When restaurant manager Maribel Palin was in culinary school, the other students warned her. Watch out for this instructor and his knife trick, they said. “You know when you have to sharpen a knife on a whetstone? He’d come behind a girl and wrap his arms around you and place his hands on yours and go over the whetstone with you.”
Working as a server at a North End restaurant, another woman recalls, the owners would comment on her breasts, making up songs and poems about them. It was humiliating, she says.
Lynette Mosher had recently landed her first job on the line when she came in to find her fellow cooks with their penises out, displayed on her cutting board. They demanded she judge whose was best. She took out her knives and said, “I suggest you tuck ’em in.”
Sexual harassment, so prevalent in the national dialogue right now, isn’t just a problem in the restaurant industry. It is a fact of life, daily and unceasing. In an informal, male-dominated business dedicated to pleasure, alcohol is ever present, further blurring the lines. A 2014 report from the advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United found that 66 percent of female restaurant employees have been sexually harassed by managers. Last month, the Times-Picayune reported that 25 women had experienced harassment while working for New Orleans’ Besh Restaurant Group, co-owned by celebrity chef John Besh, who has since stepped down. A server recently accused Todd English — whose Olives and other restaurants were formative in the Boston dining scene — of sexual harassment as part of a complaint filed against New York’s Plaza Hotel, where the chef’s Todd English Food Hall is located. A representative for English said he denies the charges.
Interviews by the Globe with more than two dozen restaurant-industry professionals reveal just how pervasive sexual harassment is in the Boston area. It takes place in culinary school classrooms, in kitchens, in dining rooms, at the bar — even with customers at the coat check. “They want you to help put their coat on, and you do it because you want to be flipped a $5 bill,” Palin says. “There’s a lot of unnecessary touching.”
And it takes place at some of the city’s finest restaurants. In 2015, former L’Espalier server Sarra Hajjaj filed a suit against her employer and then chef de cuisine Matthew Delisle, alleging that Delisle sexually harassed and assaulted her — forcibly kissing her, groping her when she was carrying glassware and dishes, putting his hand on her crotch, and telling her he wanted to have sex with her. When she rejected him, the suit alleges, he would lose his temper and scream at Hajjaj and other employees. Delisle denied these charges.
Hajjaj’s attorney, John Davis, said he could not comment on the case, but he spoke generally about harassment in bars and restaurants. “Of all the cases we do, we do more sexual harassment than anything else, and the restaurant industry is consistently one of the biggest offenders,” said the managing partner at Davis & Davis P.C., which specializes in family and employment law. Male managers hire younger women with less life and work experience, who tend to be easier targets, he says; he’s seen situations where a restaurant will intentionally hire single mothers because, in a tighter financial situation, they are less likely to speak up about inappropriate treatment. About 75 percent of the cases, he says, involve married men with poor impulse control.
“There are a lot of bosses screwing 18-year-old hostesses, and manipulation and craziness and forced stuff, and you know it goes on,” says Nicky Bandera, a longtime bartender and manager. “All of these men have families. You see that and you just take a bullet and say ‘whatever.’ There are other women attached to this stuff, so it’s really difficult: OK, well, I didn’t get raped, so I’m not going to talk about that and ruin a family.”
And, she says, alcohol adds another wrinkle. “In terms of bars and restaurants, there’s so much alcohol — you’re drinking until 4 in the morning — when things happen, where is the line? Someone can always say, ‘Well, you were drinking.’ ”
When people do report incidents, the situation is often not handled well. One 23-year-old employee, who has been working in restaurants since she was 14, says she has experienced sexual harassment at every single job but her current one. The worst case took place last year, she says. She was a server at Atlantic Fish Company on Boylston Street when a friend of hers who also worked there caught one of the managers watching the server change her clothes, via a hidden video camera in the changing room. He later bragged about it to co-workers.
The woman spoke to the only female manager about the incident, and they took it to HR. Tavistock Restaurant Collection, the group that owns Atlantic Fish, flew someone in to interview the staff. (Tavistock did not return requests for comment.) The end result: The women who used that room were told not to change there anymore. They were to come to work in full uniform or use the same bathroom as the restaurant’s customers.
The server had been told her complaint would remain confidential, but staff learned that it came from her. The restaurant’s general manager insisted she tell him who had told her about the incident, she says. He was angry she had taken the matter to the female manager instead of him. And the manager who had spied on her retaliated with anger, exploding when she made small mistakes, belittling her, and making her uncomfortable, she says. It resulted in her leaving the company.
