Dear Women: Own Your Stories

Acclaimed pastry chef Lisa Donovan details her experiences with sexual harassment, both in and outside of the kitchen, and calls upon men to stop looking the other way. "I refuse to be afraid to say these things out loud any longer," she writes.

lisa donovan one time use photo
Photo: Courtesy of Heidi Ross

Please be advised: This essay contains graphic content related to sexual assault.

Lisa Donovan is a pastry chef and writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. As the pastry chef to two of the South's most influential chefs, Sean Brock and Tandy Wilson, Lisa has been formative in establishing a technique-driven and historically rich narrative of Southern pastry — unabashedly serving her Church Cakes and pies to finish fine dining experiences and creating a repertoire of desserts to redefine what it means to be a "Southern baker." Lisa writes and produces content for cookbooks as well, both in food and in the arts.

Let’s just get some seemingly necessary details out of the way about me, a woman viewed in my field as a capable, no-shit-taking, strong leader or peer or employee (read: mostly seen as perhaps a lady who has made her way easily through her career or has not met many an obstacle because she does not portray the “victim” in any scenario she partakes in):

  1. I have been violently raped by a man whom I trusted.
  2. I had to have an abortion because of this rape.
  3. I had to listen while people I loved told me it was my fault and that I would ruin his life by claiming this out loud. I shamefully walked away from the entire situation without prosecution or any further accusations so I could get on with my life but, mostly, because I was aware of the futility of my claims. “He said” had always proven more powerful than “she said.”
  4. As a single mom in my first job interview out of college, I was told that my chances of getting a job as an art teacher at a Catholic High School were slim because I was not a married woman or mother and was going to set a poor example to the female students. I was told this by a middle-aged, divorced man who regularly made passes at me after I got the job.
  5. In my career, I have, time and time again, had to prove that I am not just a bored housewife who simply didn’t want to “stay home with her kids.” I actually overheard someone who I previously had respect for say those words to a line cook who was, technically, my subordinate, exhaustively undermining me further.
  6. I have been asked if I am “just a pastry chef” because I can’t handle “real cooking on the line with the boys.”
  7. I have been told by bosses whom I worked hard for, was direly committed to and had built good reputations for that I could not have a raise from an hourly rate (I ran my department, developed menus, wrote all my own recipes, and received national attention for my work) because hiring an additional two male sous chefs (on salary) and/or building a smoke shed out back was more important.
  8. I was told that me not getting a raise was “OK” because my husband was a professor and that my family was going to “be fine.”
  9. I have been told that a female pastry cook whom I wanted to hire could have more money per hour upon hiring because the CDC that was in charge of labor costs found her “more f---able” than the previous female pastry cook in that position whom he found to be “a toothy troll” but that, if it came down to it, he wouldn’t mind and would “put her troll face down if I (sic) was ever really hard up.” The beautiful girl who spoke French and had zero experience was, in fact, hired at a significantly higher hourly rate than the “toothy troll” who had many years of experience and went to culinary school.
  10. I have been introduced to a room full of important male chefs and bakers whom I greatly respect and was eager to talk professionally with, by a man in power (alas, one who has been accused publicly) first as “one of the best pastry chefs in the South” and immediately followed by, as the small of waist was grabbed, my neck was nuzzled, and my breasts were nodded at, “and she’s gorgeous too, right?!”, depriving me of any opportunity to further the conversation to anything even remotely professional.

I’ll stop there. Even though there is so much more. A lifetime’s worth, you can trust that.

By now, I hope that men, all men, are starting to understand that this narrative is not isolated to just a few random women in their peripheral vision. This isn’t a “whistle-blower” narrative or a “squeaky wheel” narrative. Change the names of the characters, the job descriptions, the obstacles, the main point of trauma in which life became a “before” and an “after,” and you have the actual real life story of an overwhelming majority of nearly every single American woman.

