My book club recently read Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential.” The memoir, released in 2000, is an unfiltered romp through the New York restaurant industry by the man who is sometimes called the “punk-rock chef.” It’s raunchy, dirty and entertaining.
For anyone who has worked in food service – and we all agreed that everyone should at some point in their lives – it’s also dangerously accurate. He didn’t make a lot of friends publishing it. Beyond the meticulous preparation of food, there are egos, love triangles, drugs and dramatics.
The conversation about the book, however, quickly shifted from seedy industry secrets (don’t buy seafood on Mondays, etc.) to his tone. The book club is half female and half male, and the women agreed that Bourdain carried a twinge of misogyny. He talks about his conquests in the kitchen with ease, and only a few women in the book actually earn his praise for their culinary skills; when he gives it to them it’s along the lines of “for a woman.”
Look, the book was written in 2000, so he was nearly two decades before this 2017 uncovering of sexual harassment in almost every industry. But we all know the archetype of an eccentric, aggressive chef or restaurant owner has some truth behind it, and that young women just trying to make money in their early 20s can be vulnerable in these situations. And, like Bourdain unknowingly hints at, it’s sometimes part of the culture.
This is generalizing, so I’m not throwing all restaurants under the bus. But the restaurant industry was the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the U.S., according to a 2014 report by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. In certain situations, restaurants are probably an incubator for the kind of behavior the country is now addressing, given the casual nature of what’s excused as “kitchen talk” (aka “locker room” talk). I worked in restaurants in my early 20s, and most of my experience was fun and benign, but I did have a boss who repeatedly crossed the line. I now know what I saw and experienced wasn’t OK, but it seemed like it was part of the deal at the time.
Interestingly enough, the morning after our meeting, the Aspen Daily News ran an article about Response’s new program to help combat sexual assaults in bars and restaurants. Response is a valley nonprofit that helps victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Because October was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the organization offered training to local restaurant and bar employees on how to intervene to prevent potential sexual assault. Bars—social gathering places with alcohol—can be staging ground for sexual aggressors, says Response. And perhaps that training needs to look internally at restaurants too.
When the Harvey Weinstein allegations and scandal broke, interestingly Bourdain was one of the most outspoken against him. His girlfriend, Asia Argento, is one of Weinstein’s accusers. He told Refinery 29 that a reckoning in the restaurant industry is next.
“It’s probably too late to change the hearts, minds, and attitudes of generations of old-school male chefs,” he said. “But it’s definitely not too late to change their behavior, if only out of self-interest.”
Whether he realizes it or not, he appears to be part of that evolution.
Christine Benedetti writes about food here every other week. Mostly the plant kind. She’s editor-in-chief of Aspen magazine, but you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.