This kind of retaliation is common, say employees — one reason many asked that their names not be used for this story. The local restaurant community is also small and tight-knit, so getting a reputation as a troublemaker could jeopardize one’s ability to find employment, several sources said. Retaliation occurs not just when a woman tries to report harassment, but also when she rejects or ignores advances, or tries to end a relationship.
Hajjaj’s suit alleges that after she asked Delisle to stop touching her, he yelled at her and shoved her.
Retaliation can be subtler, too, many employees say. For instance, a rejected chef or bartender might not make a server’s food or drinks as quickly. Her customers are likely to blame her, and lower her tip accordingly.
Tipped employees, whose minimum wage is $3.75 an hour, are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. According to a report released last year by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, women make up 52 percent of Boston restaurant workers, but 68 percent of its tipped employees and 71 percent of its servers. The report found that 35 percent of tipped workers in Greater Boston reported they had been sexually harassed by customers, more than twice as many as nontipped workers in the survey.
“A group of men will come in, and they’ll say, ‘We want a woman to wait on us.’ They want to live out a fantasy of some woman serving them,” says Rebecca Lewis, a longtime front-of-house employee. “It’s like women are being consumed as much as food — a product or a commodity.”
But accounts of sexual harassment come from every occupation in the industry — from bartenders, hosts, and cooks to owners, sales reps, and celebrity chefs who appear on the ritzy events circuit and in reality TV shows.
Perpetrators include co-workers, managers, and potential managers during job interviews. VIP customers can be particularly problematic. “We have a regular who, every woman I’ve talked to, he makes them incredibly uncomfortable,” says a bartender at a downtown lounge. “I’ve been very vocal. I don’t want to serve him. I don’t want to talk to him. [Management] doesn’t get on board with ‘Maybe let’s not have him come in anymore,’ even though 100 percent of the female staff say they don’t want him in here.”
Although women bear the brunt of the misconduct, men are also on the receiving end. “I’ve had my penis grabbed on so many occasions,” reports one longtime bartender. The environment can be homophobic, says another chef, who is gay — ranging from jokes about cucumbers to comments like “Oh, you liked that, didn’t you?” when a man brushes against a gay co-worker. “The use of the word ‘faggot’ is so rampant in the kitchen,” he says. “Somebody gets angry, and the first thing they say is, ‘You faggot!’ ” When he was an intern, he says, a boss came on to him: “It just felt so awkward. Somebody in power that can get me fired is propositioning me. I said I was in a relationship, but he didn’t stop.” When he reported the incident, he was told, “You work in a restaurant. It’s what happens.”
Indeed, there has long been an unspoken code in the restaurant industry, say those interviewed: You don’t talk about this behavior. You put up with it, so as not to appear weak. “I was tough,” says Mosher, who has worked as a chef since 1999. “I only recently started wearing makeup. I tried to desexualize myself in every way possible, so I was not attractive or feminine in any way.” If something happened, she’d laugh it off. “It’s the only way you can get through those encounters.”
This attitude may be starting to shift. The Besh story broke shortly after The New York Times and New Yorker reports about alleged sexual harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. At the same time, the #MeToo movement was surging on social media, with women sharing their own experiences en masse. Multiple people said it’s all anyone is talking about in the restaurant industry: Besh, English, and big-name chefs in other cities who are rumored as soon to be exposed.
There is also more dialogue on the topic within the industry.
Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg has been addressing the issue for years; her recent book, “I Hear She’s a Real Bitch,” is bringing new attention to it. Food-world celebrity Anthony Bourdain — a previous glorifier of restaurants’ frat-like culture — is speaking out about the need for change (he is involved with Asia Argento, an actress who accused Weinstein of assault).
Local restaurateurs, such as Mary Dumont at Cultivar and Josh Lewin at Juliet, are putting together seminars and panel discussions on how to tackle the problem. Groups like Bartenders Against Sexual Assault are working to teach bar and restaurant employees how to create a safer environment for both staff and customers. And there are more women owners and managers, a factor that many believe discourages harassment.
“There is no better argument for having more women running companies,” says Tiffani Faison, who is behind Sweet Cheeks and Tiger Mama. “Someone asked me, ‘Does that stuff happen in your restaurants?’ Are you [expletive] kidding me? No way.
“It is my deep hope that the egg is really cracking and that this might really change,” she says. “But there have to be consequences.”
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.