It’s all coming to light now, in all industries. And, over the last eight months, Times-Picayune/ reporter Brett Anderson developed and wrote a well-researched, well-informed and exquisitely professional article in which 25 women were documented in their complaints against a golden boy in our industry. Our country is full of these golden boys, “good ol’ boys,” “bros,” the boys who have written the rules for so long and have expected everyone to play by them that when they are called out on the damages they have perpetrated over the years with their bad behavior, they honestly can not see what they have done wrong. When all your “bros” are doing it, isn’t it fine? And women have been in survival mode, counting the smallest victories among our greatest moments, trying to both not be noticed and to also be recognized for our work at the same time. This must stand to reason why one woman accusing is not enough in our culture. Five women complaining are not enough. In our culture, it takes more than 20 women for a story to be heard and believed. And even then, sometimes, it is still not enough.

As more and more sexual assault and harassment claims are broadcast, something continues to strike a deep and very unsettling chord in me. Even as someone who has been assaulted, harassed, and told to play by rules that were never right and who definitely wants to see these things continue to be brought to the brightest light so that they get washed out of all of our ingrained acquiescence, I am somehow left feeling more desperate than ever. As I champion these women for their testimony and bravery, I am left with a totally breathless exasperation and a deep feeling of hopelessness. I am not a hopeless person. Up until yesterday, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it never lets up, even as things seem to be unfolding in front of our very eyes, every minute of every tedious day of this exhausting year.

Yesterday was when a friend took a screenshot of a Facebook post, where a male chef declared his break with one of the celebrity chefs who had been recently exposed, and claimed the moment as his time to shine. In perhaps one of the most grotesque examples of doubling-down on misogyny that I’ve ever seen, he purported that his recent termination from the company had been because he was trying to be (I’ll paraphrase here) a kind of hero for the “powerless” in regard to gender. And, that he had been fighting some quiet battle for equality, and seemingly, the banishment of all sexual harassment from hither and yon this WHOLE TIME, you guys. THIS. WHOLE. TIME. I knew enough about him to find his post deeply disingenuous and self-serving, but commenters lauded his heroism and applauded him for being supermensch. I felt sick to my stomach and proceeded to go on a tear where I scrubbed baseboards and organized my spices and flours and sugars and cake pans and whisks and did all the other [frenzied] things that I do when I feel powerless.

As I was dusting the cracks of my stove with an old, headed-for-the trash pastry brush, I kept wondering, Why am I so upset?! I started to break it down. I do not have a personal problem or much of a relationship with the chef in question — he does not have access to my “dust the stove with an old pastry brush” buttons. He just does not. So, it’s not personal, OK, check. I know that most people in the restaurant industry know what I know about him and that he is not fooling anybody except for the general public. So, it’s not that he was potentially being a first class, opportunistic liar, OK, check.

So, what was it? I kept scrubbing and dusting and right as I was surprised to find a small shard of chocolate wedged deep between the oven and the counter that hadn’t, somehow, melted and was thinking, What IS this magic toxic chocolate?, a very good and trusted friend from New Orleans called. He was checking in with his best female friends in the industry after Anderson’s article posted — to share his concern and to simply be a good man.

We weren’t on the phone for longer than two minutes before the result of the last several hours' worth of my self-analyzing, frenetic, cleaning outburst.

“You wanna know what is more damaging to women than the sexual harassment we have to face day in and day out?” I blurted.

Something had occurred to me as I was dislodging the tiny, miraculous piece of chocolate that never melted from deep within the crevasse of my kitchen — the answer to the deep hopelessness I had been feeling as story after story was revealed. This one chef’s claim of heroism broke open what was so heartbreaking for me because, never mind that he wasn’t being honest, never mind that I truly was left feeling that he contributed to the very behavior he claims to have tried to prevent, never mind that I was disappointed that people were buying into it, never mind the politics being displayed:

That post was, in summation, the root evil of why women cannot get ahead in our society, much less our industry alone.

Because some men will always feel like we are the best tools for them to get what they need out of any given situation.

Some men will stand on our necks while they tell us how strong we are so they can be taller.

