The restaurant industry is an entertainment industry. It is about smoke and mirrors and it is very good at it. Kitchen Bitches was a feminist conference as well as an industry event meant to address the toxic culture of professional restaurants and it’s impact on women in the industry.
Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time is a conference conceived to address the suffocating patriarchy we must all endure in the world and in the world of restaurants. It was inspired by Kate Burnham, the pastry chef who came forward with allegations of the toxic environment and sexual harassment she endured for over a year while working at Weslodge restaurant in Toronto. Ticket sales are going towards making the conference happen with leftovers and silent auction proceeds supporting a women’s shelter that wishes to remain anonymous.
Industry events are times when the smoke and mirrors are directed at those who normally operate the smoke machines and this was no different. This was an extremely slick event with all the usual industry suspects.
My first impression as I walked in the door was to laugh at the almost stereotypical setup. If you’ve been in the industry for any length of time, you know the kinds of things that I’m talking about. Our tickets to the event included four(!) drink tickets for starters and my companion (another kinjateer) commented on the wine selection noticing it’s vastness and quality. These drink tickets weren’t getting you rail booze, kids. This was the good stuff. Immediately upon entrance, I was handed a glass of prosecco because of course I was. You cannot have a food event without prosecco. The very thought is just ridiculous. Anyway, if you’re counting, I now had five free drinks in my hand. But that’s not all! There was also a gigantic selection of extremely nice cheeses from The Cheese Boutique, which is basically the cheese place in Toronto, so obviously. There was, of course, figs and champagne grapes and various crackers and a large selection of cured meats to go along with it. Like, honestly, this was the most industry event I’ve ever seen. When’s the last time you went to a feminist conference (or any conference) and they gave you four drink tickets on your way in?
Not that I’m complaining because let’s be real, this is what’s so great about industry events. It’s not often that the kitchen jerks get to sit in the front and enjoy the entertainment that is nice restaurants. The food was amazing, the drink was amazing. What can I say? Good times.
I mean, look at all these damned oysters. A man was just shucking and shucking and you could just eat as many as you like. This doesn’t look like that many but this was merely one pile. Excess and luxury. Restaurants, man, damn.
At the same time, consider for a moment the amount of money involved in this event. It’s a tremendous amount of money, it really is. Was it all necessary? I’m not so sure. It’s one thing that I’ve always felt torn about in the industry. The excess and pretension that surrounds it. It’s almost like you can’t do anything without a luxurious amount of food and drink and it can’t just be anything either - it must be the best every time. It’s a show for customers but it’s also a show for ourselves and our egos. I wondered about other things too. What are the demographics here in the audience? How many people here are cooks and chefs versus how many are servers versus owners, foodies, media? This event was meant to discuss the industries toxic culture of abuse and it’s methods of silencing those who might speak out and why people might stay silent. All of these things are of grave importance to women in the industry and is helpful to hear for men in the industry and I wondered if the message would get out to those that really needed to hear it.
The conference itself was split into two halves with a break in between for people to run to the bar and smoke and all the things industry people do in large percentages. The first half began with a segment entitled ‘Two Minute Hits’ during which six people (five women and one man) spoke about their personal experiences for two minutes each. There were servers, cooks and also a woman who is no longer in the industry. They spoke openly and named names while acknowledging the very real potential career consequences of doing so. Some told stories, some wrote poems or performed spoken word. A woman recounted the time her chef put a bowl of stock bones on the floor and told her it was her dinner for the day. Another recited a poem outlining the myriad ways male customers felt they had permission to abuse her sexually. There were two performances which stood out for me. A Latina woman was quite pointed, beginning her speech by addressing it specifically to white men. She eloquently and forcefully addressed the misogyny and racism she faced stating that she was tired of being ‘ethnic’ enough to assess the quality of ceviche but not ethnic enough when it comes time to speak about how racism affects people. She was the only member of this initial group to address race and her performance was powerful.
