In the last decade, food culture underwent a seismic shift. Celebrity chefs became just as interesting as, and in some cases more important than, the food they prepared. Sure, we had Julia Child in the latter half of the 20th century, but the start of the 21st century saw the concept of the “chef personality” she pioneered in America explode in popularity: Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay became household names. Padma Lakshmi dominated reality television as the host of Top Chef. David Chang hosted two food-themed shows. Chef’s Table celebrated the craftsmen and women behind legendary restaurants. An entire show existed around the premise of becoming the next Food Network Star, and it birthed Guy Fieri.
This boom in chefs becoming celebrities had an unexpected consequence in the last decade: The more we got to know the people making the most celebrated food in America, the more we exposed the toxic culture that some had been cultivating since Escoffier implemented the brigade de cuisine system at the end of the 19th century.
In the 2010s, investigations into head chefs and restaurant owners uncovered an ecosystem where verbal and physical abuse, sexual assault, harassment, and misogyny flourish. In 2017, the #MeToo movement picked up steam across all industries, but none seemed more affected than Hollywood and restaurants. Restaurant empires were built on the backs of overworked and underpaid cooks and dishwashers who feared being fired if they talked about how they were treated. Post #MeToo, it became harder for the men who built those empires to lurk in the shadows.
This avalanche of revelations that restaurant kitchens are unsafe for marginalized people may seem like it happened suddenly, but it built up over the decade. Ten years of speaking out against sexism in restaurants, advocating for workers’ rights, and publicly calling out racism, homophobia, and other toxic behaviors led to a cascade of people who were fed up enough to say “no more.” The work isn’t done: As the accused continue to profit from their businesses or try to stage comebacks, it’s clear that restaurants still have a long way to go before they become safe and healthy work environments.
With this in mind, it’s clear that the most important trend of the last decade wasn’t an ingredient or a dish — it was accountability. Here are the standout moments from every year in the 2010s that are still defining how we eat today.
2010: The celebrity chef boy’s club continues to grow
The early 2000s saw the explosion of countless TV chefs, from Bobby Flay to Gordon Ramsey to Jamie Oliver, but their fame was fairly contained to the Food Network and a few other reality competition shows. In the 2010s, though, chef superstardom exponentially grew outside of the Food Network, with more and more men dominating the scene.
At the 2010 James Beard awards, now-familiar faces were only just beginning to rise up: Tom Colicchio, host of Top Chef, which had debuted the previous year and would shoot up in popularity in the next 10 years, received the Outstanding Chef Award. Sean Brock, who opened Husk, the restaurant that would solidify his status as a celebrity chef, in 2010, won the same award for the Southeast region.
The Chef & Restaurant category gave 17 awards to men and just two to women: Koren Grieveson and Nicole Plue. Looking back on the 2010 awards now, it’s difficult to ignore the obvious exclusion of women chefs. People weren’t yet scrutinizing the boy’s club atmosphere of the restaurant world, where men were lauded for their accomplishments while most women toiled away in obscurity.
The next nine years would reveal painful truths about some of the chefs and restaurants that would soar in popularity in the next several years (Brock and Colicchio, thankfully, remained mere observers to the ensuing chaos).
2011: Lidia Bastianich lawsuit claims she “enslaved” employees
Since 1998, Lidia Bastianich had been a staple on public access cooking shows, where her maternal demeanor and family-style approach to Italian comfort food earned her a loyal following. She was also a forceful presence in the restaurant world. In 1998, her son partnered with Mario Batali to form the Batali & Bastianich restaurant group, and Lidia became a part-owner in addition to her two restaurants and the two television shows she hosted, “Lidia’s Italy” and “Lidia’s Family Table.”
Then, in 2011, her image as a family-orientated matriarch seemed on the verge of shattering: A former employee named Carmela Farina alleged that Bastianich treated her like a slave. Farina, a professional chef, claimed that she had been promised a role alongside Bastianich on her television shows. Instead, she became the full-time caretaker of Bastianich’s disabled neighbor.
Although the lawsuit was eventually thrown out, the disturbing incident seemed to reveal a culture of employee abuse at Batali & Bastianich. Lidia’s restaurant Felidia has thrice been accused of wage theft: in 2012, 2018, and again in 2019.
