I began working in kitchens when I was 25 years old. I was living in New York City. Having given up life in a office to pursue a career as a pastry chef, I took a position in an executive dining room run by a major hospitality corporation. I felt lucky to get the job; they said they’d train me. The last guy in the job jumped the turnstiles on his way to work, got arrested and never showed up again. Just don’t get arrested, they said.

Before that time, I had never worked in an environment  where men somehow felt it was acceptable to comment on a woman’s looks, or what she might be like in bed. My value as an employee had never been questioned before based on my sex.  I had never worked in a place where people made sexual comments openly to co-workers. The food business was new to me and I wanted to belong. It didn’t matter to me much at the time; I felt like I had to be part of the club so I accepted it as the culture in this new career I had chosen. I played along.  It was 1987.

I moved back to my home in the Bay Area shortly after that, and landed a job in a different sort of environment, a big hotel where all the pastry cooks were women and the pastry chef was a man. He was respectful of all of us, intent on training us well and as a result well liked. I liked working for him, he led the pastry department and was a good role model. It was a professional shop.

The hotel was unionized which meant that when business ebbed, the ones with the least seniority were cut so I ended up moving to Southern California to work. I found a position in a hotel as a pastry cook. The hotel had no pastry chef because for a long time they had been bringing pastry in from outside. The chef decided to hire me, kind of as a favor to his friend in San Francisco. He figured he could stick me in a corner of one of the hotel’s restaurant kitchens and let me do my thing. I had no direct supervision and no mentors.

This chef already had a reputation. It was rumored that he was let go from a huge position with major hotel chain after being charged with sexual harassment.

I took my job seriously and did the best I could without any guidance. I liked making my cake recipes and introducing my own cookies. Every Sunday the hotel had a brunch buffet and I took great pride in producing all the pastries and cakes for the table.

The “pastry department” kept all its production in refrigerators accessible to all the restaurant staff and often, when I arrived in the morning, I would find the shelves of the reach-in in disarray.  If I spent Saturday preparing for the brunch, I would come in Sunday morning  to find at least half of everything eaten by the wait staff and line cooks from the restaurant. I would bring this to the chef’s attention and he ignored me.

The chef had assigned a young man to work with me, someone who no one in the main kitchen liked, and who had worked many stations before being banished to pastry.  He took immense joy in continuously baiting me, making lewd remarks and gestures, spending most of his time fooling around and telling me my pastries sucked. I told the chef about the sexual remarks; his advice was to “ignore him.” It was 1989.

I also have stories of chefs that would never tolerate that type of behavior in their kitchens. One could tell immediately the effect those leaders had on the culture. After having worked in Europe for a short time, I came back with my husband to the states where we both found positions in a hotel. The executive chef was a dog; his comments even made the male cooks cringe. As a result, some of the other men in the kitchen took this as carte blanche to make comments of their own. One day, after hearing something particularly disgusting (way worse than “pussy grabbing”), I blew up. I didn’t go to HR but I should have. I was furious. I heard rumors that the chef was going to find a way to “get rid” of me.

Within the next few months, I left but that chef left soon afterwards. My husband took over as executive chef and immediately, the tone became professional. That kind of talk was unacceptable and I think everyone was relieved.

These experiences articulate a basic tenet of leadership :  As a leader, if you model a certain behavior, that behavior becomes acceptable in the culture. People may be sexist or racist, but if they are surrounded by a culture in which that behavior is frowned upon, they will not act upon their prejudices. If bad behavior is exhibited in the leadership, it becomes sanctioned.

Sexist and racist behavior has been sanctioned in our industry longer than in any other. It is time to take it out of the shadows and take leadership in transforming our culture to one of safety for all. We can take the high road.






If not now, when?

The Food + Entrepreneurship Conference opened yesterday in San Francisco at The Village on Market Street. The conference is hosted by La Cocina, the local food-business incubator is in its second year and yesterday’s events were well attended. The outcome of the election last week was on everyone’s mind, and so the discussions took on an urgency. I think if the elections had gone the other way, the tone would have been one of possibility. Now the mountain may be harder to climb.

I attended the breakout sessions that addressed activism in the food business because I’ve been deeply curious about how to run a small food business with an eye to social justice. I ran my own businesses with the intention of taking care of my employees, my community and the environment. I look around and see so many businesses answering that same call and I want to learn how they do it profitably. I mean the nuts-and-bolts of it. What do their balance sheets/income statements look like?

I will write more about what I learned and what inspired me about the day, but one moment really stood out for me.

After lunch, I listened in on a panel discussion let by La Cocina’s Leticia Landa called “Activist Owner: Can you Fight Social Issues & Run a Good Food Business?”. The speakers were Cristina Martinez from South Philly Barbacoa, Anthony Myint (The Perennial) and Shakirah Simley (Bi-Rite Businesses). One common thread the messages: Begin with an intention to fight social issues, plan your business culture and profitability around that, and all else will follow. Cristina who spoke through an interpreter, said she has created community through her food and her employees, paying them better than most restaurants in Philadelphia, and so drawing loyal talent to her kitchen.  Shakirah and Anthony both spoke to providing living wages to workers, providing training and support, and giving back to community.

All day, I had been thinking about how we need to extend this conversation across the country, and how California needs to share this message to other states. A young woman raised her hand to ask a question. She was from Foodlab Detroit(I think, that was the name…definitely Detroit). She explained how hard it is to encourage her clients, new food entrepreneurs, to do all these things that one needs to do to be responsible business owners. it felt like she was saying,”This is all fine and good for you folks but that’s just too much to ask of someone who is trying to build something for themselves.” She was passionate. I, for my part, have always wondered as a white, middle-class woman, where do I get off telling business owners that they should rethink profitability? This is hard enough to make money without having to think about activism.. So am I trying to impose my own vision of the way things should be without being realistic about the hardships of being a food-entrepreneur?

Look, I understand what it is to be a food industry worker and a food entrepreneur. I know that this is an industry which lags far behind in doing the right thing by its employees. Living wages, sexism, racism. All issues screaming for reform in our industry.

We need to begin.  We, of all the folks,  know what it’s like to struggle on minimum wage, to work without health insurance, to endure sexual harassment and hostile work environments. We are the ones who know this. That is why we have to be be the ones to CHANGE this. It has to start from us.

We should want to take care of each other and set an example for entrepreneurs everywhere. Our work is to nurture in every way.

As the Jewish prophet Hillel the Elder said, ” If not us, who? If not now, when?”