Food Fight of the Sexes in NYC Restaurants

| February 22, 2012 4:00 AM

In this photo, culinary student Nadya Dunkley cooks chicken at Colors Restaurant, a workers' cooperative created by the Restaurant and Opportunities Center in New York (ROC-NY). Only one in five chefs are women, said Saru Jayaraman, executive director of ROC-NY. Photo courtesy of ROC United.

Viewers of celebrity chef TV shows know that restaurants can be intense workplaces. Literal food fights break out, insults fly and a certain testosterone-driven bravado — less common nowadays in other industries — is often on display.

In the fiercely competitive world of New York City restaurants, great strides have been made to make what was once a boys-only club more inclusive. But labor advocates and employees in the industry say that there is still great inequity in and around the kitchen.

“It’s an incredibly male dominated culture,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the labor advocacy group, Restaurant and Opportunities Center, and the former executive director of its New York branch. “Only one in five chefs in America are women.”

Scroll Through Our Timeline of Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in New York City Restaurants:

Our timeline looks at some of the legal developments for women restaurant workers in New York, as well as the industry’s high-profile discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits. MetroFocus/John Farley

recent report by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United shows that a whopping 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims came from the restaurant industry in 2011.

In New York City, a slew of high-profile sexual harassment cases have been filed by restaurant workers against their employers in the past few years. The most prominent, perhaps, occurred last June, when six employees of the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park filed federal discrimination charges against the eatery. One manager allegedly forced a female server to view nude pictures of someone he’d slept with on his cellphone.

Nastaran Mohit, a 29-year-old Brooklynite and veteran of the restaurant industry, said harassment is rampant.

“I started catering in Bayside, Queens, when I was 14. That was my first experience with sexual harassment on the job, from an older manager who frequently harassed the female employees — the hostesses and waitresses,” said Mohit.

After that, she worked in restaurants in New York City and Binghamton, N.Y., while attending college, where she said harassment was considered par for the course.

Caitlin Hettinger is the general manager at 9 Restaurant in Hell's Kitchen. Hettinger said she has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment at her workplace, but has witnessed offenses in other restaurants where she's worked. Photo courtesy of 9 Restaurant.

“It was something that was so common that I think a lot of female waitresses and hostesses assumed that it was just part of the job,” said Mohit, who claims her worst experiences occurred at a Greek restaurant in TriBeCa, where the owner made lewd and racist comments.

“I’ve seen other girls be put in compromising situations, where if they didn’t say ‘yes’ to a manager who asked to go out on a date with them or something stupid like that they’d have their shifts cut back. I saw that a lot, particularly in New York City, not up in Binghamton,” she said.

Caitlin Hettinger, the general manager at the restaurant 9, in Hell’s Kitchen, said that based on her experiences working in other establishments, she too believes that sexual harassment is still a serious problem in the restaurant industry.

“Too many times I’ve seen people exploiting their positions of power in other restaurants. They’ll use it as a threat. They’ll manipulate women’s schedules if they won’t go on a date with them,” said Hettinger.

She believes the problem is due in part to a generational divide.

“There’s still an old school mentality where certain managers, owners and their investors think it’s okay to put money into a girl’s pocket, without realizing how degrading that is to a woman’s identity,” said Hettinger.

As a result of these experiences, Hettinger — a long-time activist for women’s and LGBT rights who will soon open her own restaurant, the Summit, in TriBeCa — maintains a strict open door policy to prevent hiring discrimination. And if she hears about sexual harassment?

“I have no tolerance for it! I’ll take them aside and say, ‘These situations you’re creating are making other people uncomfortable, and sometimes when people are uncomfortable it’s sexual harassment.’”

Hettinger and Jayaman both believe the culture of big-name hostile chefs contributes to the problem.

“I think it’s been proliferated with the celebrity chef phenomenon, in which being arrogant and crazy makes you a higher status chef,” said Jayaraman. “It promotes this culture where sexual harassment is rampant.”

And sexual harassment has a direct effect on the earning power of women in the restaurant industry, reinforcing hiring discrimination and deterring women from seeking or being offered either promotions or the most lucrative shifts, explained Jayaraman.

The majority of higher paid, salaried jobs in the kitchen and in management are occupied by men and on average, female servers are paid only 68 percent of what male servers make, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Center United recent report.

A younger generation of restaurant owners and managers like Hettinger are helping to reduce gender inequality, but Restaurant and Opportunities Center is still calling for a number of policy changes.

In this photo, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay poses in London. In 2011, a female worker brought sexual harassment charges against Gordon Ramsey's restaurant at the London Hotel in NYC. Restaurant and Opportunities Center in New York's Saru Jayaraman said the culture of celebrity chefs can promote sexual harassment. AP/Richard Lewis

“We believe the number one policy change is raising the absurdly low minimum wage for tipped workers,” said Jayraman.

New York State law actually requires that if a server’s hourly wages plus tips do not add up to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, then the employer must make up the difference. But Jayaraman says it should still be more.

“Seven states actually have no difference between the tipped minimum wage [$2.13] and regular minimum wage. California has the largest restaurant industry of any state, and they have no wage difference,” said Jayaraman.

She added that there should be stronger enforcement of gender discrimination and sexual harassment laws and financial incentives for employers who provide training to reduce violations of those laws. She also recommended providing guaranteed paid sick days for workers, which a bill currently in New York City Council would require.

Hettinger, who said her restaurant 9 starts servers with an hourly base pay of just under $5, pointed to an alternative model.

“I look up to Charlie Trotter in Chicago. His restaurant employees are all on salary. So no matter how busy it is, everyone knows what they’re getting,” said Hettinger.

But for young women hoping to get  job in a restaurant, Mohit advises preparing for the reality.

“I think if women had a better understanding of how the industry functions — it’s extremely sexist and in many ways predatory — they’d have a lot more control over the situation,” she said. “Education is a key component. I think a lot of women don’t understand that certain things are outright illegal.”

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