Long Reads

Cooking in Restaurants Taught Me What Workplace Harassment Is

October  4, 2019
Photo by Alexandra Bowman

My name is Emma, but no one at my first kitchen job called me that. I was a stage for the summer, mid-college, which is to say: I worked for free. It was an Italian restaurant with unlimited bread, good Bolognese, BYO wine.

Instead of Emma, my coworkers called me: My love. My girlfriend. My wife. The mother of my children. “No, no, no!” one shouted. “She’s the mother of my children!”

I would ignore them or smile or laugh. Sometimes I’d say, “I have a boyfriend,” as if that had anything to do with it. And I didn’t tell my then-boyfriend about any of this.

Actually, I didn’t tell anyone. Or I didn’t think it was a big deal. Or I didn’t want to admit that, despite my eagerness to learn, the cooks didn’t take me seriously.

Well, two did. The first was the pastry chef, a smart, kind woman who taught me how to dock focaccia with my fingertips, bake soufflés to order, and whip zabaglione—a sweet Marsala custard that we served with fresh berries—until it fluffed into a cloud.

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“Catching my breath, inhaling deeply, holding back tears, filled with love and feeling very proud and grateful that you are my daughter. ”
— Amy L.

The other was one of the chefs who ran the main kitchen. He was older and, while the other guys called me sweetie, he had me pounding chicken breasts and rolling arancini, fried risotto balls stuffed with meat sauce and green peas.

I cut myself two times that summer: The first, I was chopping onions and snagged the tip of my finger. One of the chefs saw and said, “Go home.” The second, I was washing knives and sliced my palm open. The older chef bandaged my hand, gave me a latex glove, and told me to get back on the line.

As summer got hotter and hotter, I spent more time with him. He asked about my education, what I wanted to learn during my apprenticeship, how I hoped this would inform my career.

Then he started asking about my boyfriend. How does he treat you? Good? Good. He should treat you good. Does he love you? Yeah? He should love you. Think you’ll stay together? Yeah? Well, who’s to say. You’re so young. And what do you think about older men, anyway? Yeah, like dating them. To me, age is just a number. To me, anyone can be with anyone. Don’t you think?

I didn’t tell anyone. Or I didn’t think it was a big deal. Or I didn’t want to admit that, despite my eagerness to learn, the cooks didn’t take me seriously.

At the start of every shift, the front-of-house guys would take coffee orders for the back-of-house guys. These men memorized orders for a living, but they’d insist on the same schtick every day. It’d go something like:

“Cream? Sugar?”

“No thanks,” I’d say.

“No sugar?” the older chef would smile at me. “Aren’t you a sweetheart? Aren’t you a sweet girl?”

“Yes,” I would laugh. I’m a sweet girl.

What to do when your boss is starting to creep you out, but he’s your boss:

  1. When he asks you something that makes you uncomfortable, keep the answer short, then pivot. For example, if he says, “How often does your boyfriend tell you he loves you?” say something like, “I don’t know, every time we talk...oh, the Caesar dressing! I should make it before service, right?”
  2. Find a new kitchen mentor, preferably one who’s female. If she specializes in an area you aren’t interested in learning about, pretend you’re interested.
  3. Report him to HR. Scratch that. There is no HR.

At this one job, I got promoted from garde manger to sauté cook. It was a two-person line with those two positions, so it was kind of a big deal. This was an open kitchen, with the cold station facing the customers, and the stove facing the wall.

One lunch service, I was juggling this stir-fry, that soup, and I heard a couple of the female servers giggling behind me. I turned and smiled, expecting something about an order. Instead, one of them said, “Emma! You’ve got a booty!

At this other job, I had this boss who was a few years older than I was, but way more seasoned in the kitchen. In a past life, he was a history teacher, and he told me all about how he wanted to apply that experience to me.

In fairness, he did teach me a lot. Like how to properly dress a salad. And peel ginger. And julienne a whole case of carrots. He also taught me that what I say doesn’t matter, not in his kitchen.

Like when he rated our female guests on a scale of one to 10 (“Seven!” he’d whisper as someone walked in the door), I said, “Please stop,” and he wouldn’t. Or when he made jokes about my sex life, I said, “Please stop,” and he wouldn’t. Or when he ranted about us getting “raped” during lunch service, I said, “Please stop,” and he screamed at me across the kitchen:

“Have you ever been raped before?”

