Facing up to Discrimination in the Hospitality Industry

From our January 2018 newsletter:

Global concerns over the abuse of power by men over women was a sobering theme that not even the cheer of the festive season could shake. In the US restaurant business it was particularly acute, with several well-known American chefs and restaurateurs like Mario Batali (whose restaurant empire will now be headed by women) and Ken Friedman (co-owner of the acclaimed The Spotted Pig in NYC) being exposed as or accused of being complicit in creating and maintaining uncomfortable environments in the establishments they were guardians of (with Batali’s public apology stating “I take full responsibility”, bizarrely followed by a recipe for cinnamon rolls – which someone blogged about making in an entertainingly acerbic post, incidentally).

(Lidia Bastianich and Nancy Silverton, the two women about to take leadership of Mario Batali’s restaurant empire. Image courtesy of National Post)

So far the scandals have been confined to the US, but there’s no doubt a sea-change afoot in a restaurant culture which has historically comprised a work environment where short tempers and entitled behaviour are sanctioned, and apparently too often mistaken for permissable abusiveness. (Anthony Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly was probably the first book to glamorise that culture, making the drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll culture of restaurant kitchens “cool”, but which is now something he regrets having glorified, as it possibly contributed to creating an atmosphere in which women were reluctant to speak out about their experiences, or even to confide in him as a friend. While Bourdain has been criticised for his own silence following suggestions that he did have some knowledge of Batali’s inappropriate actions, he has stated that he stands “unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women”.)

We haven’t had similar descriptions of such misconduct in local restaurants, but social media isn’t confined to national borders, so the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements can’t be dismissed as concerns that don’t apply to every country and restaurant that also strives to be recognised on the global dining scene (as some of our top restaurants are).

South Africa has its own unique history of discrimination and abuse of power, but we now strive to foster a restaurant scene that’s growing in a very positive way (and which we take great pride in showcasing in terms of sustainability and responsibility in our Story of a Plate series). But The New York Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells had a sobering summary of the situation when he commented that “Something has gone grotesquely wrong when chefs brag that the chickens they buy lived happy, stress-free lives, but can’t promise us that the women they employ aren’t being assaulted in the storage room”.

It’s clearly a time to stand up against any kinds of abuse in the industry that so many rely on for both business and pleasure – not for the sake of joining the proverbial bandwagon, but because it’s simply the right thing to do. The South African Labour Guide provides a comprehensive description of what exactly constitutes harassment, and the possible procedures to follow should anyone find themselves in – or observe anyone else in – the position of requiring assistance. There are additionally a number of crisis response services available, including TEARS which offers a free sms helpline (*134*7355#) which will track the location of its sender and reply with details of the nearest care facility. Such initiatives are certainly worth supporting in the name of a safer future environment for everyone.