Amanda Cohen made a bold statement in the days following the revelations about John Besh’s sexual harassment scandal, writing on Esquire.com that it was now time for the media to pay more attention to women in the industry. That was back in early November, and since that article went viral, well, a lot has happened. Like, most notably, the still-unfolding sexual harassment allegations against Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, who co-owns restaurants with April Bloomfield.
Cohen, the executive chef and owner of New York City’s Dirt Candy, deserves to be known for her cooking, as well as for being a forward-thinking restaurateur. Dirt Candy left meat off the menu when it opened nearly a decade ago—a move that Cohen says isn’t because she wanted to be thought of as a vegetarian chef, but because she wanted to shine a light on the possibilities of vegetable-focused cuisine. Talk about ahead of her time; you’d be hard-pressed to find a 2018 trend report that doesn’t list some variation on “vegetable-focused” as a trend.
On our Food Republic Today podcast (or listen above), Cohen tells host Richard Martin that it’s not shocking that she doesn’t get the credit she deserves; most of the media is too busy regaling male chefs. Will that change now that sexual harassment claims have spurred conversations about change? And should patrons boycott the restaurants affiliated with accused harassers? These are some of the topics Cohen addresses, as well as how these issues have forced her to consider her own actions. Here, we’ve excerpted a portion of the conversation, with edits for clarity:
Let’s talk about your Esquire article, which we joked is now outdated. The title of your story is “I’ve Worked In Food For 20 Years. Now You Finally Care About Female Chefs?” Was the title your idea?
No, I think it was actually Esquire’s. I don’t think I put the lead in.
Is that something you feel is accurate?
Yeah, I do. I was like, “That pretty much sums it up.” You know, we female chefs, we’re here, we’ve been here. Every time something bad happens in the industry, that’s when we get noticed. We’re not the first chef people go to when they have a story to tell or that they want to tell a story about. It’s really the male chefs. You see a lot of women’s names come up a lot when it’s like, “Oh, look, there are all these awards and they didn’t get an award. Why are there no female chefs?” Now, it’s like, “All these male chefs are really gross. Ask a female chef about it.” Well, yes, thank you for asking and thank goodness people are telling their stories, but at the same time, hey, maybe if you had talked to us beforehand, maybe we wouldn’t be at this point because more women would feel comfortable telling their stories.
“This is an important thing: There are just as many women who start out in cooking as men do. Then the women are the ones that slowly drop off.”
One of the things we’ve all had trouble grappling with is, are there just not as many women chefs because women haven’t felt comfortable in these kitchens? Would there be more women chefs if they didn’t feel like it was a danger zone to go into these places?
I think there are a lot of reasons for why there aren’t enough women chefs. I think, yes, women leave the industry because they’re like, “This isn’t a safe place for me.” I think women leave the industry because they look around and they go, “Well, where am I going to go? There’re no female chefs that I can look up to.” There aren’t enough of them. There seems to be 10 spots where female chefs keep getting slotted into and there aren’t enough heroes for them. So, they’re like, “There’s no point. I might as well go do something else where I’ll have more success.” I think women leave the industry because we, as an industry, aren’t quite an industry. We don’t have a lot of rules or regulations. Women sort of hit an age where they’re like, “Maybe I’d like to have children.” And they have children and they look around, “Well, how am I going to come back to work?” We don’t provide maternity leave, really, in the industry. We don’t provide workable hours. So we haven’t quite figured that out.
This is an important thing: There are just as many women who start out in cooking as men do. Then the women are the ones that slowly drop off.
It’s probably is a variety of reasons, but certainly these allegations that are coming out now are showing the darker side of it. These are some of the top restaurants in New York City. If you’re a woman or a man, you’d want to go to these places to try to advance. Obviously, women have had to play this game.
There’s a two-pronged attack that they’re getting. A lot of these kitchens, they’re probably not great places to work in in the first place. There’s probably a lot of verbal abuse. So, women are getting a lot of verbal abuse and sexual harassment. You’re getting both coming at you at the same time and I think it’s just like, “What’s the point?”
Yeah, maybe go into marketing or something.
[laughs] Well, I also think what’s interesting about this is that chefs do have a voice. I’m looking at Twitter and I’m like, “This is one of those industries on Twitter where people are really vocal, in the chef industry.” I think about other industries, and I’m like, “I think this goes on everywhere.” It’s just that those other industries don’t have as much of a voice like actors and comedians do on Twitter. I’m sure there are other groups that I’m forgetting. Chefs are out there on Instagram, that’s what we do.
At the end of the Esquire article, you listed 62 women who are executive chefs or owners of restaurants in NYC. Since the article’s been published, the number one person you put on that list, April Bloomfield—her partner, Ken Friedman, is one of the guys who went down this week. There’s been a lot of talk in the media and on Twitter and social media, “Where was April?” It’s obviously a complicated thing. It’s certainly not as easy for women to get their own restaurants. You’re one of the few owner/operators that don’t have to answer to a man in some way. What do you think about that?
I think it’s a really complicated. I want to believe that April didn’t know very much and what she knew, she dealt with. I also think that she could’ve been in a position where she couldn’t say anything. Ken is the main investor. He does sort of run that industry. She is the back-of-house. For a long time, she probably felt that, it’s not that it wasn’t her place, but her position wasn’t necessarily secure. I hope at this point she does feel like her position is secure and this really goes for a lot of other women because April’s going to take a lot of heat for this and probably well-deserved. But women who are in the same position, I think April will come out on top. She’s an amazing chef. However this group deals with this, either she runs it on her own, she leaves, she does whatever, she will have a career. I’m hoping other women who are in the same position will say, “Look, this is what’s gonna happen. April’s gone on, she’s had another career. I need to turn around my company and see what’s happening in it.” And say, “This isn’t okay.” Then deal with it. This is an issue that affects everybody on so many different levels.