I stared at him.

“Have you?”

What to do when your boss does that:

  1. Finish the shift. Then go home, crawl into bed, and cry for three and a half hours.
  2. Consider reporting him to the owner. Pro: She’s a woman. She gets it. Right? Con: You don’t know if she would actually fire him over this. Double con: What if she did? What then?
  3. Pretend nothing happened. Start updating your resume.

If people are the problem in kitchens, then all you have to do is find a kitchen where there are no people. This is easier than you’d think.

When I was a baker, I worked many of my shifts solo—starting in the middle of the night, working into sunrise, then crossing over with the line cooks for a couple hours before heading home.

In theory, this should have fixed everything. Because if I was in the kitchen by myself, no one could ask about my love life, and I could focus on my work instead.

It was a 30-minute drive to the bakery, almost entirely on the highway. I wasn’t as scared of getting into an accident as I was scared of after getting into an accident.

A few years ago, a semi truck’s tire came loose, spun across a highway, and flew into my friend’s car, stranding her on the side of the road. Someone saw the accident and pulled over: “Come here,” he said. “I want to hug you.”

I thought about him a lot on my commute to the bakery. I thought about people driving the wrong way, about someone swerving into me, about deer. But also about my engine malfunctioning, running out of gas, a flat tire. And how I didn’t know how to change a tire. And how I was going to protect myself on a pitch-black highway, with no one around for miles and miles, save for some guy who wants to hug me.

A few weeks after starting the job, I got a can of pepper spray, a pink one that benefited breast cancer research. I was talking to my dad about it one day, how I was less afraid and more empowered, going from the apartment to the car, from the car to the bakery. He asked me if I’d used it before.

“You mean like on someone?” I asked.

“I mean like practice,” he said. “Do you know how to use it?”

I had no idea how to use it. So I went outside, stood in front of a tree, and fired. It was bright red like hot sauce.

A couple months later, I was in New Orleans. My best friend and I were in a restaurant bathroom and the pepper spray came up and she asked me how it worked and I said, “Do you want me to show you?” and she said, “Yeah, show me.” I sprayed it into the sink and we coughed for the rest of dinner.

There was a parking lot in front of the bakery. You’d be hard-pressed to find a spot during a lunch break, but in the middle of the night: no competition. I could pull right up to the ground-level perimeter, where the bakery doorway was less than 100 feet away. I just had to scurry up a few-step staircase, across a cobblestone road, and get to the door. I would look left, look right, open my pepper spray, and dash.

After a while, I started to recognize people. The parking lot employee. The guys who worked at the hotel around the corner, throwing out the trash. The homeless person rooting through the trash. The five or six women who all got into the same white van. They were my favorite. On a good night, they were getting into their van at the same time I was getting out of my car. This made me feel completely safe—as if they would spring out the van, like superheroes, and save me if something happened.

What to do if there’s someone between you and the bakery and your next coworker doesn’t get in for over four hours:

  1. Sit in the car and debate what to do. If he stays put, you stay put. Wait 10 minutes. Wait another 10 minutes. Consider calling the police. Dial 91 instead, hold your phone in your hand, and get out of the car. Say, “Hello,” looking him right in the eye, and move purposefully toward the door. When he does a big whooshing motion with his arm, gesturing you up the staircase, keep moving. “Thank you,” he'll say, “for not being scared of me.”
  2. Sit in the car and debate what to do. When he approaches the car, pretend not to notice. When he sticks his hand down the front of his pants, start backing up the car. He’ll start yelling, “Do you think I’m going to hurt you?” Yell back, “No!” for some reason. “How could you think I’m going to hurt you?” Half-believe him, but don’t get out of the car. Say, “I’m sorry, I’m just trying to get to my job,” over and over, like you did something wrong, until he walks away.

On Fridays, we made baguettes. That was our big bake of the week. The kitchen was overflowing with pies, cookies, and little cakes, so whomever was shaping baguettes did so at the front bench, which looked out onto the street.

The funny thing about nighttime is, you can’t see anything from inside, but anyone outside can see you. One shift, we found out that a nearby restaurant had to install a curtain to cover its mostly-window storefront, just like ours, because there was a woman who worked a night shift, just like us, and someone kept standing outside, whacking off to her kneading bread dough.

Every time I shaped baguettes, I thought about that.