Another performance spoke straight to my heart since I had been there many times in kitchens myself. The last performance was from an anonymous male sous chef who eloquently and painfully relived a long period of terrifying emotional and physical abuse from his chef. He explained how the culture of his kitchen permitted it and how afraid he had felt to stop it. He touched on the mental toll it takes. It’s abuse plain and simple and it affects one’s self esteem and mental health in a big way. He finally quit but even months afterward he was still unsure if he had made the right decision. Such is the culture - you put up with this because its supposed to be ‘worth it’. The chef is making you better. Everyone buys into it even though more often than not, the chef isn’t trying to make anyone better as much as they are simply acting out power fantasies and replicating abuse that they themselves suffered coming up. Regardless, this atmosphere becomes your normal. It was visceral to hear and so very real. I could feel the finger in my chest and taste the chefs breathe as he recounted the times his chef would get right in his face and poke him in the chest while he listed the many ways in which he was a complete and utter waste of life. I have been there many times. His story was terrifyingly real and it was cathartic to hear it. I felt less alone. This industry can ruin people. It ruins relationships. There’s a reason industry people consider outsiders ‘normals’. It’s a very insular culture and that’s both a result of and the reason for the toxic and abusive aspects of it.
After the Two Minute Hits came a short talk by Lawyer Gillian Hnatiw explaining the law as it pertains to sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. It was an informative talk but as noted by many in the smoking area afterwards, it’s not for lack of legal knowledge that people don’t do anything to stop the abuse. It’s the knowledge that going to a lawyer means kissing your career goodbye in this city. That is worth noting.
Next was the panel discussion that I was most looking forward to. It was great in some ways but in others it was very disappointing. I had a bit of background information about some of the panel’s participants going into in so I had questions that I hoped would be answered. Let’s begin by look at the panel. Here is a the panel as it is printed on the program:
In order we have: a white man, two white women, an Asian woman, a trans woman and lastly a Black woman. An effort was made to ensure the panel was diverse but I mean, come on. It’s almost as if someone was trying to make a statement on the societal power structures of North America. Seriously, just arrange people in alphabetical order by last name or something. This isn’t hard. That may seem slightly nitpicky but nitpicking intersectionality is what I live for.
From left to right we have Jen Agg, Suzanne Barr, Sophia Banks, Amanda Cohen, Hugh Acheson, Jessica Koslow and Rosy Rong.
Although this was the part of the evening I was most interested in hearing from, I was skeptical of this panel in some ways. Amanda Cohen in particular raised my eyebrows when I heard she was going to be on this panel. This is the same Amanda Cohen who said to Eater about the Gods Of Food debacle:
I’ve never found male chefs anything but awesome and supportive, and if they have a boys club they must be keeping it very secret. But Mr. Chua-Eoan says it’s a boys club, and so it’s a boys club.
Like, really? I wonder what she would have to say on this panel? Why is she even here? Anyway, they began by going around one by one starting with Suzanne and everyone introduced themselves and said a little something. I was particularly pleased to hear Sophia Banks open her remarks by stating that first of all, there are more than two genders. Such an important thing to keep in mind when discussing any feminist topic in an intersectional manner. Suzanne, Rosy and Sophia attempted to address their experiences as women in restaurants and what they were able to state was very interesting but I am sorry to say that the panel seemed from an audience perspective to be skewed heavily towards the three white people. Hugh Acheson almost immediately stated that he felt things had become better for women in kitchens and quickly the conversation turned to other panel members dressing him down. This lead to Amanda Cohen trying to backpedal for him and some discussion that perhaps he meant that ten years ago we couldn’t have even had a conference like this and in that way things are better. Thus began the derailing and takeover of discourse by the two panel members in the center.
They frequently whispered things to each other throughout the panel and spent any time they weren’t themselves speaking rolling their eyes, shifting in their seats and looking visibly dismissive. I mean, look at these two:
Smug as fuck.
The whole time, you guys. When they did speak, it was not relevant. Hugh wanted to talk about how you can have an employee manual which gave him the opportunity to mention that he is very successful and has 240 employees or something. Which immediately made me realize that any business of that size is required by law where I live to have manual for employee laying out rights and whatnot. It occurred to me that he very likely has a 55 page manual because he has a legal obligation not because he felt some moral one. It is also highly unlikely that he has any control over the culture of the lowest rungs of his many business ventures anyway, lets be real here. The man isn’t out on the line modelling a culture for his staff.