What do you recommend to women, and to guys, who are trying to figure this out? Some people have called for a boycott of all the restaurants in Mario Batali’s, John Besh’s, and now Ken Friedman’s orbit. Do you think that’s a good technique to support people who aren’t implicated in this? Or any other thoughts about how people should react?
I don’t know. That’s a hard one, too, because part of me is like screw you all. You’ve all gotten a lot of attention, and there are a lot of really good restaurants out there and we should be supporting a lot of good restaurants. Attention and articles, that all could’ve been written about other restaurants—you guys took that. And you abused it. You filled up our public imagination for so long. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who work there and I’m not sure it’s fair to punish those people. They have jobs. We’re talking about thousands of people being out of work all of the sudden if all the restaurants are boycotted and it’s not their fault and they shouldn’t be punished. At the same time, maybe before you think about going to those restaurants, you can also say, “Hmm, I wonder what other restaurant that’s similar, but didn’t get as much attention, that I could go to.” Not totally boycott, but expand your horizons.
The other part of this is that the media—I feel like a lot of the women I’m seeing on Twitter who are going after these people have had the opportunity to support women more and have not. Even though a lot of the food magazines don’t put people on their covers, a lot of the dishes are from the hot young guy chef or the hot established older guy chef. Very rarely are you seeing—like Missy Robbins is great, so we’ll do one of her dishes on the cover. Even though a lot of these magazines are run by men, there are a lot of women who have a voice and work there and could really push for that.
And a lot of publishers and editors are women for a really long time. Seeing both the men and women, it’s like no one cares about promoting women chefs. It certainly didn’t change when the men editors came into power. You’re like, “Does nobody want to hang out with me? I’m just a lowly female chef?” Not only did male chefs probably keep a lot of female chefs down, those editors and writers, they kept a lot of female chefs down by not writing about them. They didn’t allow them to have the career that they deserved.
These are complicated issues. I don’t know where it all ends or if it’s just beginning. I don’t know what’s going on.
I think it’s just beginning. It doesn’t have a good ending yet. We’re all at this moment like, “Yeah! Rah! Rah! Rah! It’s all going to change!” Some things will change and some things won’t. I’ve already seen things where it’s like, “I can’t believe that just happened today.” In this moment when “It’s time to celebrate chefs” and “Why do we keep celebrating the same people?” I just saw an article by someone like, “Really? That’s appropriate to publish right now?” When you could’ve chosen something equally as successful who was a woman. So, I think we’re going to make some three steps forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back. This didn’t happen overnight, it’s not going to change overnight.
How is it at Dirt Candy? Do you have men working on staff there?
How do you vet them to make sure they’re not the kind of guy who would contribute to a bad atmosphere?
I think that they know that I would kill them.
[laughs] You’re Canadian, but you’re not that nice.
I’m not that nice. I know how to use an ice pick.
I think just by virtue of working for a woman—my general manager is a woman, I’m a woman, my sous chef is a woman and I have two junior sous, one of them who is a woman. I think by virtue of so many women being in management, you kind of get the idea that’s not what you can do. This is a really big moment for us in the restaurant. When this happened, Jackie, my manager, and I, we sort of stopped and we were like, “Okay, what have we done? Are we okay? Do we need to look internally and figure out if we’re assholes?” And we’re like, “No, no. It’s fine.” We really did. I had a moment when I was like, “Do I yell too much? Am I abusive? Have there been signs that I’ve ignored?” And I have to assume everyone’s doing this. We sort came out on the other end and like, “No.” We really do have a strong handbook that we make everybody sign and read. I’m not really sure if everybody’s read every line in that handbook; we have to make sure that we make them go back and really review our policies. And I don’t think we’ve ever ignored anything. However, if we did or if something happened, I’d hope that my staff would feel comfortable enough to come to one of us. We’ve also told them that there are outside people that they can go to, because obviously if I’m the asshole, who’s going to come tell me?
You’re giving people a lot of credit, because part of the reason this is all happening is because a lot of the chefs did not plan for that. I mean the John Besh case has gotten a lot of people talking about these issues. They had over 1,000 employees and no HR department, reportedly.
Well, I understand that. Jackie and I would love to have an HR department and not have to deal with all the crap that happens in the restaurant. HR is a really big thing. I just assume that the moment you have more than like, I don’t know, 100 employees, you have an HR person. The John Besh thing is ridiculous. That’s a lot of restaurants, that’s a lot of employees. It’s really hard for a small restaurant to have an HR department. There’s no extra money. That’s why you have to have these handbook policies. These handbooks, in context, cost us $10,000 to put together. We have to have a lawyer look it over, we had to deal with it a couple of times, we had to update it. It’s not cheap. But in the long term, the point is that it saves you money. But yes, if one can have an HR department, one should have an HR department to deal with all this.
Given what you said earlier about Dirt Candy, you’re not in the expansion mode, but would it be ideal that business got so good there that you’d get into a position where you could expand and open more restaurants?
Yeah. I would love to, but that opportunity hasn’t really come up yet. And I’m going to say that that opportunity probably hasn’t come up yet because I’m a female chef. And those opportunities don’t come our way very often, and instead go to male chefs who probably have less experience.