SAN FRANCISCO — Chef Dominique Crenn, one of the best chefs in America, hosts a dinner series titled “Women of Food” at her restaurant Petit Crenn. Right now, one of the biggest topics on people’s minds is men in the food industry and why they behave so badly. When the Women of Food talk about the “Bad Men of Food,” one name is sure to come up: Mario Batali.
Batali is “being a coward,” Crenn says. “I dislike cowards. There’s a lot of them. They can’t own their mistakes,” she says. “Maybe in his brain he has a different reality than we have.”
Crenn’s friend Nancy Silverton is also one of the best chefs in America and used to be business partners with Batali. She’s now grappling with the fallout from the sexual assault allegations against him.
“When you hear such terrible things about a friend or a mentor who has treated me respectfully, there’s always going to be that conflict,” Silverton says. “I was horrified.”
There is, it appears, no woman in the food industry whose career hasn’t been affected by sexual harassment. The Women of Food are trying to figure out what should be done about it.
The reason many men in the restaurant industry have not spoken up about sexual harassment is because they are afraid they are complicit in inappropriate behavior. Now that people are listening, women in the industry have an opportunity to change the toxic culture of restaurants.
Crenn owns three restaurants in San Francisco, including Atelier Crenn, the first American, female-led restaurant to receive two Michelin stars.
She earned a reputation for speaking up for women when she criticized the company San Pellegrino for not employing a single female juror in its chef competition. She also called out World’s 50 Best for having a “Best Female Chef” award, because women who win it often don’t even make the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Crenn has dealt with sexual harassment in the past. At the start of her career, a sous-chef harassed her, she says. She won’t say where it occurred, but says when she complained to the head chef, she was told “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” The chef also threatened to give her a bad reference if she spoke of the incident. “It was disgraceful,” she says. She quit.
Years later, as an owner of several restaurants, she was the chef people came to when a male colleague was harassing them. She fired him.
“You come to my company, and you disrespect me?” she says. “You have no place in our world.”
Crenn also feels this way about the male chefs and restaurateurs who have been accused of sexual harassment: Batali, John Besh, Ken Friedman.
You take the bad with the good. We shouldn’t penalize everyone for the mistakes of a few. The conversation about gender and the restaurant industry is more nuanced than some people say.
Silverton is also a James Beard award winner; she was named outstanding chef — the highest honor — in 2014. Because she has been an entrepreneur for most of her career, starting Los Angeles’s La Brea Bakery, she says that she has never experienced the kind of harassment other women in the industry have reported.
“I never even quite realized that being a woman was a battle,” she says. “And that might sound kind of naive, but I came from a family of really strong women.”
She partnered with Batali for the Los Angeles eateries Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza and Chi Spacca, but she has “always been the face of those restaurants,” she says, because Batali was based in New York. “He was a friend; he was a mentor,” she says.
A December Washington Post report outlined Batali’s alleged sexual harassment at Osteria Mozza during one night in 2010. Silverton says she knew that Batali “enjoyed late-night behavior,” but she had never seen him act inappropriately. “Mario did warn me. He said, ‘I wanted to let you know, you’re going to start reading about me,’” she says.
A “60 Minutes” episode on May 20 revealed additional Batali accusers and reported that the chef was under criminal investigation for allegations of sexual assault. Silverton says she was appalled by how the situation changed “from horrific to possibly criminal.”
She says she lost business opportunities because of her partnership with Batali. Some would say that, as an owner of a restaurant where bad behavior took place, she was complicit, though she says she was unaware of any harassment.
“I don’t feel like I should be responsible for that bad behavior,” she says. “I’m sensitive to the fact that [Batali] was a part of the company, but I don’t feel like I was responsible.”
Others say that Silverton has benefited from Batali’s bad behavior: He is divesting from his company, B&B Hospitality, which owns dozens of restaurants, and Silverton and chef-restaurateur Lidia Bastianich, mother of Joe Bastianich, Batali’s partner, are assuming a greater role in what will become a new company.
She still grapples with her place in the events of the past six months.
“Should we all be penalized by our partners? Are we guilty by association? To me, it’s almost like, you want to handpick who is more guilty than someone else,” she says. “How guilty is guilty? What’s the bar? Is the bar Harvey Weinstein?”
And the big question: “Do I take all the good and the bad from Mario? I guess I take all the good and the bad from Mario.”
People can change, if they’re willing to do the work.
“When someone doesn’t want to take their own responsibility and look deep inside of themselves, they have a lot of work to be done,” Crenn says. “A lot of people find excuses. They didn’t know better. You’re a grown man. You should know better.”
Silverton thinks Batali has done some of the work: “He didn’t try to make any excuses.” But Crenn disagrees: “I haven’t seen anything that is heartfelt from him.”
Crenn has volunteered to have a dialogue with the men who have allegedly harassed their employees or stood by while others did so under their watch.
“I would listen to them and say, ‘These are the things that need to change.’ But also make them understand the pain that people have been going through,” she says. “It’s all about the conversation.”
Crenn thinks the media do too much to elevate abusive male chefs to positions of power and that organizations handing out culinary awards need to consider a chef’s character alongside his cooking — as the James Beard Foundation announced it would do this year.
“Go talk to the team, and see if he’s a good man. You will hear stories,” she says. “If they’re not good people, I’m sorry, they do not deserve the award.” She also thinks awards given to sexual abusers in the past should be rescinded.
The majority of the kitchen staff at one of the “Women of Food” dinners at Petit Crenn are women, and Crenn and Silverton, along with their two guest chefs, New York’s Elizabeth Falkner and Boston’s Barbara Lynch, call themselves “the Golden Girls.”
Midway through a meal, Crenn gave a feminist pep talk: “We rise for equality!” she yelled, to a chorus of cheers.
“Unfortunately, we’re in an industry that is pretty tough at this moment,” she told the room. “But we’re here to stay.”