The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the midst of restaurants’ Me Too reckoning, female chefs grapple with what comes next

Chef-restaurateur Dominique Crenn responds with a nonverbal statement of strength in the kitchen at Petit Crenn in San Francisco, standing with Molly Breidenthal, left, chef Nancy Oakes, right, and Dana Younkin, far right. (Jennifer Chase/For The Washington Post)

SAN FRANCISCO — The title of the dinner series is “the Women of Food.” But one of the biggest topics on people’s minds right now is the Men of Food and why they behave so badly. And when the Women of Food talk about the Bad Men of Food, one name is sure to come up: Mario Batali.

Batali is “being a coward,” says Dominique Crenn, one of the best chefs in America and the host of the monthly dinner series at her restaurant Petit Crenn. “I dislike cowards. There’s a lot of them. They can’t own their mistakes,” she says. “Maybe in his brain he has a different reality than we have.”

But one of the other Women of Food is a guest chef for the April 24 dinner. Crenn’s dear friend Nancy Silverton is likewise one of the best chefs in America — and she used to be business partners with Batali. Now, she’s grappling with the fallout from the sexual assault allegations leveled against him.

“When you hear such terrible things about a friend or a mentor who has treated me respectfully, there’s always going to be that conflict,” Silverton says. “I was horrified.”

This is what binds the Women of Food together. There is, it appears, no woman in the food industry whose career hasn’t been affected by sexual harassment — not even two female chefs at the top of their game. But what should be done about it? The Women of Food are trying to figure this out.

Here is what Dominique Crenn believes: that the reason many men in the restaurant industry have not spoken up about sexual harassment is because they are afraid. That they’re afraid because they are complicit in the inappropriate behavior. That women in the industry finally have an opportunity to change the toxic culture of restaurants, now that people are listening to them. That if someone has to step up and be the conscience of the industry, she might as well be the one.

The men of the restaurant industry “didn’t pay attention because they thought it was important. Some paid attention because they were scared,” Crenn says. “We should have paid attention a long time ago.”

People pay attention to Crenn. She has the pedigree: three restaurants in San Francisco, including Atelier Crenn, the first American, female-led restaurant to receive two Michelin stars. In 2016, she was named best female chef in the world by World’s 50 Best, a restaurant-ranking organization. She was featured on Season 2 of the Netflix show “Chef’s Table,” and, last month, the James Beard Foundation named her best chef in the West.

She earned a reputation for speaking up for women when she criticized the company San Pellegrino for not employing a single female juror in its chef competition. And she called out World’s 50 Best for having a “Best Female Chef” award, which she says is a consolation prize, given that women who win it often don’t even make the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

“If you give a chef a female award, you’re going to alienate that gender [from] the other gender,” she says, and that furthers the inequality that already exists in the kitchen. Statistics show that few women make it to the upper echelons, becoming chef or owner of a restaurant.

And people will listen to her about sexual harassment. She has dealt with it personally, both as a victim and as a boss who fired an employee accused of harassment. When she was starting her career, she says, there was a sous-chef who harassed her. She won’t say where it occurred, only that it wasn’t at Stars, the famed Jeremiah Tower restaurant in San Francisco. She complained to the head chef, but “the chef said, ‘If you don’t like it, you can leave,’ ” and threatened to give her a bad reference if she ever spoke of the incident. “It was disgraceful,” she says. She quit.

Years later, as an owner of several restaurants, she was the chef people came to when a male colleague was harassing them. She fired him.

“You come to my company, and you disrespect me?” she says. “You have no place in our world.”

She feels the same way about the male chefs and restaurateurs who have been accused of sexual harassment: Batali, John Besh, Ken Friedman.

“I don’t think I can say that I’m happy for someone to go down. But it’s like, yeah, okay, we are talking about it. People are paying attention,” she says.

Here is what Nancy Silverton believes: that you take the bad with the good. That we shouldn't penalize everyone for the mistakes of a few. That the conversation about gender and the restaurant industry is more nuanced than some people say.

Silverton, too, is a James Beard award winner — named outstanding chef, the highest honor, in 2014 — and was also featured on “Chef’s Table.” Because she has been an entrepreneur for most of her career, starting Los Angeles’s La Brea Bakery, she says that she has never experienced the kind of harassment other women in the industry have reported.

