Photo by Cresta Kruger

"Time is up and we are done with people who can’t get it together, grow up, and be professional," says Elizabeth Falkner.

Elizabeth Falkner
March 19, 2018

Editor’s note: In November, we launched Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: kat.kinsman@meredith.com. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to foodandwine.com.

Elizabeth Falkner is a world recognized chef, author, and artist and continues to be a leader and pioneer in the culinary arts. Falkner is a multiple award winning chef, worked her way up and owned restaurants in San Francisco for over twenty years before moving to New York in 2012. She and has been a James Beard Foundation Award nominee (2005) and relentlessly continues to cook for many charity events and Food and Wine Festivals all over the world.

I had dinner with some of my chef friends just after the new year. The four of us, who happen to be female, talked about the news surfacing on several of our male colleagues in the business and how sexual harassment and abuse was finally being revealed everywhere. We discussed how women are standing up and recognized how deeply threaded the behavior is in our restaurant culture alone.

We’ve seen and tolerated a lot in the past while working for others. I personally looked for environments to work in early on in my culinary career that focused on food and hospitality, without tolerating any bad behavior or bullshit. I was also in California for most of my restaurant career—a state that has had a few generations of female-chef-run restaurants as well as strong human resources and labor laws.

This is not to say that it hasn’t been challenging, because the behavior has certainly been around me. I figured out ways early on to work around the piggishness in the back of the house by just shutting it down or shifting any uncomfortable conversations. I was intense and focused as a young chef. I had a crew cut and a big smile, and I am gay and could handle hanging with the male cooks. I had to become tough and thick-skinned and develop a rough way of talking besides cooking well. I adapted to the environment. I also worked for women chef run restaurants early on in my career when it seemed obvious that was a good idea for me.

Since I have been cooking, there has been a question eternally posed in the media: “Where are the women chefs and the role models?”

This is frustrating for me, because I know a lot of female chefs who have run upstanding restaurants for years. There are so many women in this industry, but we just don’t always get the attention or support we deserve. There are boys' clubs and there are girls' clubs, but the girls club is smaller and not nearly as loud or as well-backed, financially. There is a difference in the way women and men manage and run restaurants and use their power.

One of my chef friends asked during our dinner, “What are we women supposed to say anyway? 'Um yeah, duh, it’s bad behavior and that’s why we don’t tolerate it in our restaurants?'

Over the two and a half decades I worked daily in the management of restaurants as the chef or pastry chef, and usually as the boss. I’ve owned restaurants and had employees I had to fire because of their behavior. I was disgusted and let down and so was the rest of the team during those times, because of the few who showed poor judgement. It hurt everyone.

This behavior gets in the way of great work. There are hundreds and thousands of restaurants that do great work on the plate, in service, and as employers. There are also many who don’t do any of these things.

Unfortunately, sometimes these stories just give more press to these guys. This is not a sad day for the restaurant industry, nor are all restaurants like pirate ships. I think that time is up and we are done with people who can’t get it together, grow up and be professional in all aspects of our society.

Sure, it is the end of an era, but good riddance! Enough of the inequality is enough.

I applaud Nancy Silverton for putting it out there on Eater that her restaurants in Los Angeles don’t tolerate and never have tolerated any abusive or sexual behavior. I cannot speak for everyone, but as a former restaurant owner, I have had to lay out the rules, and I have a need to produce and perform with tons of fun and perfection. It is disruptive, deflating and a setback when I have had to stop because someone is breaking our rules. It takes effort to pause everything and take the time to remove them from the team. It is a pain in the ass and restaurants notoriously need staffing and yet, that is what we have to do. What does one do when it is the business partner? I cannot imagine how difficult that situation is.

Boycotting some of these restaurants doesn’t seem like a good form of retaliation. Some of the chefs and restaurateurs who have been called out for their behavior have business partners who are strong women. I think those partnerships need to deal with themselves, and people like Lidia Bastianich and April Bloomfield are only a couple of some of the women who have put their head down and worked hard to get where they are. Perhaps they got into those partnerships because at the time, it was the smart thing to do. I am sure that they have both tried to deal with the partner and didn’t see this time coming. They also employ a lot of people. They will have to deal with their business partners, develop better human resources, work with lots of attorneys and the media, and that already seems like punishment. I believe they need our support in getting their partners to step away from their businesses.

I want to support all of the women who have stood up, and those who have messed up by not standing up for other women out of fear or just because they were also told to tolerate or have adjusted to tolerate the behavior. And mostly, I am with all the women who have stood up and are standing up with #MeToo and #TimesUp movements because this is not our fault.

Here’s one part of the problem. Women and men in the restaurant business—whether they are the executive chef, the sous chefs, line cooks, the pastry chef, the bartenders, the hosts, the servers—usually all have their head in the game. Most people are working hard to make guests happy and to make a paycheck just to survive in business or the industry.

Unfortunately, I believe a lot of people in the biz have simply turned a blind eye. Some of the banter is sewn into the psyche of our bigger culture. The behavior is so prevalent that sometimes we become numb from seeing it. Or we see it but some feel like they can’t really do much about it.

When the cooks just say, “Try to stay away from that guy,” or they quietly try to ignore the obnoxious one. When you hear excuses like, “Boys will be boys” your whole life. We get used to nervously shrugging, walking the other way or passively-aggressively flip them off behind their back. That’s just not fair to put on either gender.

We are a community of hardworking women and men who don’t want to believe some of our colleagues have abused their talent and employees and power. And yet, it clearly has happened. We respect the culinary achievements and amount of charitable causes everyone seems to support in this close-knit global circle of chefs but none of us want anyone to make these kinds of exploitive mistakes.

I know that chefs can party and be playful and sometimes flirty, just as anyone can be, but it has always been obvious to me that work and play are two separate activities. Unfortunately, some chefs and restaurateurs and many others in other fields, have crossed that line. I can only hope that they somehow knew this day would come, and will reflect on the damage they did, and do the work it will take to be much better in the future.

I am disappointed in these guys, because some of them are my friends. How have I responded to their actions? I have texted them and tried to listen and be a friend, but I am upset with them. I wanted them to be better than this. I am thoroughly disappointed that they didn’t draw the line when it came to abusing their power and particularly at the workplace.

This behavior is widespread and it is being uncovered everywhere. Clearly people who abuse their power need to put themselves in other people’s shoes and think about how harmful and disgraceful it is and put a stop to this.

We can all be better than this. Seriously: If it’s not consensual, deal with yourself in a more respectable way, please.

I would say that many women (and men) in the restaurant industry are, in fact standing up and have always run safe and professional kitchens and dining rooms. Let’s pay attention to those chefs and restaurants who have been doing so.

This is an evolution into a new time of awareness and acceptance. Finally, women are getting closer to playing on the same playing field with the same rules if not changing the rules and the field altogether. When we clean up and move into a better workplace and support system for all, we will all more fairly get equity we deserve.