What to do if you’re a woman in a bakery, by yourself, and someone would like to join you:

  1. Front door. He’ll be knocking loudly, constantly. There won't be a delivery truck. Walk up to the door and ask, through the glass, “Can I help you?” like he’s an early morning customer who wants the lavender latte but only if we have nonfat milk. He’ll point behind you. Turn around. Ask him: “What?” He'll nod. “I have diabetes! I’m crashing!” Your grandma has diabetes. Spend 12 seconds brainstorming how to get a glass of orange juice through the crack beneath the door. Ask him: “Do you want me to call an ambulance?” He won't, but he would like you to let him inside. Spend nine seconds thinking about leaving food outside the side door if he promises to stay by the front door. Tell yourself not to be stupid. Tell him: “I can’t let you inside.” “Please,” he says. Tell him, more firmly: “You know I can’t let you inside.” Go back and forth until the oven timer goes off. Say, “I’ll be right back.” But don’t go back. He'll keep knocking and knocking until, eventually, he'll leave.
  2. Front door. He’ll be knocking loudly, but he’s not the man with diabetes. There’ll be a red truck. He’ll be wearing a red shirt, now waving his arms in a circular motion. Ignore him from the kitchen for at least 10 minutes, hoping he’ll go away, before walking into the café and shouting, through the glass, “Can I help you?” in a tone that would yield an unfavorable Yelp review. “I’m here to wash the windows!” he'll yell back. “I was trying to do the universal window washing sign!” Let him inside.
  3. Side door, the one by the alley. No knocking. But you'll think you heard something. Keep sautéing potatoes and tell yourself, “You’re crazy!” Start making the baguette dough. Realize you’re out of flour. Walk into the café to grab another 50-pound bag of flour and scream at the man with his face pressed against the window. Converse with him through the glass long enough to believe that he really is the dairy farmer. Creak open the door to confirm there’s a pickup truck filled with milk crates. “I didn’t want to knock on the front door,” he'll say, “because I didn’t want to scare you.”

I wasn’t scared all the time. After the sun came up, the bakery was the best kitchen job I ever had. We had a female owner whom I looked up to and a female front-of-house manager who always had my back. We had tampons in the first-aid kid. Sure, the back of house was mostly dudes who called each other “Dude!” But they also called me “Dude!”

I want to be clear that I didn’t have it that bad. That my own story is nothing compared to so many other stories. Which is why, a lot of days, I convinced myself that I should be grateful.

I’d tell myself, It could be worse. Until eventually, the biggest feeling I got from working in kitchens wasn’t frustration or disappointment or fear—it was guilt. Guilt for feeling frustrated or disappointed or scared when others have it so much worse.

I told myself: My boss hits on me but doesn’t hit me. My coworkers talk about my butt but don’t grab my butt. My boss shouts at me about getting raped but doesn’t rape me. And that makes me lucky.

Part of me wishes I could go back and speak up every time something happened. Defend myself. Make a difference. But the other part of me remembers why I kept quiet: Because I was scared I’d lose my job or, at the very least, that everyone would hate me.

And I didn’t want to be known as Emma, the girl who got fired. Or Emma, the girl who got so-and-so fired. Or Emma, the mother of my children.

