Want to make a safe working environment for everyone? Restaurant veteran Amelia Zatik Sawyer on how to set a crystal-clear policy and stick to it.

By Amelia Zatik Sawyer
May 10, 2019
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In what feels like a former life, I had a blog called Chef’s Widow where I wrote about being married to a chef who in turn was wed to the kitchen. Through it, I made friends with other people in relationships with chefs, or in hospitality. We had one another's virtual shoulders to cry on when our loved ones were in the kitchen 80 hours a week, or when we felt overwhelmed by the industry. Much of this community followed me to Instagram when I switched gears. When I started exploring if the #MeToo movement had actually moved restaurant culture forward, I posted a series of stories asking for insight. I was not prepared for the flood of responses.

I had believed there had been a drastic impact on the restaurant industry as women became emboldened to speak out against their harassers. People I knew went down in flames. Some lost kitchens, some lost TV shows, others lost entire restaurant groups. Surely this had to mean change, and that chefs must have learned their lessons. Then I started to read my direct messages.

Many people had plenty to say. One of the first standout comments touched on something I don’t think has been discussed that often. “I’m glad (the #MeToo movement) is bringing things to light and making working in the service more hospitable and inclusive,” said one of my readers. “However I do think it really sucks that we are holding people accountable at the cost of jobs for hundreds, for actions that were 'norms' in the industry. I wish there was a grey line we could meter, but there’s not.”

Her words brought me pause. In taking down chefs for their bad behavior, we also inadvertently took jobs away from their employees. The movement has always been about community and finding a voice, yet somehow the voices of the innocent casualties have often found themselves drowned out.

Another reader suggested that nothing much has shifted in the service industry. Some prominent chefs went down, but the culture remains. “The kitchen is and always has been a boys' club," they wrote. "It’s great that women and people of color are being highlighted more nationally and winning more awards. However the behavior in the kitchen hasn’t yet come full circle, and the behavior of the guests seems to have gotten worse.”

As a former restaurant owner, I have seen some of the worst sexual harassment imaginable, and the majority of it was from diners. Kitchen culture can be tough, but if you have a zero-tolerance policy, it doesn’t have to be. It’s not hard to do. If someone in your kitchen sexually harasses someone, they are fired on the spot. Let it happen once. The word spreads and the kitchen no longer thinks it’s funny to talk about the new pastry chef's derriere.

Have a policy. Write it down. Enforce it.

The guests are a harder dynamic. Serving them is the business, so how do you deal with a guest who thinks it’s OK to call your lead server “Baby,” and touch her inappropriately as she’s taking the order?

What the #MeToo movement has taught us is that not everyone understands or agrees on what is and isn’t harassment. Many people think they are complimenting a women when they tell her she would look pretty if she just smiled. That mentality has long been drilled into many of our elders, and it is only now that they are realizing that some of their off-the-cuff compliments are considered sexual harassment.

For a situation with a guest (and even your kitchen—even though this should be taught as Chef Culture 101), you can use the experience as a teaching moment. Calmly pull the guest aside and let them know that they have made your team feel uncomfortable. Share why.

Communication is key if this cultural shift is truly going to affect restaurants. The worst thing you can do is ignore what's happening around you. Giving a pass to sexual harassment in your kitchen or dining room is the quickest way to end up in a lawsuit. It also lets your staff know that their safety and emotional wellbeing is not important to you as a chef, a manager, or an owner.

The #MeToo movement has brought a lot of issues to light that many people would rather not deal with. Change is hard especially in an industry where an often proudly crass culture was the norm for so long. The first step toward change is actively identifying the issue and talking about it. More and more restaurants are having tough discussions about harassment, and applying the ideals of the movement to their own businesses. Chefs are looking at their own behavior in their kitchens and choosing a different path.

Recently I noticed a well-known chef using his Instagram feed to speak about his own personal change. I was highly impressed that such a prominent figure would admit to his shortcomings publicly and vow to change so the industry could move forward in a positive direction. While I was somewhat discouraged when I first started writing this piece, I am now finding myself more inspired. We are talking about this. Loudly and proudly. The #metoo movement in kitchens is not going away anytime soon and I think the majority of people who work in restaurants and the service industry feel pretty good about that.

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