Amanda Cohen really wants you to know that her restaurant doesn’t accept tips. It’s the only thing she came here to talk about. She subscribes to the European model of charging a fee and paying her employees a living wage instead. Her living wage is, in her words, what she decides it is and tells her employees it is and they basically accept it because they must. This was meant as a kind of joke, but I mean, come on. That’s the thing isn’t it? It’s not a joke. It’s the truth. She pays her employees $15 a hour and let’s be real, that is essentially what many Americans are suggesting should be minimum wage. Whether it is or is not yet the legal minimum in various places is another thing, but it’s hard to see this as much more than an attempt to get ahead of the curve. If the minimum reaches $15 in NYC, she will then not be accepting tips and paying her staff minimum wage. $15 an hour is what minimum should be; it isn’t anything decent. It’s the new bare minimum one can live on in the world today. I also really fail to see what this has to do with the abuse culture in restaurants to be perfectly frank.
Honestly, I really wanted this panel to be more about the women and minorities. From an audience perspective, it appeared like good thoughts were being cut off. Amanda and Hugh projected a negative vibe and didn’t really speak on the issues many were dying to hear about. When they weren’t speaking about their own things, others were spending time correcting their negative talking points rather than speaking about their own experiences. They really did not appear to be interested in the topic at all and it sabotaged the rest of the panel leaving me wholly unable to articulate to you the points that any of the minority voices were trying to voice. That is extremely unfortunate.
To be frank, the two of them seemed to have fully drank the culture kool-aid. They have the most successful restaurants. To themselves, they were of a different breed than the line cooks and diner chefs and certainly the trans woman who came to the event unemployed and discussing the transphobia in the industry that keeps her that way. They viewed their opinions and status as more important and it showed. They buy their own hype. Anyone who’s spent any time around fine dining chefs who have achieved any success will recognize the particular strain of undeserved ego and superiority that was on display. The second the panel was over, they left as far as I can tell. I did not see them the rest of the evening at any rate.
It appears that a lot of other people buy their hype too, though. The panel members as listed on the program could be interpreted as being ordered by success or money or celebrity. There is a reason Amanda Cohen and Hugh Acheson were listed first on the program and it wasn’t a mistake. Which is a bit of a ‘your slip is showing’ moment for the industry. This celebrity worship breeds these egos that perpetuate the culture and we value whiteness and maleness most in this industry. Here we are catering to that very dynamic at a feminist conference by listing the panel members in order of restaurant success knowing full well that restaurant success tends to gravitate towards male, white, cishet bodies. Again, why could’t we just list these people in alphabetical order instead of implying a hierarchy of worth?
The second half was kind of unexciting. First, Helen Rosner, features editor at Eater.com moderated a discussion between Jen Agg and Jessica Koslow about the differences between the front and back of the house. Jen mentioned that she felt that she was held to a different standard of behavior when she is hosting relative to her male counterparts. When she hosts, she says, people expect her to be kinder and she feels she has to put on a more sing-songy voice or risk coming off like a bitch whereas her male counterparts are able to be much more brash and direct with their speech.
Jessica and Jen discussed whether the attire in kitchens asexualizes women or if it masculinizes women. Jessica said that she doesn’t feel like it masculinizes her but at the same time she didn’t feel like very feminine either. Jen asked how one can be feminine in the kitchen and they discussed that for a few minutes. I basically rolled my eyes because omg it doesn’t matter. How to be feminine in the kitchen: be a woman in the kitchen. The end. not my favorite part of this discussion. I mean, I’m a butch lesbian. How to feel feminine while I butcher a cow is not really a consideration for me. I hazard to say it is not a concern of any women in kitchens. We came here to cook. It is a tough job and requires a certain dress for health and safety reasons. It’s not a fashion show and women aren’t really super concerned about this in my experience. Women simply wish to be given the same treatment and opportunities as their male counterparts.
Jen shared a story about a man she met who had never heard of white privilege and they discussed the need to go beyond preaching to the choir to reach those that are outside of our circles. When asked how one can achieve that as an employer, it was suggested that as an employer that one has to not tolerate sexism, racism and homophobia in their environments. Jessica made the connection between a kitchen team and an orchestra. She desires to create a kitchen full of people who are hungry to grow and learn and cook great food all while playing their part. A kitchen team is like an orchestra in that everyone plays a different instrument but they all must align and work as a team or the music doesn’t come out right. The leadership sets the tone by not tolerating certain behavior from employees.
