in passing this baton we have to all focus on making [harassment] unacceptable."