I wanted to be known as Emma, the line cook who always shows up early, keeps a clean station, and makes the best fried eggs in town.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Great Article to read on the day Harvey Weinstein was convicted and taken to jail in handcuffs.
Joanne February 23, 2020
Lovely writing. Thank you. "It" pervades every profession that women aspire to. Today, in the operating room, I was referred to as one of the "girls". I'm 54. A surgeon. Experienced. A teacher. I almost flipped, but we had a job to do that was more important than picking a fight in that moment.....
Gwynnie December 10, 2019
The last paragraphs made me tear up. I've spent my whole working in the life, first as a stage at 17, working BOH until I got my first head chef position this year twelve years after I walked into that first restaurant. And I think that fear of losing your job, of wanting to get along BECAUSE WE'RE SUPPOSED TO BE A TEAM, right?!...that's the soul-crushing part of it. I love restaurants and kitchens, but most of my bosses or mentors were guys who lived the "hey, if I had to go through this, then you'd better not complain about it," and maybe they were scared that if there was a new standard for decency and workplace behavior set, then they'd have to acknowledge how miserable they'd been to get to where they were...I can only guess. But now I'm the boss and I get to set my own standards, and that's so empowering. But so sad to think that so many women/trans/nonbinary cooks get driven out of the industry exactly because of the workplace harassment you so eloquently (and painfully) described. I'm so happy you're in a better work environment now, and please know that your recipes are bomb (I'm looking at you, crispy garlic dip!) and that you are a powerful badass woman and inspiration to me!
Emma L. January 6, 2020
Thanks so much for your kind words, Gwynnie!
carolee November 17, 2019
Thank you, Emma, for sharing this. Although I have never been in the food service industry, your experiences reminded me of so many things that happened to me over the years in various jobs which I have held. I never spoke up for reasons similar to yours. I am now much older and have my own business, so I am in a position of more control. Your story helped assuage the guilt I feel from time to time for not having spoken up in my younger years. I do hope you continue to speak up on many topics. You write beautifully. I wish you all the best in your future. With gratitude, Carolee
Grace November 17, 2019
All of this SO familiar. My hope is that more men would read this and take it in. And comment. It's quite remarkable when "It could have been worse" is the optimistic point of view.
Christine H. November 17, 2019
Thank you for writing this. I am a 64 year old nurse now, but I worked as a waitress in my teens and early twenties. I remember being chased around the closed restaurant as a 16 year old kid, just trying to finish my shift and go home. Being chased by a 40 something male manager. This was in the early 70's. I remember sexual remarks by a 30 something male chef when I was in my early twenties. No HR, no one to help me. This happened not once or twice but every shift, every where I worked. Not just to me, but to most every girl and woman I knew. Being scared at night when I had to walk unattended through dark parking lots. Your story was my story. Thank you.
Emma L. November 17, 2019
I'm so sorry that happened to you, Christine. Thank you for reading and sharing.
A.S. November 11, 2019
Yes, as everyone has voiced, thank you for sharing this- I appreciate the topic of "it could have been worse" coming up. I feel the #metoo movement has been monumental, but it can kind of overshadow all of the "it could have been worse" moments, like when men don't touch you but ignore that you have a boyfriend, or tell you to "take your time, I"ll just stare at you." Ect, ect, ect.......... Thank you again!
Loren October 13, 2019
Thank you for being brave enough to write this and put it out into the world. And know that my thank you also stands for so many other women who can't (for any of the so many reasons) thank you themselves, even though they would like to.
Emma L. October 28, 2019
Thank you so much, Loren.
Monica B. October 13, 2019
I feel so lucky. At the time I worked in kitchens, I was not worried because I was treated well enough. In retrospect, it could have been so worse. The worst thing that happened to me was being called a MILF by the general manager after I had a kid--but at the same time the owner had secured some health insurance for me so that my child birth was covered. I also find it interesting that the Latino men I have worked with were always very kind and respectful while there was no shortage of arrogant, bullying, emotionally stunted white men--so much for Trump's "rapists and murderers."
Cy October 13, 2019
Thank you for writing this, This is every woman’s story. So many stories of my own of harassment and worse. I worked in restaurants for many years and it was mostly positive. How I wish we could hear more stories about caring, kind men in the industry because they are out there too. My last last job was a Provençal restaurant run by two male partners. It was like a warm and loving family. While I’m thrilled that we have more women in charge and more women in the industry, we need to see the men ( who are still the majority)stepping up and enforcing no tolerance policies and behaviors. Until we all can feel respected and protected in our work places the harassment will continue.
Barbara R. October 13, 2019
Thank you for writing this. I have worked the early morning pastry hours, had someone approach me outside of my car and follow me. I have been called everything from slut to bitch and beyond just to see if I would react. I have been groped, asked for sex, pinned up against the pastry bench, my pots on the stove taken off, as if my work didn’t matter to the jerk chef de cuisine. I have worked in cafes where the sexual harassment was so bad the young girls working front of the house were scared to walk through the kitchen to the back to go to the restroom, another upscale restaurant where the line cook and one of the owners talked about porn and which of the servers they had slept with or wanted to sleep with, and the same line cook boasting about coming into work early so he could use the office computer to watch porn and master bate before the dinner shift. And like you, I didn’t do anything but occasionally tell those jerks to back off. This behavior was so prevalent in every kitchen during the time I was starting my career. I was great at my job, loved the work, and hated the environment. It was so stressful to endure this. I didn’t have a positive kitchen experience until I worked for a female owned catering company, things changed from then on. I am so sorry that you had to deal with the same kind of toxicity. I am grateful that you shared your story as I have never shared mine, except with my husband. I hope the kitchen culture is changing. I’m sure the MeToo movement will help.
Emma L. October 28, 2019
I'm so, so sorry you had those experiences because of your job, Barbara. I really appreciate you reading and commenting. I hope the more people talk about this, the better kitchens will become.
Christine H. November 17, 2019
Yes, this.
- October 13, 2019
This article so perfectly captures exactly what it’s like to be a woman. Period. The constant undercurrent of discomfort and, and occasionally fear, in mundane situations I.e. when the doorbell rings, walking through a parking lot etc. The constant juggling of wanting to defend yourself and tell people their talk or actions are unwelcome and inappropriate versus not wanting to be “that girl.” And most importantly a lifelong internal dialogue to telling yourself it’s not “that” bad, at least he didn’t do [this horrific thing]. How did [this horrific thing] become the benchmark for when it’s ok to speak up? I cringed through the whole article and feel like I need to share this with my daughters, the men in my life and anyone who will listen.
Emma L. October 28, 2019
Thank you so much for reading and sharing, Nicole.
Gbakes October 13, 2019
Thanks for this -- I'm so sorry for your experiences, which really struck a chord. I did a ton of service industry work in smaller cafes and delis, so there wasn't much back-of-the-house, it was all up front. The customers treated us (mostly 20-something women) like we were there for their entertainment, reaching out for our hands, cornering us to ask us on dates, and generally treating us like our bodies were on the menu. Sometimes a customer would wait after work let out, watching from outside. Fortunately we generally left in pairs, to have each other's back. Some of my bosses were female, and were quick to defend us. Others told us "the customer is always right." I'm grateful for the female camaraderie I had, and am confident that is what kept most of us safe.
kittyfood October 13, 2019
I was so lucky. I was 44 when I went to work in restaurant kitchens in Los Angeles. I worked in the bakery of a restaurant in a high-rise office building, and I too was the first and only person on the premises from 4 to 6 a.m. There were very few cars on the Pasadena freeway at that hour and I worried that something could happen, but it never did. There were some scary drug-selling homeless types at the off-ramp where I exited the freeway who liked to jump out of the bushes at me, but I ran the red light to get away from them. My kitchen coworkers, when they came in for the day shift, were all Spanish speaking men (most were bilingual), and they were all kind and respectful of me. Maybe my age helped, but they were warm and supportive, and I will always remember them with love. The owner was a white guy and there were some whispers about him and a young female manager, but his wife was onsite most days in the office, so this probably kept him in check.

