The evening was dubbed “A reckoning in restaurants; combating toxic culture in the food service industry.” It was too big a topic to be contained to the allotted one hour. But four speakers at WBUR’s CitySpace Tuesday night chipped away at it, discussing the restaurant industry’s hierarchical structure, which often leaves employees feeling demoralized and like their jobs are at risk if they speak up.
“Anybody working in a kitchen is vulnerable,” says Hannah Selinger, a lifestyle writer and sommelier who once worked for celebrity chef David Chang. “Any server working in a kitchen, who can be fired in an at-will state like Massachusetts or an at-will state like New York, can lose their job, and you can be out on the street without a paycheck the next day. . . . These people, who have that kind of power, they hold it over you.”
“Our restaurant industry has a lot of toxic work environments,” adds Hassel Aviles, the co-founder and executive director of Not 9 to 5, a Toronto-based mental health advocacy group for people in hospitality. And, she says, “There’s so many systems of oppression at play in the industry that are designed to keep us silent.”
The layers of that silence are slowly being peeled back in Boston. Speakers pointed to recent revelations of toxic workplace culture within chef Barbara Lynch’s restaurants in both The Boston Globe and The New York Times. And to the recent outcry against chef Ming Tsai’s jokes about putting a roofie — a date rape drug — in moderator and chef Irene Li’s water glass and his comments about the #MeToo movement during a February CitySpace event.
Aviles and Selinger were joined on stage by Li, co-founder of Mei Mei dumpling cafe and factory and a James Beard Leadership Award winner, and by Globe reporter and editor Janelle Nanos, who wrote the paper’s recent stories about Lynch. The moderator was Robin Young, co-host of WBUR’s midday “Here & Now” news program.
The revelations about Lynch hung over the WBUR event. Lynch, in a statement, told WBUR earlier she “expressly rejects the various false accusations lodged against me,” such as verbal abuse, inappropriate touching, and sexual harassment.
Asked how industry toxicity developed, several speakers explained restaurant management structure is built, largely, on a hierarchical chain of command known as the “brigade system.” Developed by the French in the late 1800s, the military-style system was designed to bring about efficiency. Nowadays, several speakers say, it often creates trauma through the lack of physical and psychological safety.
Industry toxicity is also compounded by complicity, they say. Complicity by the food media, which can focus too much on chefs and not restaurant workers, or give chefs television shows and prestigious awards, and even by industry insiders like themselves who fail to reveal bad actors.
“It feels gross that so many of us have heard things and we are, whether we want to or not, effectively protecting bad actors,” says Li. “Because we don’t know what to say, who to say it to, how to get the right story to the right person.”
Li also said she’s still learning how journalists work and what they need to publish. Nanos explained journalists typically need several sources to confirm information for publication. For one story, Nanos noted, she heard an audio recording of Lynch screaming at employees.
But even after news articles about their abusive behavior, the same chefs often thrive with new restaurants and more awards. “It’s infuriating,” says Selinger, who worked for Chang’s Momofuku company as a beverage director before Chang excoriated her in front of staff and ultimately fired her. (Selinger shared her experience in a 2020 Eater essay and is now writing a book — due in 2025 — about it.)
The COVID pandemic has changed some of the employer-worker dynamics. Some note the emerging GenZ population is less tolerant of belligerent working conditions. But change has to be broad. The industry’s problems “are systemic,” Aviles says. “It’s really beyond one person or one place.”