I have worked in fine dining, at the highest level, for decades. I have succeeded for many reasons, but one of them is that I am a white man. As a chef and as a restaurant owner, I am representative of the patterns of gender and racial discrimination that exist in our industry in the United States.
There is a lot of talk in our country right now about sexual harassment in restaurants, especially in fine dining. There is less talk of racial discrimination, although it is just as prevalent. In the wake of Brett Anderson’s deeply reported story in The Times-Picayune about alleged sexual harassment at Besh Restaurant Group, food industry reporters are looking for stories about similar behavior in other high-profile restaurants. It’s important to find and name offenders, but explicit personal criticism, as powerful as it can be, can obscure the deeper systemic issues that create a culture of abuse in restaurants.
Maybe we can collectively find a path that allows for a reconciliation that heals some of the long-standing wounds that remain painfully open and raw. If there is such a path, it would start with an honest assessment of the underlying societal conditions that shape our industry.
Food is an expression of culture, and the society that our industry mirrors is plagued by both gender and racial bias. The United States was founded by a group of European men who killed almost all of the native population, pillaged the land, and enslaved African slaves for more than 200 years. Racism as we know it in this country is a system of economic oppression that exists to this day, designed to benefit a select group of white people at the expense of everyone else, including poor whites. It mutated and spread through every aspect of our society, and now manifests in constant, persistent discrimination against all people of color, but most profoundly against black and brown communities.
Gender bias has proven just as deep and enduring. Women still make less than men for doing comparable work. They are hired less often for high level jobs. They endure acts of discrimination, big and small, every day. And, in kitchens and dining rooms all over the country, they are subject to abusive behavior at the hands of their male co-workers, supervisors, and customers.
This gender and racial bias has become embedded in every organized system that governs and shapes behavior in this country, from our schools, legal system, and financial systems, to our entertainment industry and restaurants. Identifying the problem is not enough, however. Kind words and supportive tweets won’t create change. Systemic problems require systemic solutions and courageous action.
So how do we change? To rely on the goodwill of individuals to transcend discriminatory conditions is to ensure failure. It is only through systems—rules and laws—that we can effectively govern behavior and create accountability. For example, we don’t leave it up to individuals to decide how fast they can safely drive. We set speed limits, and violations come with penalties, because reckless driving hurts not only the driver but everyone around them.
I know that it is possible to create these kinds of systems in restaurants, because we are already doing it. My restaurant group, Alta, started working last year with the non-profit organization Restaurant Opportunity Centers United to create a systemic approach to eliminating implicit bias by developing equity. Implicit bias is all of the visible and invisible ways that women and people of color are prevented from succeeding as much as if they were white and male. It can also mean bias based on personal relationships, which is often also tied to gender and race.
There are many specific things an organization can do to increase equity, including:
-A management team that includes women and people of color;
-Standardized interview questions designed to determine values and general competence, rather than filter for similar experience and cultural background;
-Multiple managers interviewing and reviewing employees to combat personal bias;
-Robust training programs that don’t assume shared cultural understandings;
-Detailed, objective reviews that can lead to advancement;
-An equitable wage structure with a living wage;
-And an insistence on kind, loving communication, because shouting and harsh words are often triggers that widen unspoken cultural divisions.
If you’re wondering if this approach instantly created some kind of restaurant nirvana for us, it didn’t. The transition was emotionally difficult. There was a lot of turnover. Because the training curve of less experienced employees is longer, our restaurants are not as technically perfect as they should be. It certainly didn’t make us busier. At least, not yet.
We are committed to this process, but the fact is that change must also happen outside of kitchens and dining rooms. Chefs and restaurateurs can’t bear the sole burden of addressing these inequities. Food media, customers, and investors all play a role as well.
Most food writers are white, many male—as are the editors hiring them and owners behind them. Media helped create the “bro” culture that writers are now decrying. They helped to enable the rise of the “celebrity chef.” And it’s not just that white, male chefs were covered more frequently and positively, but that all of the food industry was seen only through one cultural lens.
Newspapers and magazines need to hire more writers, critics, and editors who are women and people of color. This is so fundamental, and it’s just not happening. This will lead to different voices and perspectives, which will mean more gender balance and a wider range of cultural foods in lists of “bests” and “tops,” less instances of insensitive headlines and stories about gender and race, more representation in articles and reviews. These things are important because they will affect how and where customers spend their money.
Customers could make purchases based not only on quality and price, but on a restaurant’s commitment to define sustainability in broader terms than just ingredients. Customers already choose where to eat based on environmental values, so it’s not too much of a stretch to think that they could add human values, such as ethical treatment of workers.
Not to mention that investors could transform the industry overnight by demanding an equitable workplace as a condition of investing, and by directing capital to women and people of color so they can open their own businesses.
This issue seems intractable right now, especially with our country so divided. I am part of the community of high-level chefs, and, through my restaurant LocoL and my non-profit organization The Cooking Project, I am also part of the community of activists and social justice advocates. I have love and compassion for both sides, and I see the truth of each of their lived experiences. But I also see that these groups tend to be in complete opposition, and the gulf between them is deep and wide. In order to create a bridge, we might have to dream together of something different. Something better.
One possibility that might lessen the enormity of the task is for chefs, restaurateurs, and advocacy groups to work together to standardize systemic ways to remove implicit gender and racial bias. We could collaborate to create equitable and just standards that are consistent and familiar across restaurants. Standards that govern individual behavior. This would allow women and people of color to move from restaurant to restaurant and find a common culture of respect and understanding everywhere they go.
There are examples of the good things that happen when opportunity is open. At Benu in San Francisco, Corey Lee, trained by Thomas Keller, creates world-class haute cuisine informed by his Korean heritage. Six years ago, Dominica Rice-Cisneros left the kitchens of Chez Panisse to open Cosecha, an Oakland restaurant serving exquisite Mexican food. Right now these are rare exceptions, but imagine how much more exciting dining out might become if they were the norm. The pleasures of inclusion go beyond food. Diverse points of view make life richer and more interesting.
I know that chefs are already overwhelmed. Fine dining requires hard work, discipline, and intense concentration. It has always been challenging to make a living in restaurants, now more than ever. Taking on entrenched societal problems on top of everything seems almost unimaginable. But, perhaps, this is where the magic lies. The moments where we face the biggest challenges are where we are often at our best and most united. We have seen recently how the restaurant community has come together to help people who suffered losses from natural disasters in Houston, Puerto Rico, and California wine country. Think of this as a human-made disaster that has been going on for a long time, one that has caused tremendous pain and enervated our industry. Think of it as a crisis that we can work together to solve.
I believe in the transformative power of food, especially at the highest level. Yes, it will always be elitist and exclusionary by its nature, a form of eating based on status and privilege. But that makes increased representation of women and people of color in haute cuisine, in visible positions and ownership, even more powerful. Fine dining is a tiny part of a much larger industry, but also the most influential. If leaders, most of whom right now are white men, say that our shared humanity is a fundamental and non-negotiable value, others will listen. If we adopt different ways of running our businesses, others will follow. If we mentor and support more diverse staffs, we will change not only our industry, but the society around it.
Systemic changes in restaurant operations and a more diverse leadership will have a profound effect on the abuses that now exist. Representation matters. Ownership matters. Collective action matters. These things will happen only if we make them happen. Only if we create systems designed to open opportunity. Only if we insist on a loving, inclusive culture. Only if we decide, together, to build a more equitable and sustainable industry.