Kitchen Confidential: The Secret Chef on industry dinosaurs

After the #metoo movement shone a searchlight onto the goings on in the kitchens of fashionable and starry restaurants The Secret Chef bemoans the fact that nothing seems to have changed

Mario Batali was supposed to be the plug in the dam. I thought once his orange Crocs disappeared downstream, a deluge of industry dinosaurs, who had consistently used their position, authority and power to make a game of harassing women, would drown in his  wake. “It’s Batali. And it’s bad,” wrote the late Anthony Bourdain on Twitter. Terrible accusations about the behaviour of Ken Friedman followed shortly after.

And then, nothing. In fact, it was less than nothing. Earlier this year, all charges against Batali were dropped by the NYPD, although he has stepped away from his restaurant and Eataly partnerships. The only fallout from Friedman’s alleged indiscretions, thus far, are that a couple of chefs have reversed out of some bizarre decisions and many people have lost their jobs. Turns out it may well have been Batali, but it didn’t seem to be that bad.

This old guard, forged in the fires of classical cuisine and a militaristic system, are still ruling the roost. They bleed misogyny. Their sweat stinks of testosterone, brown butter and foie gras. They make jokes about sexual assault. They ‘playfully’ slap behinds. They perpetuate an antiquated attitude toward, well, pretty much anything. And for some reason they get away with it. Maybe they will be carried off only by coronaries and diabetes, high blood pressure and fatty livers. They are the furry lining in the arteries of progress and the sooner they succumb to diseases of indulgence the better. May they clear the field for those of us in the industry of a different mindset. The world is destined to be a better place. Surely?

An indifferent shrug

Until a few weeks ago I would have agreed. But then something happened. The Times in the UK reported the story of Dan Doherty, a UK chef and TV personality who had been found guilty, in an internal investigation, of inappropriate behaviour towards some of his female employees. His actions included asking a member of staff for oral sex and commenting that he would like to see others without their chef whites on. His punishment was to be promoted to an executive-chef position away from the kitchen. It was only when The Times ran the story several months after the investigation that Doherty suffered any real sanctions – culminating in being removed from his own restaurant group and losing his TV gigs. London-based hospitality group Rhubarb also swiftly put the kibosh on their plans to use Doherty to front a New York outpost in Hudson Yards.

The depressing aspect of this story is that Doherty is 34 years old. He is not a dinosaur. He’s a fresh-faced chef from the suburbs. Part of the next generation, committed to a 21st century workplace devoid of machismo and dick swinging.

More depressing was the industry response that could, at best, be described as an indifferent shrug and, at worst, be seen as enabling. While some took to social media to express their shock and anger, others – especially on closed forums – defended his actions, suggesting that what he said was the culinary equivalent of ‘locker room talk’; kitchen banter that was taken out of context and blown out of proportion.

These are the same industry folk who view Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidentialas a manifesto rather than a mea culpa; an aspirational canon as opposed to the regrettable confessions of a hard-bitten New York City legend, who himself grew increasingly appalled at the actions of his earlier self.

That trench-warfare mentality, fuelled by testosterone and ego – and always pushing, pushing, pushing – is poisonous and leads to the dark places where people think it is OK to send unsolicited pictures of their member to female co-workers and create a toxic environment for anyone who is remotely vulnerable.

Until we see a series of high-profile scalpings that begin to send the loud and clear message that THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE to the new generation, we are destined to sow and reap only the bitter seeds left us by the dinosaurs.

The Secret Chef