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Amidst the Smoke and Steam Illustration by Gerard Dubois.

Amidst the Smoke and Steam

Men hugely outnumber women in the kitchens of high-end restaurants and the imbalance is a recipe for abuse.

IN THE PURGATORIAL KITCHEN of this high-end restaurant—visible through eight panes of glass to the right of the marble bar—space is tight, and time is tighter. While patrons sit in velvet-upholstered chairs beneath the glazed eyes of mounted game animals, cooks are stretching above and around coworkers who can’t spare the time to move out of the way. So when the chef de cuisine approaches head pastry chef Alice Carroll (not her real name), the only woman on the staff, from behind, saying, "Give me your hand for a second,” she figures he wants her to taste something. With her eyes and one hand focused on the work in front of her, she reaches back with the other. He grabs it and places it on his crotch. Before she can pull away, she feels his erection. Startled, she pulls her hand back. She might even have told him to fuck off, but she can’t remember—it’s getting difficult to tell one incident from another.

Sexual harassment has been a fact of life for Carroll since she became a professional cook in 2011. She’s worked in five different kitchens now and been sexually harassed at four of them. Her experience is not unique. Women are hugely outnumbered by men in the industry and the abuse they face is hidden amidst the smoke and steam of the kitchen. Many are reluctant to register formal complaints for fear of exposure, intensifying abuse, and denied references. The industry’s gender imbalance makes anonymity and solidarity almost impossible. 

Carroll is sexually harassed nearly every shift. “I’m the blow-up doll of the office and I hate it,” she says. Sometimes, coworkers make crude comments, like a sous-chef who asked her when she last had sex, and then propositioned her: “I could sling you one if you want,” he said, “between friends.” And sometimes the abuse is physical, as when that same sous-chef knelt down beside her, ostensibly to reach for an ingredient, and quickly ran his hands up her thigh.

On busy evenings snaking hands avoid wider detection and at Carroll’s restaurant the chit machine streams orders like a stock ticker. The pace of kitchen life does not allow for gentle learning curves. Criticism is vitriolic and acceptable behaviour is whatever makes service run smoothly. Physical and social boundaries are hazy. It’s a product of close quarters, intense pressure and the amount of time kitchen crews spend together—sometimes as many as 16 hours a day, six days a week. Horseplay and raunchy banter come with the job. They're outlets for the stress and stir-craziness kitchen life induces.

During Carroll’s first few months in her current position the kitchen crew teased her relentlessly, as they would any newcomer. But once she had gained the respect of her superiors, they treated her as their equal. She was used to kitchen hijinks—coworkers smacking each other on the ass and kissing each other on the cheek. She was also inured to the sort of stress-induced profanity that defies lexical classification, as in, “Where’s that cunting measuring cup?”

But, by degrees, her coworkers’ increasingly aggressive sexual behaviour began to make Carroll uncomfortable. At shift’s-end, one sous-chef would try to force a kiss on the lips. Another (whom Carroll refers to as “the pink, fleshy embodiment of everything that is wrong with mankind”) once smacked her backside so hard she couldn’t sit down. And it kept escalating from there. Carroll says her coworkers laugh dismissively when she protests. One of them created a day devoted to harassing her. “Are you looking forward,” he asked, “to Sexual Harassment Monday?”

Now Carroll can feel her body tense every time someone passes behind her at work. She runs out of ginger and, standing on her toes at the tucked-away dry-storage shelf, she reaches for more. She feels something at her back and turns with a quiet shriek to see the chef de cuisine, erect and leering. This time Carroll definitely tells him to fuck off before heading back to her counter, ginger in hand, to fill another order.

Women who face this kind of abuse have options for recourse beyond the kitchen. Victims can file a report with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT) and wait for the system to mete out justice. But according to Matthew Dewar, a lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment cases, the system is broken. “It’s so fucking broken,” he says, “I can’t even tell you.” When it comes to human rights protections, “there’s the legal reality and there’s the reality reality. And the two are rarely the same.”

The “legal reality” looks like this: A woman files an application, free of charge, on the OHRT website. The OHRT sends notice of the application to the restaurant. The restaurant responds, and the applicant and the restaurant’s owners, plus the alleged harassers, meet with a mediator. The opposing parties decide either to settle or go to a hearing, where the woman can pursue damages. In theory, justice is served, and the harassment stops.