“I never even quite realized that being a woman was a battle,” she says. “And that might sound kind of naive, but I came from a family of really strong women.”

She partnered with Batali for the Los Angeles eateries Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza and Chi Spacca, but she has “always been the face of those restaurants,” she says, because Batali was based in New York. “He was a friend; he was a mentor,” she says.

A December Washington Post report outlined Batali’s alleged sexual harassment at Osteria Mozza during one particularly wild night in 2010. Silverton says she knew that Batali “enjoyed late-night behavior,” but she had never seen him act inappropriately. “Mario did warn me. He said, ‘I wanted to let you know, you’re going to start reading about me,’ ” she says.

But then came the May 20 “60 Minutes” episode that revealed additional Batali accusers and reported that the chef was under criminal investigation for allegations of sexual assault. Silverton says she was appalled by how the situation changed “from horrific to possibly criminal.”

She had made it this far in her career before becoming a secondhand victim of sexual harassment, her partnership with Batali jeopardizing her reputation. She says she has lost business opportunities because of the connection. Some would also say that, as an owner of a restaurant where bad behavior took place, she was complicit, though she says she was unaware of any harassment.

“I don’t feel like I should be responsible for that bad behavior,” she says. “I’m sensitive to the fact that [Batali] was a part of the company, but I don’t feel like I was responsible.”

And still others would say that Silverton has emerged a beneficiary of Batali’s bad behavior: He is divesting from his company, B&B Hospitality, which owns dozens of restaurants, and Silverton and chef-restaurateur Lidia Bastianich, mother of Joe Bastianich, Batali’s partner, are taking on a greater role in what will become a new company.

“There are specific initiatives Nancy is helping lead, such as bringing Mozza to [London’s] West End and to New York and taking Carnevino to L.A.,” a spokesman for the company said in a statement.

Bastianich “and I recognize that it’s a time that we need to step up and sort of not only be mentors, too, but to sort of be very motherly to a lot of our staff,” Silverton says.

But she is still grappling with her place in the events of the past six months.

“Should we all be penalized by our partners? Are we guilty by association? To me, it’s almost like, you want to handpick who is more guilty than someone else,” she says. “How guilty is guilty? What’s the bar? Is the bar Harvey Weinstein?”

And the big question: “Do I take all the good and the bad from Mario? I guess I take all the good and the bad from Mario.”

Here is what Crenn and Silverton know to be true: that people can change, if they're willing to do the work.

“When someone doesn’t want to take their own responsibility and look deep inside of themselves, they have a lot of work to be done,” Crenn says. “A lot of people find excuses. They didn’t know better. You’re a grown man. You should know better.”

Silverton thinks Batali has done at least some of the work: “He didn’t try to make any excuses.” Crenn disagrees: “I haven’t seen anything that is heartfelt from him.”

And that’s why Crenn has personally volunteered to have a dialogue with all the men who have allegedly harassed their employees or stood by while others did so under their watch.

“I would listen to them and say, ‘These are the things that need to change.’ But also make them understand the pain that people have been going through,” she says. “It’s all about the conversation.”

Chefs aren’t the only ones who need to do the work. Crenn thinks the media do too much to elevate abusive male chefs to positions of power. And she thinks that organizations that hand out culinary awards need to consider a chef’s character alongside his cooking — as the James Beard Foundation announced it would do this year.

“Go talk to the team, and see if he’s a good man. You will hear stories,” she says. “If they’re not good people, I’m sorry, they do not deserve the award.” Awards given to sexual abusers in the past should be rescinded, she thinks.

Helping women find their way in the industry will help, too. The majority of the kitchen staff at the “Women of Food” dinner, sponsored by the online reservations company Resy, are women, and Crenn and Silverton, along with their two other guest chefs, New York’s Elizabeth Falkner and Boston’s Barbara Lynch, call themselves “the Golden Girls.”

Midway through a meal of white asparagus and herb salad, escargot raviolini and abalone with cabbage and smoked-mussels cream, Crenn gives her diners a feminist pep talk: “We rise for equality!” she yells, to a chorus of cheers.

“Unfortunately, we’re in an industry that is pretty tough at this moment,” she tells the room. “But we’re here to stay.”

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