By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
These days, Christine Wu primarily spends her workday with infants, in her daycare job. She is a single mom and has two kids of her own, and while she enjoys what she currently does, her real passion in life is food. For years, Wu worked as a restaurant cook, working in the kitchens of Seatown Market & Fish Fry, Shaker + Spear, Quinn’s, and Monsoon.
She left the industry in 2019, because after years of suffering abuse and sexual harassment in various work places, she had had enough.
Wu recalled a specific instance in which she was groped—and the traumatizing aftermath of it where, instead of being supported by her coworkers, she was gaslit, minimized, and made to feel that she was weak for not withstanding the harassment.
“The dishwasher grabbed me. The owner basically just invalidated what I told them and just told me it was an accident. Even the camera showed he walked 20 feet from his station to grab my ass. [And] when I spoke up, the kitchen crew knew, too. Most of them ended up making fun of me, bullied me, telling me shit [like] I should be so lucky someone grabbed me ‘cause my ass is actually small.”
“I felt so weak when it first happened,” said Wu. “Like I needed to keep that job ‘cause it paid well, and I’m the only earner for my kids. So I sucked it up for three months before I physically couldn’t.”
These days, Wu is still traumatized by the experiences. She can’t drive past the restaurant where she used to work without experiencing an unwanted reaction.
Acclaimed Seattle chef accused of sexual harassment
On Sunday, June 13, James Beard Award-winning chef Edouardo Jordan was the subject of a Seattle Times story, “Edouardo Jordan, acclaimed Seattle chef, accused by 15 women of sexual misconduct or unwanted touching.” The story detailed claims of sexual harassment and misconduct spanning years from 15 women. The allegations were supported by various others, including other local chefs,
One of Jordan’s accusers is Suzi An, an Asian American woman who worked with Jordan at Bar Sajor starting in 2014 and as creative director of operations, who saw him through the opening of his restaurants Salare and June Baby. She worked for him until 2017.
To The Seattle Times, An said that Jordan made sexualized comments about her race and also that he followed her to her bed one evening even though she said no. According to the Times, An “didn’t know how to ask him to leave, so she laid as far away from Jordan as she could, until he left.”
Another Asian American woman and a former Seattle-area cook (speaking on the condition of anonymity) relayed to us her experience with Jordan in 2015.
“He grabbed me by my waist and whispered sexist and racist shit at the StarChefs afterparty in 2015,” she said. “[I] brushed it off at the time because I’ve been desensitized by normalized toxic behavior.”
“Edouardo is just the tip of the iceberg of an entire flawed culture,” she added. “There are worse chefs who will never face consequences. The abuse is cyclical. Surely, he learned this behavior from his mentors and leaders. But that doesn’t excuse his behavior. We all have the ability and responsibility to do better and break the cycle.”
On June 13, after the Times published its story, Jordan released a lengthy statement on his social media in response, one that simultaneously stated, “I don’t make excuses,” along with, “I deny many of the reported allegations.”
Responses to his denial of the accusations have been varied, with many condemning him and some defending him publicly while commentating on cancel culture.
Notably, Melissa Miranda, Filipinx chef and owner of the acclaimed Musang, has been among his most vocal critics. In a public statement posted on her social media, Miranda said, “Some of you may be asking how did this go on for so long, why didn’t people come forward sooner. Believe me when I say that we have been trying. A year and a half ago, a couple of these friends and I sat down with [Seattle Times reporter] Jackie Varriano and brought all of what we knew forward. It has taken a year and a half, patiently waiting for the research, fact checking, and honestly just people willing to come forward without the fear of repercussions.”
“This industry sends a lot of conflicting messages about who we are and what we should accept if we’re to last in this environment,” said Chef Tiffany Ran, of Ba Ba Lio Taiwanese Pop Up, who has worked in the kitchen of Walrus and the Carpenter, Miyabi 45th, and White Swan Public House. “That adds to a whole level of confusion when initially you’re teased, then maybe yelled at, then eventually groped. It’s easier for those outside to see what is acceptable and what isn’t, but that illusion of ‘restaurant fam’ can really muddle those boundaries for a person who has been wronged and feels conflicted about reporting it and speaking out.”
A difficult and often dysfunctional workplace
“I’ve seen chefs date GMs, servers, and even hosts. Some relationships have persevered while others have exploded into emotional chaos,” said Zachary Pacleb, a Filipinx chef and co-owner of Brothers & Co. Pacleb previously worked in the kitchens of Crush, Canlis, The London Plane, and with Staples Restaurant Group before starting his own business with his brother, Seth.
“I always just saw it as a part of the culture,” added Pacleb, “but in the beginning was too young and naive to really understand why. However, a title in a workplace does not equate to consent from your staff to do whatever you want with them. Misogyny, ego, and various other forms of abuse have run rampant in our industry (and many others), while we’re told to just ‘keep our heads down and work,’ which is a pretty messed up code of ethics.”
According to 2018 research from FairKitchens, one in four back-of-the-house restaurant employees suffer physical abuse on the job. Nearly two-thirds of chefs suffer from depression because of the work—74% lose sleep to the point of exhaustion and 53% feel pushed to their breaking points.
