Chef Katie Button Reflects on Experience with Sexual Harassment: 'It Overshadows Everything'

The award-winning Asheville chef is hopeful that the industry is changing—and that victims continue to come forward. "This type of behavior has been going on far too long," she says

Katie Button
Photo: Evan Sung

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: 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 — Hunter Lewis, Editor-in-Chief, Food & Wine

Katie Button is the co-owner and executive chef of Cúrate and Nightbell in Asheville, North Carolina.

I'll start with this: I think we are on a good path. Before all of the news erupted about Harvey Weinstein and those that followed, women would usually just shrug off instances of sexual harassment, even when it made their jobs uncomfortable. I think it is really wonderful that, finally, women and men are coming forward and publicly explaining their stories and why it's wrong. It eliminates the feeling of, "This is just the way life is and we need to accept it and move on," and it encourages us to start standing up for ourselves.

I feel strongly that this type of behavior, and acceptance of this type of behavior, comes from the top down; we, the chefs and owners of our businesses, set the tone for the atmosphere in our restaurants. Typically there are other people, other top executives in a company who know that this type of behavior is going on, but if the person in question is the leader of the business and has gained some level of fame, we are too afraid to confront it, so we ignore it or shuffle it under the rug, and that is the worst thing that can happen in a company. At our company, Heirloom Hospitality Group, we never stand for any type of sexual harassment; if we hear of an employee mistreating another employee, we take those claims extremely seriously, address it immediately and get our HR department involved. The restaurant industry must adhere to these standards in order to create a place of work that values respect and trust.

Sadly, these recent revelations are not surprising to me at all. The Mario Batali news immediately brought me back to every instance of inappropriate workplace conduct that I dealt with when I was just beginning to work on my own for a living. For the most part I had a very positive work experience, but it's smattered with a few instances in which I felt my work was overshadowed by the fact that I was a woman, seemingly only there for men to comment on inappropriately. When you work in a place that makes you feel like a sexual object, it makes waking up and going to work extremely difficult to want to do; it overshadows everything. And unfortunately, like most young people, I tried to shrug it off; I never spoke out about it or said I didn't like it. Often I would laugh along. I've been wondering why I did that, and the reason is because I didn't want to talk about it. It was uncomfortable to talk about, and when it came from someone who was a superior, it made it absolutely impossible to bring up. So, I would try to work and just keep going for as long as I could, but ultimately never stayed long in those positions.

Hopefully, we are finally at a moment in history when people realize this is no longer accepted behavior, that it will no longer be ignored and that we will hold ourselves and everyone around us accountable for our actions. I have heard some people groan about the magnitude of sexual harassment allegations coming out, saying that they feel this all a little "too much," but I strongly disagree. This type of behavior has been going on far too long, and I think we should listen to every single man or woman who wants to come forward and share their story. I think the best thing that has come out of all of this is that it has struck up a dialogue: a dialogue among coworkers; a conversation among company leadership about the type of work environment they promote or protect; and a conversation from parent to child or teacher to child. May it continue so we never go back to just shuffling it under the rug.

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