Some men will tell us we are beautiful while robbing us of our dignity behind our backs.

Some men will tell us they will save us, help us, “make” us, when all we really need is for them to get the ever loving f--- out of our way.

Even in our most vulnerable state, on paper with our literal private parts being exposed to the public, some men — usually the ones in power who out-flex the good, compassionate men out there — will use us to make themselves look better, seem better, get ahead, and triumph.

Over us. Always.

It is not just about them wanting to f--- us. Don’t you dare mistake this for that for even one second.

In one self-aggrandizing swoop, that chef showed that for these men, it is about continuing to control the narrative.

And for every Donald Link, Ashley Christensen, Tandy Wilson, or Annie Quatrano — the good people who are running restaurant groups that are based on a deep and resounding baseline of respect and, dare I say, nearly honorific standard for all of their employees equally, I’m afraid they are grossly outnumbered by people, men, who play the game by a rulebook that should have been burned long, long ago.

The real meat, the toothiness of that desperation I feel is because the conversations we are having currently, the important stories being bravely told, are simply the feather in the hat to a whole disgusting suit of utterly reflexive disregard and deeply ingrained chauvinism that we all seem to be wearing. The display of both the chef and those willing to applaud such a thinly veiled opportunistic leap shocked and dismayed me more than the sexual assault claims — perhaps because I’ve gotten a thick skin to it but also, and I think moreover, because it points to the real root evil, the baseline, the deep systemic issues that we face as women and how they are based in something that is going to take a lot more than simply exposing some men as sexual predators. There is something more dangerous beneath all of the violence we face because of our gender.

There is a quiet expectation that we are here to be “of use.” That we are here to save your careers. We are here to make people like, and even adore, you. We are here to offer a “woman’s touch.” We are here to make sure you feel “balanced.” We are here to prop up, to support, to coax, and to ultimately bear witness to your greatness. Not to have our own.

Our industry is too great, full of too much goodness and, yes, beauty, to succumb to its weakest links. We are people who feed others, we give of ourselves daily, we continue conversations about the health of our planet, the health of our community, and the sustainability of our foodways and food systems. We spend a great deal of our careers working toward making real progress and change. We are fighters, every single one of us.

Chefs are not cowards. And I will not be afraid to say that this one spot where ego — and absolutely a lot of fear — seems to shine too brightly that some perhaps can’t see past it. And, I am not just speaking about the men who look the other way. I am talking about all people who have made it comfortably easy for men like these to continue controlling the narrative, to have the power, and to allow them to “let” you feel as if you have just enough of it to not rock the boat.

You’re successful and haven’t felt the results of this behavior? You haven’t “seen” it firsthand? First, I think you’re lying to yourself. Secondly, I think you’re lying to yourself. Female chefs, writers, editors — myself included — bear a huge responsibility here to make the shift count. This is some super-continental, Pangaea-level s--- here. We have all been surrounded by a kind of terrible and disgusting behavior. It's a boy’s club that we have all just laughed off, dismissed, denied, rolled our eyes at even when we have seen it day in and day out, when we’ve seen women give up, when we’ve heard people say they just couldn’t hack it, when we’ve bought into all the ridiculously damaging mythos of our industry. It has birthed a deeply set way of denial and delusional behavior.

It is something we all have to really, honestly face — and please not through a godforsaken PR company, but as the incredibly sensitive human beings that we are. Not because it is being forced upon us. But because we know it is long overdue and because we are not afraid.

We must be bold in the place we now find ourselves. We must raise our expectations of each other and, more importantly, of ourselves. And we must take pride in these expectations the same way we take pride in our work, in our food, in our craft.

I refuse to be afraid to say these things out loud any longer, even though it feels terrifying. Calling out a fellow chef for nefarious behavior that I find appalling has not been in my playbook until now. But it feels important. No matter the cost. Because the way I see it, the only thing we have to lose is the one thing that the best and brightest of us have been held down by, ushered aside for, and embarrassed of for far too long.

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