Bitches Take Kitchens
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Bitches Take Kitchens

Food industry professionals come together to eliminate sexism.

Jen Agg

Jen Agg is no stranger to the Toronto restaurant scene.

The owner of three restaurants – The Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar, and Rhum Corner, Agg has over 11,000 followers on Twitter, and is the author of an upcoming memoir about her life and experiences in the restaurant industry.

Agg is also keen on “smashing the patriarchy one plate at time” – that’s the tagline for “Kitchen Bitches,” a conference she will be holding this week to discuss the culture of sexism and misogyny in professional kitchens.

“I’ve definitely put myself in positions where I don’t necessarily have to deal with that stuff because I’ve owned my own businesses for a long time,” says Agg. “[But] in certain business relationships, I’ve definitely felt like if I were a man, this would not be happening.”

The conference, set for September 3, will include panel discussions from various food-industry members about the issues women experience in kitchens. The evening will also include a performance by Amy Millan of Stars and a silent auction to support a women’s shelter.

In recent months, some of the city’s restaurants came under fire for allegations of abuse and harassment of their female chefs.

Back in June, Kate Burnham filed an application at Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal alleging she was sexually harassed by three former chefs at Weslodge between 2012 and 2014. In her application, the former pastry chef alleges she was touched without consent and subject to sexist comments, eventually leading her to leave her job at the restaurant.

Shortly after, Ivy Knight, a former cook who worked at the now-closed Mildred Pierce restaurant, wrote about her experiences with physical abuse in the kitchen, and how the head of Canada’s largest restaurant association ignored her allegations.

Agg says she has wanted to open up this discussion for a long time, but Kate Burnham’s story was what pushed her over the edge. “I was like, thank god someone’s come forward about this, because of course I know that it happens all the time.”

A 2014 study by The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that women make up 52 per cent of all restaurant employees. Among them, 90 per cent said they had been sexually assaulted or harassed in the workplace.

Agg says restaurants often exist within a structure that is militaristic, hierarchal, and where “there are no rules.”

“There’s generally one person in charge, whether it’s the [Chef de partie], the chef or the sous chef. And if they happen to be the type of person who supports ugly abusive environments, you learn terrible lessons as a young cook,” she argues.

“That’s why this is so bad for women. If it exists like that for men, imagine if a man thinks you’re weaker.”

Restaurant kitchens have held a reputation for fostering aggressive work environments. “You go through so many emotions in literally an hour,” says Suzanne Barr, chef and owner of Toronto’s Saturday Dinette and a panelist in the upcoming conference.

Barr says within any kitchen that is “high-intensity, high-impact, long hours, stress-breaking, things are said, things happen and sometimes it goes too far.”

According to fellow panelist Sophia Banks, restaurant kitchens are also spaces that encourage what she refers to as the “dude-bro culture.” Banks, who has worked in kitchens since she was a teenager, is currently a cook at The Beaver, a queer-friendly bar in Toronto.

Banks says she has worked in kitchens where “managers were always trying to sleep with staff” and where rape jokes and homophobic comments were commonly passed around. “There’s almost this idea that you have to suffer in your job. And all these legal laws that just go out the window.”

Prior to working at The Beaver, Banks says she’s had to work up to 16-hour shifts in restaurants where she received only six hours off work until her next shift. According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, those that work more than 13-hour shifts must receive at least eight hours off until their next shift.

These things often go unreported for a number of reasons, says Banks. “You’ll be a full time employee but say you speak up and complain…the chef’s probably just not going to give you any shifts next week.”

Banks says it becomes especially difficult for women who report sexual harassment, particularly in the kitchen. “They can’t prove anything. Nothing’s documented,” she says. “You can’t prove that a man slapped your ass because it’s their word against your word. A lot of guys will just stick together and the problem is, a lot of chefs have these attitudes.”

Banks also says those that do end up reporting harassment often get a reputation as “bad apples,” and are unlikely to have a career after, unless they find a place that is run by woman. “Most chefs know each other.”

The restaurant industry is the country’s fourth largest industry, employing more than 1.2 million people and nearly seven per cent of Canada’s workforce.

Hugh Acheson says there’s no getting around the “high-stress environments” that restaurants create. But the immense amount of people employed makes sexual harassment an “endemic problem within the industry” that needs to be resolved, he says.

Acheson, an Ontario-born chef who owns four restaurants in the U.S, will also be attending Kitchen Bitches as a panelist. “The advancement of women in the industry is amazing to watch, but we’re at the stage now where it just shouldn’t matter what your gender is in this industry – you’re either good at it or you’re not.”

Acheson says he’s glad Agg has opened up a discussion about how to move forward in the restaurant industry. “I’ve worked too long to go six feet under and be like, ‘Wow, that was a really crappy industry going in.’”

As for Agg, she admits that the upcoming conference will also discuss some “hard questions,” including the ways in which women can support the structure in kitchens and allow sexual harassment to perpetuate.

But she says the biggest challenge is reaching beyond those who want this conversation to happen. “Preaching to the choir is one thing,” she says. “The challenge is breaking through to people who are not likeminded.”

Agg says properly collaborating with men is also important. “The 22-year old bro chef who hasn’t really given this matter much thought maybe isn’t a perpetrator, but just doesn’t really give a fuck about it, and doesn’t really care what I think. But he might care what his hero male chef, who he’s worshipped for 10 years, thinks.”