The “reality reality” is that the volume of applications has created a massive backlog in the system, and the legal process takes months—months of uncertainty, stress and the fear of provoking further abuse. Yes, Carroll can fill out a Form 1 and a Form 1-A and add her name to the hagiography of the women’s rights movement. But sainthood often comes at great personal cost. “If she wants to be the martyr and sacrifice herself on the altar of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, more power to her,” Dewar says. “But who’s going to blame her if she doesn’t?”

Sometimes, quitting feels easier than filing a complaint. Like Carroll, twenty-one-year-old Erin Gonzalez was head pastry chef at an upscale restaurant. But after months of verbal abuse and sexual advances from a sous-chef culminated in physical attacks, Gonzalez quit. She had wanted to be a chef her whole life, but now she’s working as a Catholic missionary and living in Milton, Ontario. The only way she would go back into the restaurant industry, she says, is if she could run her own kitchen.

Donna Dooher is one of relatively few women in the industry who wields control over her own workplace. Dooher, fifty-nine, is the head chef of Mildred’s Temple Kitchen in Toronto’s Liberty Village. She says her kitchen is a “female-friendly environment, just by the nature that there’s a woman who’s in charge.” As a result, Dooher says she receives a disproportionate number of job applications from female cooks and chefs, who currently comprise about 50 percent of her kitchen crew. Dooher says it’s important for women to assert themselves in the kitchen, especially if they find themselves in a male-dominated environment.

Deborah Reid says assertiveness is not just about establishing one’s territory—it’s also about maintaining one’s values. In 2011, Reid and Lauren Wilson, chefs and food writers both, co-authored a study at George Brown College, home to Canada’s largest chef school. The paper showed that nearly 37 percent of George Brown culinary students were women. According to the Canadian Restaurants and Food Services Association, the kitchen staffs of Canadian restaurants were just 17.3 percent female.

Still, many restaurants are making an effort to improve this. “If you’ve discovered you’re the only female [in the kitchen],” Reid says, “you need to ask yourself: ‘Do the values of the kitchen’s culture match my own?’”

But surveys going as far back as the mid-'90s and conducted as recently as 2010 show that the pervasiveness of abuse has long engendered widespread resignation among female restaurant workers. After years of comments like, “Well, if you’re on your period, the mayo isn’t going to come together,” many veteran female chefs tell young women trying to make it in commercial kitchens that they just need to develop a thicker skin.

Carroll worries that speaking out, or walking out, will mean she’ll never be hired anywhere else. She’s afraid to file a complaint because she thinks the harassment will escalate when word of her complaint gets out. She’s afraid she’ll be fired for some trivial mistake, and she questions how badly she’s needed in the kitchen. “I don’t hold up the walls,” she says. “My name isn’t on any of the menus.”

Carroll exercises her intellect to cope with the abuse. She stays up nights reading Dorothy Parker and Sylvia Plath. She’s interested in feminism now, though she never was before. Sometimes she theorizes about her harassment. She believes it’s about control, not sex. At twenty-two, she’s in a powerful position at a young age; the abuse might be a pre-emptive attempt to stifle her authority.

Scott Anderson, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia who has been studying sexual harassment since the 1990s, agrees. “Sexual harassment often functions as a means for men to protect their turf against intrusion or competition from women,” he says. Perhaps the harassment is a product of a culture in which, as Anderson points out, the masculine sexual ideal involves having power over women.

Back in the kitchen, Carroll is finished for the night. She heads to the staff elevator and the changing room in the basement. She holds the door for a few of the guys, some of whom have already taken off their shirts—not unusual behaviour. But as the elevator slips downward, a few of them take off their pants. One of them pushes Carroll against a wall and she tells him to back off, but the rest of the guys are shoving him against her too and now, for the first time, she’s scared. The elevator hits the floor a few seconds later—and then nothing. The seven guys tear out of the elevator and Carroll stands against the wall, trying to figure out what just happened.

She rushes out. It’s late but she’s crying and she calls her grandmother to talk it through. “Promise me,” her grandmother says, “you won’t ever be in the basement alone with one of them again.”

The next day, Carroll opens the restaurant at 6:30 am. She’s the only one there, and she needs to change into her chef’s jacket. So she stands at the elevator door, she thinks of her grandmother,and she waits.