Editor’s Note: Tia Keenan is a writer, cook and cheese specialist. She is the author of “The Art of the Cheese Plate: Pairings, Recipes, Style, Attitude.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
I’ve never been assaulted by Mario Batali, who stepped away from his restaurant business and ABC television show amid allegations of sexual misconduct this week. But I know someone who allegedly was.
At the time, she was a rising star in the industry working in one of the finest restaurants in the world. She’d made the mistake (if you could call it that) of partying after hours with a group of fellow restaurant rock stars, who eventually trickled away and left her alone with Batali. A busser interrupted the assault, and she fled. She called me at 2 a.m., sobbing from the sidewalk in front of his restaurant. “He tried to rape me! What do I do?” she was screaming. “What do I do? What do I do?”
Sadly, I didn’t have the answer that night, and I don’t have it today. If she had reported the assault, her star in the restaurant world surely would have been yanked back to earth. Although he was unaware of this specific allegation, Batali said on Monday that he is “deeply sorry” for the pain or humiliation he has caused “his peers, employees, customers, friends and family.”
Restaurant workers are supposed to worship at the altar of comfort; it’s repeated to us again and again that hospitality is above all a soothing of those who have more power than we do, a la “the customer is always right.” Accusing a pillar of the industry of assault is the opposite of comforting for everyone: bosses, co-workers, diners, food media.
Even if she was believed (and that’s a big “if”), she very likely would have been punished anyway for challenging the same givens of restaurant employment and culture I’ve always heard: abuse “just happens,” silence is “taking one for the team,” and “betraying” anyone who has more power than you is grounds for excommunication. Transgressors of these norms, usually women and people of color who refuse to keep quiet, are often described as “not cut out for the business.”
I’ve never been assaulted by Mario Batali, but I’ve been assaulted while working in a restaurant owned by another restauranteur. My story is unremarkable because it’s a tiny drop in the rancid stew of unchecked power, abuse, and coverups that the entire industry sups on.
After I was assaulted, my immediate supervisor (a woman) told me to “look for another job.” I requested the abuser’s employment be terminated, but that was seemingly too much to ask. I was forced to work with him until I left the job four months later. On my last day of work – after over two years of employment – not one of my direct supervisors acknowledged my departure. By speaking up, I ensured only that I would leave in an awkward, shamed silence.
Blaming the wretchedness of the restaurant industry on “culture” alone, however, is too easy. It ignores the fact that the typical restaurant labor model relies on a deep disparity of power to function. It’s an inherently exploitive, gendered and racialized system.
In idealized, revered establishments – like Batali’s – generally black and brown hands harvest, receive and prep the food. Usually white, male chefs command a “line” of white, male cooks. White hands typically serve guests, themselves wealthy and/or white. When it’s over, predominantly black and brown hands clean up the mess. This system serves the economic needs of restaurant investors and speaks to our very definitions of hospitality, namely who is served and who does the serving, who has a right to comfort and who does not.
Of course there are individual exceptions, and I won’t erase the black, brown and female restaurant makers who work so hard (10 times as hard, the “joke” goes) to wrest positions of power in this system. They exist despite industry norms, not because of them. (I’d also feel remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that black, brown and female guests often receive inferior, begrudging service. Their presence as guests challenges the twisted belief systems of hospitality.) And of course there are the good guy “thought leaders” of the industry. But even they – what are they doing to change the power ratios in restaurants? Are they funding female chefs? Hiring black general managers? Promoting brown sous chefs? If they are, I don’t see it.
The apparatus that keeps the industry afloat – the white male investors whose money fuels the industry – don’t want to hear about assault. It’s not proper dinner conversation and it’s certainly not good for business. But what they really don’t want to hear is how to fix it, because any fix would require a fundamental redistribution of power not just in restaurants, but throughout society. A fix would require them to give up power.
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The titans know their business model can’t function without gross economic, racial and gender disparity, so they’ve convinced us – diners and dishwashers, cooks and critics alike – to be shocked but do nothing when the human collateral of this rotted industry peek out from subjugation to say #metoo. It’s easier to be outraged than to tear the system down. And all of it is hard to swallow.
On Tuesday, after this opinion article was published, Mario Batali gave a statement to CNN about the allegations described: “I vehemently deny this.”