These workers also work long hours for extremely low pay. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has the May 2020 median pay for cooks at $28,180 a year, while the national median pay across all occupations during the same time was $56,310.
Local Filipinx Chef Wil Yee has worked as a professional chef for over 20 years at restaurants such as The Ruins and Osteria La Spiga, at Duos Catering, at the nonprofit Farestart, and with celebrity chef Martin Yan. Yee is a gay man and has also experienced a lot of toxicity during his years in the industry.
“This is the daily conversation: [Which woman] was the hot mess of the night. What girl so-and-so took home,” said Yee. “The guys literally go into detail, whether you want to hear them or not. Never mind that I’m gay. I’ve had my fair share of dudes grabbing their junk in front of me or drunk whispers about how, if I was a woman, what they would do to me.”
In his 40s, Yee said that he’d like to say that these incidents came from a different time and that things are now better in 2021—but he cannot say that.
“Just this past Friday, two of us were working a big event and this guy wasn’t having it with us. … His energy was sucking the life out of us. I finally had enough and stopped what I was doing and looked up at him to say, ‘Are you always this courteous to your guest chefs?’ The look I received was one I’ve seen far too many times growing up gay. He wanted to murder me. … I was scared, but I knew I couldn’t back down.”
Like Wu, Yee found that he was on his own and there was no support system in place for moments like these.
“The worst was that [other] people were right there and acted like nothing happened. Like, this was normal behavior for this guy in their kitchen.”
Wu misses working in a kitchen, so sometimes she tries to re-enter the industry. She tells herself it’s been three years, that she should be over it by now. Just a month ago, she tried to start a job at a local brewery.
“I couldn’t show up on my first shift,” she said. “The traumas and the panic attacks were so bad. I was shaking and puking and crying. I tried to fight it but I ended up being honest to the owner, that I thought I could do it but I’m still not over it apparently.”
Wu’s story is unfortunately not uncommon. She is one of the many people who burn out of the restaurant industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employee turnover rates in the restaurants and accommodations sector is abnormally high (at 74.9% in 2018) compared to the total U.S. private sector (48.9% in 2018).
“I know of many—who have given and accomplished so much to this industry—who decide to leave it entirely,” said Ran. “I’ve been at that precipice a few times myself. It’s painful to feel like you couldn’t cut it because you were devalued or looked down upon for whatever reason and to feel that you are weak for having feelings about your mistreatment.”
Accountability and what it could look like
Over the last few years, post #MeToo, a number of high profile chefs have been accused of sexual misconduct, chefs like Mario Batali, Mike Isabella, John Besh, Johnny Iuzzini, and more. While alleged abuse from celebrity chefs make good headlines, what often gets glossed over is the culture that supports and upholds the kind of power disparity and hypermasculinity that fosters such abuse.
“It’s too easy to demonize one or two egregiously bad chefs and imagine that their downfalls solve everything,” said Kristina Glinoga, butcher and owner of Butchery 101, who has worked in the kitchens of Canlis, Cascina Spinasse, and Radiator Whiskey. “But this is more than one man and one industry. The systems in place will keep grooming people to be problematic if we let them.”
“Restaurant kitchens—as a whole—for so long—haven’t been operated as professional workplaces,” said Diep Tran, the Vietnamese American and Los Angeles-based former chef-owner of Good Girl Dinette. “The lack of professionalism has meant, among other things, a breakdown of boundaries. In fact, that lack of boundaries is something that’s been celebrated for so long—by chefs, by the media—even as it has put workers vulnerable to harassment and abuse.”
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, using data from between 1995 and 2016, the restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims, accounting for more than one-third of all sexual harassment claims from women. (It should be noted that this statistic reflects documented complaints and does not include issues that were resolved internally or issues that weren’t resolved at all.)
“If we are to rebuild our workplaces to be healthier, safer, and more equitable, those who perpetuate this toxicity need to be held accountable,” said Pacleb. “In this moment of substantial change in our society, we as new owners and new leaders have a responsibility to do the good work that needs to be done to set better examples for the future.”
One such example of accountability is from INCITE!, a network of radical feminists of color. INCITE! defines community accountability as a process in which a community works together to create and affirm values and practices, develop sustainable strategies to address community members’ abusive behavior, commit to ongoing development of all members of a community in order to transform the political conditions within it that reinforce oppression and violence, and provide safety and support to members who have been violently targeted in ways that respect the community members’ self-determination.
“To me, I need to see a lot more self-examination from people,” said Glinoga. “I think we need to look at these public cases like they’re the Ghost of Christmas Future, showing us nightmare scenarios we’re building with everyday behavior.”
“There are very distinct power differentials between workers and owners, chefs, and managers,” said Tran. “Not acknowledging these differentials only empowers the owners at the expense of the workers who, in this culture, have very few resources they can turn to when violations happen. This is one reason why I’m hoping we can shift away from a restaurant model that centers owners and chefs in favor of one that resembles worker co-ops, where the power is somewhat more balanced and no one person has so much power over so many.”
While progress on this front tends to be slow and incremental, Wu can track the movement. When she read the recent Seattle Times article, when she read the accounts from women who have come forward and who have spoken out publicly against the abuse they suffered—she felt less alone.
“I’m so glad we are more outspoken now and not afraid to hold these people responsible for their shitty actions.”
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.