In 2012, Mario Batali and Lidia’s son Joe Bastianich reached a more than $5 million dollar settlement, which alleged that restaurants he owned engaged in the illegal practice of tip skimming — basically, upper management stole tips from powerless low-wage workers for nearly 10 years. In 2018, the lawsuit resulted in a $2.2 million payout to employees who say they were not paid a living wage.
Wage theft scandals at the Batali & Bastianich restaurant group seemed to foreshadow the next seven years. From here on out, it would become increasingly difficult for powerful restaurant owners to take advantage of their employees without consequences.
2012: Chick-fil-A founder unleashes anti-gay comments
These days, it’s impossible to mention Chick-fil-A without being reminded that the fast-food chain is open about its anti-LGBTQ politics. The company, founded by S. Truett Cathy in 1967, has religious roots — all 2,300 of its outposts are closed on Sunday. The backlash against Chick-Fil-A’s politics took off in 2012.
That year, in an interview with a newspaper called the Baptist Press, Dan Cathy, the founder’s son, revealed that he believes in the “biblical family unit,” launching a national controversy. The incident revealed that the Cathy family regularly makes donations to anti-LGBTQ organizations, including the Marriage & Family Foundation and Exodus International, which not only opposed gay marriage but, in the case of the latter, also promoted conversion therapy for LGTBQ+ youth.
The chain’s views haven’t hurt business — it continues to attract fiercely loyal customers — but it might have put enough pressure on the company to rethink its public stance on politics: This year, Vox reported that in 2020, Chick-fil-A will only contribute to organizations that promote “youth education, combating youth homelessness, and fighting hunger.”
Elsewhere, in 2012, 200 employees at fast-food chains walked off the job to demand living wages, founding the Fight for $15 movement. The organization, which now includes laborers in other fields including adjunct professors and childcare workers, holds strikes demanding that low wage workers be allowed to form unions, get paid a minimum of $15/hour, and have access to pre-determined schedules that allow for doctor’s appointments and childcare emergencies.
2013: Paula Deen admits she uses racist language
In the early aughts, Paula Deen had irresistible charm. She seemed like a jolly, friendly woman who gave her audience permission to eat more butter. In 2013, though, her image took a turn: While being deposed during a lawsuit brought against her by a former employee named Lisa T. Jackson, she admitted that she uses racial slurs when speaking about African-American people.
The controversy picked up speed from there: Jackson alleged that Paula and her brother, known as Bubba, unleashed racial and sexual tirades against her when she served as general manager of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House. The Food Network ultimately decided not to renew her contract, and for the first time in 14 years, Deen didn’t have a cooking show on the network.
Deen saw her world crumbling and appeared on The Today Show to tearfully insist that she’s not racist, but her reputation had been marred beyond repair. Americans felt disgusted and betrayed by her behavior, and they readily shunned her from public life. However, as culinary historian Michael Twitty noted in his 2013 open letter to Deen, “To be part of the national surprise towards you saying the word ‘n—’ in the past … is at best naïve and at worst, an attempt to hide the pervasiveness of racism, specifically anti-Black racism in certain currents of American culture.”
Regardless, Deen revealed that racism bubbled below the friendly face of even the most genial Americans, and that it especially thrived in restaurants, where people like Deen could exercise absolute power over the people who depended on her for their livelihood.
In 2014, Deen abruptly shuttered her restaurant before returning to The Morning Show in an attempt to stage a comeback, but no one was listening. Her downfall would signal the beginning of an era that exposed the discriminatory behaviors commonplace among chefs of all stripes.
Last year, Deen attempted a comeback with a show called Positively Paula on RFD-TV. She even tries vegan recipes. But the public made their ruling: Deen has never been able to recapture her former popularity.
2014: Tom Kerridge says women don’t have what it takes to be professional chefs, and Dominique Crenn fires back
In 2014, British chef Tom Kerridge voiced an opinion prevalent among male chefs: Perhaps women simply are not cut out for the rigors of restaurant work.
“I like girls in kitchens a lot: It does bring that testosterone level down a little bit, it makes it not so aggressive,” Kerridge told the Radio Times. “But then at the same point a lot of that fire in a chef’s belly you need…That’s probably why there [are] not so many female chefs. They are out there; it’s just whether it’s the industry for them. I’m not sure, at that level.”
