“It’s not enough to tell people to respect each other because respect is subjective.”
— Ashtin Berry, hospitality industry activist and bartender
Halfway through a conversation about the ways restaurant culture has shifted, Belinda Chang got quiet: Perhaps #MeToo wasn’t as much of a tsunami as it seemed two years ago, when women began sharing their stories of harassment and assault at the hands of chefs.
“I don’t think the attitude has changed among the people who were the original offenders,” she said. “And there are probably a lot of people who still are either totally baffled by what all the fuss was about or totally make fun of it.”
Ms. Chang, 46, has been in the restaurant game for a long time. She started in the 1990s, when she was studying chemistry at Rice University. By 1997, she had moved home to Chicago to work at Charlie Trotter’s. By 2011, she had won the James Beard award for outstanding wine service for her work at The Modern in New York.
I met her back in early 2000s, when she was the dynamic new face of women in wine at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco and I was reporting about food for The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s back in Chicago now, running a hospitality marketing business.
We both agree there have been significant changes since towering culinary figures like John Besh, Mario Batali and Ken Friedman fell after women told their stories about sexual harassment, abuse and assault.
Some of the most blatant behaviors are dying. A line cook is less likely to pretend a baguette is a penis, for example. Managers have come to understand they have an obligation to act when a customer sexually harasses a server. Women and men in all levels of the business have been empowered to speak up. Pioneering programs were birthed. Smaller restaurants developed sexual harassment policies. Larger ones shored up their human resource departments. Some, like the former Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, parted ways with Mr. Batali and completely retooled.
But real change doesn’t come with a new policy, the power of social media or better training. People who are offenders are still going to offend.
The issues are systemic and intersectional, said Ashtin Berry, an activist who bartends and writes about the food and beverage business.
At the recent Association of Food Journalists’ annual conference in Greenville, S.C., she said on a panel that she was appalled when an editor asked her to write an article about 10 bars that were getting it right in the #MeToo era.
Sexual harassment in the hospitality industry has deep roots tied to racial, gender and economic oppression, she said. A new human resource policy or a pat on the back for an enlightened manager are mere Band-Aids.
As she told the website Eater, “The hospitality industry — if we truly want to change — has to change the way that we even look at operational models for business.”
For Ms. Chang, that translates to more women at the top. Only 19 percent of executives in the food industry are women and about a third of restaurant businesses are owned by women.
In the meantime, she votes with her dollars.
“I’m like a lot of people who now scrutinize every dollar we spend in restaurants,” she said. “I am much more thoughtful about every food choice, especially in high-tickets places.”
The people creating the dining experience are as important as the experience itself.
“Nothing,” she said, “is just about the food anymore.”
Want more on creating change through cooking? Join me on Oct. 6 when we dig deeper with the Cherry Bombe editor in chief Kerry Diamond, the Ghetto Gastro co-founder Jon Gray and the cookbook author and Equity at the Table founder Julia Turshen. Get your ticket here.
What else is happening
Here are four articles from The Times you might have missed.
“In the brain, sex is everywhere.” Men’s and women’s brains respond to erotic imagery in pretty much the same way. That could have big implications for how we think about sexuality. [Read the story]
“Women poop. At work. Get over it.” Poop shame is real — and it disproportionately affects women, who suffer from higher rates of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Is going number two one of the last female workplace taboos? [Read the story]
“We are better together.” Nine albums after their debut, the feminist pop stars Tegan and Sara are finally ready to discuss the songs they wrote as teenagers about their traumas, triumphs and life as identical twins. [Read the story]
“They’ll cry and upload videos of pain and success and their surgery sisters help uplift them.” An Instagram community of “doll pages” lets women find valuable information about plastic surgery and body-sculpting. [Read the story]
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From the archives, 1962: ‘Pants, pants and more pants’
What did designers think women should wear at home in the ’60s? Easy! “Pants, pants and more pants.” In this article from 1962, The Times declared that pants — from “toga-topped and slim-legged to flowery, full chiffons” — were having a moment for women. We reported then that the garment was perfect for “lounging,” “relaxing” and “informal hostess duty.” We couldn’t agree more now.