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Sexual Harassment Made Me Quit Being a Chef

It wasn’t the hours that made me want to stop being a chef or my burnt-to-shit arms. It was the guaranteed sexual harassment from male cooks in the kitchen that made me throw in the towel.
Photo via Wiki Commons

Sexual harassment in restaurant kitchens has become a talking point again due to a young chef bringing a sexual discrimination claim against The Hardwick restaurant in Wales, owned by Stephen Terry, who was trained by Marco Pierre White. Among her allegations include being shut in a freezer, having a mouse thrown at her, being groped, and forced to change into her uniform in front of the male staff.

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In this case, the tribunal dismissed the allegations and found the chef's claims wildly embellished. But an important question should be raised here. In an industry where women are still a minority, is there more sexual harassment happening out there in kitchens than people realize? It's a stressful environment to work in. Emotions and adrenalin run high for long stretches of time and it's renowned for a certain, bullish kind of humor that helps chefs deal with the stress. But if there's only one woman in the kitchen, how often does she become the butt of the jokes?

We spoke to an ex-chef who actually left the industry altogether when the constant jibing, innuendos, and physical inappropriateness from male chefs became too much.

Female. 31. Ex-chef, now bookshop worker and part-time novelist.

I spent about five years working in chain restaurant kitchens to supplement my overarching desire to become a novelist. Each job was only ever supposed to be a short-lived or part-time, a buffer for what I truly loved doing, but the guarantee of regular income meant that I'd always end up staying longer than I anticipated. I also got really good.

It wasn't the hours that made me want to stop being a chef. It wasn't my burnt-to-shit arms. It wasn't even my increasing inability to eat anything other than cereal on my days off because my taste buds had been annihilated by tasting industrial quantities of sugary pasta sauce. It was the guaranteed sexual harassment from male chefs in the kitchen that made me, quite literally, throw in the towel.

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The kitchen is a hard environment. It's hot, frantic, and tense. People get very aggressive with each other during service and, often, use rancid humor to help shake out some of that tension afterwards. Unfortunately, if you're the only woman in the kitchen, you often become the butt of the joke. Or, your butt becomes the joke.

The first time your head chef shouts "OI OI!" when you bend over to take a pan off a low shelf, you laugh it off. What isn't funny, though, is when you turn around on another day and the same chef is miming sucking his index finger and putting it into your anus. I didn't laugh then. He did, while the other chefs giggled nervously into their tea towels. My stomach fell into my shoes and I hovered there for a minute in disbelief.

I didn't turn around and tell him he was a disgusting, pathetic pervert and that I was going to press charges. I'm not afraid to stand up for myself, but in that moment, any decent and proper reaction escaped me. I was suspended in shock. I left that restaurant—a very famous, busy UK chain—soon after the incident, saying I'd found a better job (I hadn't), and with a glowing reference from said head chef, who never once spoke of the incident. I put what had happened there down as a one-off and wanted to forget it.

I toyed with sacking off cooking altogether but I wasn't scared of the hard work, desperately needed the money, and thought I should just try and get my head down and try and save. So I ploughed on, only to find that in almost every kitchen I worked in, sexual harassment—in its various shades—was rife. I don't know what it's like in Michelin-starred kitchens—the militant preparation of the food and the ambition of the chefs might mean they contain a different kind of person—but in my experience of restaurant kitchens, where there is only one or two women, harassment can range from largely ignorable asides (like, "Ooh, on the rag are you? Well excuse me for breathing," and, "You want bigger chef's whites for those tits, love,") to the head chef and owner holding competitions where the female staff of the restaurant—kitchen and front-of-house—would have to try and deep throat courgettes during a lull in service.

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That's right. Whoever got the courgette down farthest was let home early that night. I didn't take part and was laughed at for being "boring." If it makes me boring to not want to take a cucumber between my tonsils in front of a snickering middle-aged man and a group of waitresses who are nervously laughing because they're really uncomfortable but also want to keep their jobs, then fuck it, I'm the most boring woman alive.

Why didn't I say anything, you ask? Well, I did. I told the chef—discreetly, trying to preserve the dignity of the other female staff in whatever feeble way I could—that I thought it was disgraceful and that he should be careful because if this kind of thing got out, he'd be screwed. He replied, "Oh, it's just a laugh, a bit of banter. We've been doing it here since way before your time." Followed by a more sinister, "Are you threatening me, ******?" The subtext of which was: "If you want to keep your job, shut the fuck up." I couldn't pay my rent without the job and he knew it. Yes, I could have found another, but despite my skill set and experience, there were no guarantees.

Therein lies the dilemma. Do you stay, quietly trying to make sure that nothing really untoward is going on—the other female chef in the kitchen insists she doesn't mind the pastry chef squeezing her hips every time he walks past her—and keep doing something you've become good at that guarantees you can eat and pay your rent? Or do you quit and be unable to feed yourself, but be sated in the knowledge that you exposed the bastard and his banter?

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In my experience, the word "banter" is the language equivalent of throwing a blanket over a canary to try and shut it up. Those who use it think it's an immediate controversy quasher, that if something was only supposed to be a laugh, it can excused. It's bullshit. Anyone who uses the word in the context of a woman coming forward and expressing discomfort over someone's behavior should be treated with the highest suspicion.

I stopped being a chef because no matter how thick a skin I developed to innuendos and "jokes" made with no other point of reference other than the fact that I was a woman, no matter how adept I become at giving it back, it became soul destroying. Working in kitchens made me not trust men, which is terrible. Thankfully, this feeling has now evaporated. I realize that other female chefs will have it different to how I did, but my experience made me feel that, in a pressured environment and when they're altogether, men are reduced to little schoolboys who really just want to pull a girl's knickers down in the playground and run away laughing.

So I hung up my chef's whites once and for all last year and found work in a bookshop.

Over the years I did report dodgy behavior in kitchens where I saw it—no manager ever took it any further than a quiet disciplinary with the chef in question—and, on my final day in a professional kitchen, told the enormous greasy chef who once stuck his toe out to trip me up so he could conveniently catch me by my boobs that he looked like cancer and must have a dick like a peppercorn for him to act the way he did.

It was nothing, but it felt like something.