The distinction was made between the front and back of the house in terms of staff types. In the kitchen, people are generally lifers. They tend to be careerists. In the front of the house, people tend to be more transient - artists and students and people who are there to make the money before moving on to other things. It was rightly noted that because of this, front of house staff are more likely to complain about injustices. Kitchen people fear the death knell of their careers for speaking up and are far less likely to do so.
Next up was the longest part of the evening and also the most boring for me. The media round table. I’m not gonna lie, by then I wasn’t paying a lot of attention. They got really inside baseball discussing stories they had written and what it’s like to be a food writer and omg who cares. I had also had several ciders in me by then. I began making wanking motions whenever they mentioned Lucky Peach and drank dry cider and the whole thing was pretty eye rolly. I was kind of disappointed that the more interesting parts of the evening were cut short to make room for this - the longest and most irrelevant part of the evening. Sorry, I don’t have much to say about that. Representatives were included from Eater, Lucky Peach and the Globe and Mail as well as a few freelance food writers.
The best conversations happened after the event was done at the afterparty. I mean, of course there was an afterparty! Amy Millan from Stars played a set and in between each song made a pandering reference to feminism or patriarchy. At one point she joked that no one was closer to the stage because she guesses we aren’t used to a female fronting a band. She then played a Roy Orbison cover. Like, yeah. Her constant references to feminism and patriarchy were grating and came off as pandering at best, mocking at worst. I wasn’t a fan. Also her music was basic three open chord stuff and not very good. Maybe it was supposed to be ironic. Meh. I wrote better guitar tracks when I was 12.
Moving right along, the best part of the afterparty was the discussions I had outside. I was able to speak with a few of the minority panel members about their experience and it was interesting to hear their version of events. I’m not a journalist and I didn’t take quotes or anything. I was half in the bag by then (as was everyone) and so I won’t be quoting anyone specifically or attributing any words to any specific panel members but their thoughts really put some of the evening in perspective. It wouldn’t be fair to anyone since I didn’t interview anyone per se. I did mention I would be writing about the evening however, just to be fair to those speaking and on one occasion I was asked not to include a certain statement. Of course I will not include it but I will also not name any of these women specifically either.
It seemed to me as an audience member that the voices of queer women and WOC were cut short and spoken over. As an audience member it was apparent to me. The panel members I spoke to felt the same way and had left the stage with a bit of a bad taste in their mouths because of it. Some felt as I did that Amanda Cohen and Hugh Acheson had acted an ass during the discussion and it didn’t escape the other panel members or others in the audience. There was frustration that the very important things they wanted to say about sexism, racism, homo and transphobia were cut short in favour of more time for the media panel. When asked why people thought the media had been given such a huge platform despite having nothing at all to do with restaurant culture, the response was side eyes and “You know why.” Ah, yes, I do. Hype and PR. Sigh.
I heard that there was a rift between the minority women and the cishet white participants before the event even began. They got together and had a dinner the night before and reported the white people at one table and the WOC and queer women at another. Once again, as the program listed them in a certain order, I wondered if seating was arranged based on restaurant profile as well, which would reflect the industry and society and therefore have all the cishet white people at the top and the queer women and WOC at the bottom. Regardless of how this came to be, the minority women reported feeling a split in the groups and a very apparent divide. Intent doesn’t matter when the result is a cishet white table and an ‘other people’ table.
This divide may also have occurred on an axis of class. One woman told me that the event should not have had so many millionaires included. They were tossing around the idea of holding their own event where minorities and people working on the line and on the floor could take a bigger share of the discourse and talk about the culture and it’s effect on them in a more helpful way rather than ceding the floor to privileged people who own empires of food and whose profiles are high enough already - people who are very likely to be cishet white people. People had a feeling of disappointment about the way the event shook out and the superficial and unhelpful tone of the whole evening. It seemed a lot of show for very little true discourse.
But let’s talk about that ‘show’ for a minute. Let’s examine the sponsorship. There certainly was a show. The full fine dining treatment: prosecco, vast piles of fine cheeses, oysters, etc. Check out the sponsors on the back of the program:
That is a large number of high profile sponsors. Note that the Globe and Mail was three things at this event: a panel representative, a sponsor and also media coverage. I’m curious as to what their sponsorship entailed. Was the newspaper coverage the sponsorship? How does a newspaper sponsor something like this? Financially? This raised some questions for me that I’m not sure how to answer.
