I knew something had happened from the light radiating from my phone. Every few minutes, a new message would arrive. “Can you believe this…” followed by the same link.
The incident in question, I could very much believe. A middle-aged, white, male food writer had posted a quote from his most recent review. A quote, one can only assume, he thought was clever and amusing, but in fact objectified and sexualised a female server.
He didn’t post it to be provocative. He genuinely didn’t see the issue with what he’d written. Neither, it would seem, did any of his editors – or the publication in which it ran. At the time of publishing, three weeks on, it remained silent on the incident, its only action to quietly delete the offending article, refusing to acknowledge the widespread offense it has caused.
Women in the industry were triggered by his comments, not specifically by what he said, but rather – I believe – because of the attitude they represent and the culture from which they stem. Casual misogyny is rife within the hospitality industry, affecting women at all levels, and those who work adjacent to it. It comes from both within – from toxic, male-dominated kitchen culture – and externally, from diners, some of whom possess an ingrained contempt towards female servers.
As the editor of Gourmet Traveller, and a middle class, educated, straight, white woman, I tick most of the boxes on the power and privilege index. And yet, I have experienced just how insidious this culture is. At our annual Restaurant Awards, a high-profile chef thought nothing of grabbing my breast in front of a group of his peers.
And while that is an extreme example, barely a week goes by that either myself or my team (majority female) doesn’t experience some gender-based sleight from the hospitality industry.
So I understand why so many people were angered by that post. Why it triggered so many calls for action and asked us, as food media, to raise our voice and tell these stories. So we are. This is the start but we will continue to share stories from women in the industry and create space for this conversation until we no longer have anything to talk about.
It should go without saying – but I’ll say it for those in the back – there is no place for sexual assault or sexual harassment in any workplace. But we need to go further. We need to break down the bro culture of hospitality that fails to create space for women and fosters this casual misogyny.
Over the last three years, working alongside the hospitality industry, I have witnessed – and experienced – how difficult it can be to get female chefs and restaurateurs to participate in industry events. So I started to ask them – why?
The overwhelming answer has been because they don’t want to put themselves through it. That when they have participated in similar events, they have been treated with total contempt; ignored and frozen out. They’re not one of the bros so they are not welcome.
And so they pass up the opportunity to network and grow their profile, which – rightly or wrongly – is a key part of becoming a top chef and landing coveted (and well paid) corporate gigs and ambassadorships. In turn, we see endless line ups of male chefs being photographed and championed, perpetuating the image and idea that you have to be male to succeed as a chef.
As an editor trying to change this narrative, the challenge is constant. But rather than place the burden on women in the industry to do more, we need men to step up and support their female peers. To make them feel welcome and create space for them – and to call out those who fail to do so.
Which is not to say some don’t do this already. There are several leading chefs who have done so for years – Andrew McConnell has been singled out to me by a number of female chefs as an absolute champion in this space.
But it’s not enough. It’s time to turn up the heat and be better; better diners, better colleagues, better humans.
If you have experienced sexism within the hospitality industry and would like to share your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org