Last week, I attended a panel discussion at the Ace Hotel called “Women Without Reservations.” The topic of conversation was how women in the restaurant industry had managed in such a male-dominated field. During the discussion, much of the conversation focused on sexual harassment in the kitchen, how chefs and panelists Suzanne Goin and Susan Feniger dealt with bawdy kitchen culture as young cooks — and how, as business owners, they now must create a safe culture for their own employees.
Both chefs said that they made it through the ranks by being “one of the boys,” but Goin especially emphasized how these days, the kind of joking and sexually aggressive humor that has long been part of kitchen culture can no longer stand. She said that more and more of her job as an owner is dismantling the pirate-ship mentality and weeding that kind of behavior out of her kitchens.
Afterward I had a conversation with panel moderator Kat Kinsman, Tasting Table’s editor, about the changing nature of kitchens, the ways in which they’re becoming more welcoming to women and LGBT folks. There’s obviously a long way to go, and reducing the raunchy talk is necessary. It’s too hard to draw a line between what’s funny and what’s harassment, and any bawdy humor is likely to make some employees uncomfortable and make the workplace feel hostile.
This is positive progress. But it’s also the end of an era, and many of us who came up in kitchens feel bittersweet about it.
For so many cooks, the kitchen was a haven where they could be themselves, an alternative to corporate jobs where they might have to watch their language and curb their humor. I have a foul mouth and a mind that too easily goes to dick jokes, and that is a huge part of why I fell in love with the life of the restaurant kitchen. It’s part of why kitchens have become a place where folks coming out of prison have found jobs and refuge, why the industry is full of weirdos and misfits. I know a chef who fell into the job in part because it was the only place where his mild Tourette syndrome might go unnoticed. There aren’t many jobs where yelling “FUCK!” in the middle of your shift is tolerated.
Do I think my right to tell dick jokes should override the principle that everyone should feel comfortable in the workplace? Of course not. As I said, on the whole, these are positive changes and will lead to better lives for cooks of all stripes, and probably better food as well. The more people feel safe in the kitchen, the larger the talent pool becomes.
On a somewhat similar note, Food Twitter blew up last Thursday when Adam Rapoport, editor in chief of Bon Appetit, tweeted something about going to eat “slutty Chinese food." Many women were offended by the tweet, and a conversation ensued about whether the word is gendered even when it comes to food, whether it’s offensive and what it even means.
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I’ve been using the word “slutty” to describe food for as long as I’ve been writing about food, and even before then. It’s a usage that came out of the kitchens of New York City in the late ‘90s, the world that I was so attracted to because of its raunch. I wondered if my use of "slutty" would also offend, if it makes a difference that I’m a woman or if the fact that the connotation is always positive (at least when I use it) helps my case at all. As many people pointed out, there is an overtone of shame: Something slutty is something you really want to eat but feel as though you shouldn’t (at least that’s how Rapoport explained it).
I’m not sure my usage includes shame. Slutty food is food that’s over the top, but not in a refined way. It’s covered in sauce, it’s full of MSG, it’s oozing cheese. Eater’s Helen Rosner made a point about slutty food always being wet, saying the connotation meant “wet as a slut,” which is undeniably offensive, though I’m not sure texture has much to do with it. Most food is sloppy in some way, though it’s true that I can’t really imagine any instance in which I'd describe granola as “slutty.” Perhaps if it had chocolate chips and marshmallows in it, but then it wouldn’t be appealing, rendering it not fit for the term. But sweet potatoes become slutty when you bake marshmallows on top, and mac-n-cheese becomes slutty when you use Velveeta instead of some other runny cheese. The textural change isn't the issue; the culinary equivalent of smut is what dictates the distinction. Is smut necessarily bad? Not in my mind. Is it possible to use sex-positive food metaphors? Sheesh.
Actually, I had a really good dick joke about the meaning of “slutty” in food terms that I was tempted to tweet. I restrained myself. And I may well restrain myself from using the word publicly in the future. But if I do, I’ll miss it.
One of the barriers to positive change is the social stigma against mourning what's misplaced in the process. It's not lost on me that the sadness I feel at the sanitization of the restaurant kitchen and my own vocabulary is the same sadness many men felt when Mad Men–era sexism became uncool in the white-collar workplace. We can admit that these losses are worthwhile, that when you weigh the good that comes from change against the pleasure of doing exactly what you want, change obviously wins. I welcome the new dawn of safety and equality in the kitchen (and in America), on whatever far-off and glorious day it finally arrives. But the salty pirate ship that has to sink as a result was a good home to me, and many others, and I’ll remember that aspect of it with fond sadness as we all move toward a better future. RIP, pirate ship.