Anyway, quick math, let’s say there were 150 ppl at the event (a low estimate) at $50 a person ($75 at the door). That’s $7500 at a low estimate. A very good night in sales for a small boutique restaurant. We don’t know what any of these sponsors donated but it is stated that the ticket prices go to fund the event with any leftovers being given to an unnamed women’s shelter. So basically, at least some of those sponsors are getting paid to participate. I’m guessing (because it usually goes like this) that in addition to the lower prices restaurant people receive for buying in bulk, the price would be further reduced. Just look at the Cheese Boutique’s spread. That’s a very big cheese order. Even at reduced ‘sponsorship’ prices, they made bank at this event. The same can be said of any other sponsor in the above image that was paid at all for their sponsorship. The deal is this: the sponsor gives you a reduced price and in return, you give them free advertising. Not just any free advertising though, the kind that says “This company has a heart”. Or whatever. I’m not sure that activism and capitalism can ethically coexist at all though. I’ve written about this in the past, but this kind of sponsorship is a good example of this wierd dynamic of capitalist activism. Are their motives pure or are they merely playing the game looking for media and PR? If no PR was offered at all, would they still sponsor the cause?
I spoke briefly with Jen Agg when the event was over. Both to thank her for putting it together and to question the motivations of some participants. She put her arm around me, “Get this!” she said to a cameraman standing nearby.
For all it’s faults, I told her I was/am very happy this event happened. I said I was happy to see that an attempt was made to ensure the panels were diverse. She admitted in response that she still thought the event was pretty white. While that was true, it also wasn’t. A serious effort was made to include diverse voices and while they seemed drowned out for various reasons, the event was certainly diverse, especially in it’s first half. I told her that listening to the stories of others was really helpful to my soul. Everyone knows what people go through, I said, but we never talk about it, especially the emotional fallout of being in a culture of abuse. This was a good first step and one had to be made.
I also mentioned to her that I hoped a lot of the people in attendance were in it because they truly care about the cause and not just as a PR move. I mentioned a tweet that I had seen from the chef of a restaurant I previously worked at. His tweet was very supportive of the event and of feminism, but I worked for him. His kitchen was egregious in it’s issues. I had numerous problems when I was there and I saw some truly awful things happen to other women who worked there. Jenn replied that she hopes so too. It’s unfortunate, she said, but it happens all the time.
It does happen all the time. Perhaps I have answered the question I posed earlier in this piece: What is Amanda ‘there is no boy’s club’ Cohen doing here?
I do believe Jen Agg feels strongly about this topic. I believe she truly does wish to fight sexism and other isms in restaurant culture. I think her heart is in the right place and I certainly don’t think she’s trying to do anything except what she says she is but I’m not sure that restaurant culture isn’t so pervasive that we couldn’t step outside of it for even one night. We couldn’t step outside our egos, promotions and excess long enough to discuss our egos, promotions and excess. In many ways, we sat in a puddle of our own urine discussing how we need to stop peeing on ourselves. I myself succumbed to the smoke and mirrors as I walked in. I let the rush of luxury move me, even as I am intimately aware of the show of it all. I allowed the high of prosecco and a pile of (truly stellar omg) cheese to lull me into happiness as if this is how it must be. How could an industry event be any less?
However when I first heard of this event I noted that there was no way I could throw away $50 on such a thing even though I desperately wanted to go (thank you to my friend who paid for me!). I complained that those who most need to participate would not be able to afford such a high ticket price. The price was justified by citing the probable cost of the event but it is worthwhile to question the burning need for fine wines and cheeses at such an event. Of course certain thing like seating and audio equipment, etc are necessities but if our need for excess is the only reason the price is so high, I would rather not have eaten cheese and seen more line cooks and servers in attendance. I would gladly drink rail booze in exchange for more queer people and WOC. Damned if we didn’t have a great time though, all in all. It was a great night and I’m glad to have participated. Make no mistake though, a ton of money was made by a lot of people at this event.
It was noted outside, for what it’s worth, that Jen Agg has a new restaurant opening soon.
Update: Jen Agg has responded in the comments and I would like to direct you to her response as it clarifies some of the more important financial questions I have raised here. It’s important to be honest about these kinds of things and it’s clear that I have been wrong about some of my ideas. Please check out her comment below.