Kerridge’s dismissive, infantilizing, condescending comments were infuriating, but they seem to reveal a deeper truth about restaurants: Most of them aren’t welcoming spaces to women. One 2018 survey found that 49 percent of female restaurant workers received “offensive remarks” from their male colleagues while 75 percent reported an incident of sexual harassment during the first month on the job. However, according to the 2018 Women in Workplace report, only 54 percent of women think “reporting an incident would be effective and fairly addressed,” compared to 76 percent of men.
Dominique Crenn, who four years later would become the first woman in the United States awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide, responded to Kerridge’s comments, calling them “shallow, misogynistic,” and “absurd.” She asked him to consider how his words might discourage women who aspire to become professional chefs and lamented that in the current restaurant industry climate, she’ll always be considered a woman before a chef.
In the same interview, Kerridge admits that restaurants kitchens can get “very comfortable,” where “there is perhaps violence, where it perhaps feels threatening.” Perhaps unintentionally, Kerridge revealed that restaurant kitchens are toxic not just for women but for anyone who dreams of being a chef. Kerridge may not have been the first person to allude to the pitfalls of restaurant work, but he did manage to perfectly encapsulate that the operating norms within restaurants are unhealthy and in desperate need of an overhaul. Yet it would take a few more years before it came clear how common a culture of discrimination and abuse had become at restaurants.
2015: Indiana pizza parlor refuses to serve LGBTQ weddings
In 2015, an Indiana pizza parlor called Memories made headlines when it became the first business to embrace Indiana’s discriminatory “religious freedom” law. Although then-governor Mike Pence tried to reassure his constituents that the law would not allow businesses to openly discriminate, Memories Pizza, which identified as a “Christian establishment,” announced that it would deny catering services to LGBTQ weddings.
The pronouncement sparked outrage, echoing controversies in 2012 when bakeries refused to prepare wedding cakes for gay couples. Anyone who thought they could sit quietly and eat their pizza without having to reckon with the values of the people who made it were mistaken.
The Memories issue got people thinking about the role of restaurants in political debates: The owners of Memories insisted that because they paid the rent and made the pizza, they could operate their business however they see fit. Their detractors argued that discrimination is unacceptable no matter the circumstances. Do restaurants have a responsibility to imbue their food with their political beliefs, or should the two be kept separate? And do diners have an equally important responsibility to only patronize establishments that reflect their values? There are no easy answers. For what it’s worth, the restaurant is now permanently closed.
2016: Paul Qui arrested for domestic violence
Houston-based chef Paul Qui seemed like he was next in line to achieve celebrity chef status. He had restaurants in Austin and Miami, a James Beard award, and appeared on Top Chef. Then, in 2016, police arrested Qui for domestic violence (two years later, the charges were dropped). Qui headed to rehab immediately after his arrest, closed his flagship restaurant, apologized, and pledged that he wanted to move on with his career. But with the #MeToo movement revving up, the rest of the world wasn’t ready.
Qui’s arrest and subsequent search for redemption made people question why society takes abusive men back when we’re distracted by the next scandal. The discourse around the case focused less on Qui specifically. It instead tried to untangle what circumstances are acceptable to forgive a chef once accused of assault or abuse, as well as when or if people should welcome him or her back into the restaurant world without reservations.
Restaurant critics struggled with conflicting feelings over whether or not they should review his restaurants: Houstonia magazine argued that holding Qui accountable for his behavior meant refusing to patronize his establishment. Eater said the publication would cover news stories related to Qui but forgo reviewing his restaurants.
Though the Houston Chronicle ultimately gave Qui’s restaurant Aqui a four-star review in 2018, the chef never found his footing. Three of his restaurants, Aqui included, have closed since his arrest. In 2019, plans to open an outpost of his restaurant East Side King at a Denver food hall fell apart after backlash. These tangible consequences, in the words of the Dallas and Houston Eater editor Amy McCarthy, provided “a solid model for how to handle bad chefs now and in the future.”
2017: Reckoning for cultural appropriators and Mario Batali’s abusive behavior exposed
Seismic shifts happened at restaurants across the country in 2017. For one, the conversation around cultural appropriation and gentrification at restaurants came to a head. One of the founders of a burrito cart called Kooks Burritos in Portland, Liz Connelly, admitted that on a trip to Puerto Nuevo, she and her business partner demanded that Mexican tortilla makers reveal their recipes, even going so far as to spy on them through their kitchen windows.
Facing backlash, Kooks quickly shuttered, but the controversy revealed an important aspect of the dialogue about cultural appropriation: The problem isn’t that chefs are cooking cuisine outside their own background. It’s that privileged white chefs with more access to community support and resources are making a profit from recipes and cooking techniques developed by indigenous and other marginalized people without giving credit or compensation.
Soon, however, the restaurant industry had to reckon with an even more horrific problem. Some of its most powerful figures were serial abusers. In December 2017, Eater broke the news that several women, three of whom were former employees of Batali’s, had accused the powerhouse chef of groping them.
Batali stepped down from his restaurant group and was fired from his hosting gig on The Chew soon after the allegations came to light, but it would take until March of 2019 for his partners to buy out his share in his restaurant group. Up until that point, he continued to make a profit from his restaurants. Batali, shamed and banished from the industry, slunk away to the shadows, and he was far from alone when it came to powerful men in the restaurant industry abusing their employees.
Ken Friedman, restaurateur and part-owner of beloved New York hot spot The Spotted Pig, faced disturbing allegations that he kept a “rape room” in the restaurant and sexually harassed women who were afraid to speak for fear they’d be blacklisted from the restaurant industry. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, John Besh stepped down from his restaurant group after an eight-month investigation found that he sexually harassed at least one of his employees and retaliated against her when she refused his advances.
With these abuses brought to light, the restaurant industry seemed to be taking its first painful steps toward eradicating widespread abuse. Even Anthony Bourdain had to admit that his beloved restaurant bible, Kitchen Confidential, had contributed to a ”phallocentric, very oppressive system.”
2018: Anthony Bourdain’s death spurns mental health conversations
The momentum from the past years continued into 2018, and real change seemed imminent: Dominique Crenn became the first woman in the United States awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide (a long time coming, but at least it finally happened). Saveur’s fall 2018 issue exclusively featured articles about women, written by women. The New York Times reported that Mario Batali considered a comeback (despite prominent figures in the food world, including Anthony Bourdain, strongly suggesting he permanently retire). The comeback never materialized.
The work was far from over, though: In The New Yorker, Helen Rosner wrote eloquently about how women are often forced to transform restaurants once helmed by abusers, thereby allowing men to drop into obscurity while women take responsibility for the mess they left behind.
The biggest shock of the year, however, came when news broke that Anthony Bourdain had committed suicide in France while filming Parts Unknown. His immensely tragic death spurned open and direct conversations about mental health among chefs and other restaurant professionals. Mental health conditions are often exacerbated or even catalyzed by the rigors of restaurant work, and the toxic, tough-guy culture of restaurants often prevents those in need from pursuing the help they need.
In the wake of his passing, notable figures across industries posted reminders that caring for our mental health should be a priority. A year later, the conversation about how to approach the epidemic of suicide and substance abuse issues within the food-service industry continues, emphasizing that restaurant workers will never be safe and healthy until these are issues are no longer the norm in professional kitchens.
2019: Where do we go from here?
In 2019, the momentum toward change over the last eight years died down.
Still, the seemingly untouchable Gordon Ramsay faced criticism on two fronts (first, for whitewashing a clumsy fusion of Chinese and Japanese cuisine at his restaurant Lucky Cat, then for attempting to outcook locals in places like Laos and Peru in his show Uncharted). Yet he’s far from losing his massive fan base.
It also started to look like Mario Batali, who had profited from his restaurant group until March of 2019, might face legal consequences for his actions. In May, reports indicated that the disgraced chef would face criminal charges for indecent assault and battery in Boston. But there’s no guarantee he’ll be convicted.
Still, in the past decade, restaurants have made great strides toward improving their work culture. The industry now expects more from its leaders, and expectations are higher that workers, regardless of their background, will get the respect (and wages) they deserve. There’s no doubt that the restaurant industry has been rocked to its core, but the question now is: Where do we go from here?
In the best-case scenario, we continue to hold those in power accountable for their abuses of power. We encourage women, people of color, and every other marginalized group to pursue restaurant and food-industry careers. We can’t give in to the feeling that it might be impossible to eradicate every bad guy, or pat ourselves on the back every time we achieve a small victory, as though the work is done. We cannot get complacent.
If there is one central lesson we can take away from 10 years of upheaval, it’s that we have just scratched the surface of unjust, untenable practices plaguing workplaces across the board — entertainment, media, restaurants. That might sound like a bleak statement, but it should actually give the people who love restaurants, chefs, and food hope. Uncovering injustice is the first step toward putting an end to it.
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