I worked in two other restaurants and although neither provided the warmth and camaraderie of that first place, I never experienced anything that made me especially uncomfortable. In one case the chef was a woman, and in the other, the chef's wife was on the scene frequently. I realize now that the presence of women in authority was a major factor in keeping the harassment at bay.

I absolutely understand and believe that harassment is a daily fact of life in the majority of restaurants. Probably a lot went on behind the scenes where I worked that I was never a part of, and because I was married I never hung out after work with the others. And yes, I have been the victim of workplace sexual harassment too, but it happened in my office jobs, rather than at restaurants.

Flint October 9, 2019
Thank you for sharing this. It made me cry because I've been through so much of the same things. I hate the guilt because it COULD have been worse. I was touched inappropriately on a few occasions but there was no penetration. I lived through it but it feels like my fault because I couldn't quit and this other man was the owners ENTIRE baking business.

Thank you for telling your story. It's too common.
Emma L. October 10, 2019
Thank you for reading, Flint, and I'm so sorry you experienced that. It was *not* your fault. Sending you strength.
thebunalsorises October 9, 2019
Heartbreaking––thank you Emma.
Emma L. October 10, 2019
Thank you!
Maggie S. October 8, 2019
Honored to know you, to hear you voice this—keep voicing! Enough of the quiet. <3
Emma L. October 10, 2019
Thank you, Maggie—I'm honored to know you!
Christine B. October 5, 2019
This broke my heart for so many different reasons. Because these horrors have happened to you, or to other people. And the horror of reframing anything upsetting as "well, others have it worse..."
Thank you for sharing this. I re-read your "I'm a food writer" essay every couple of months.
Emma L. October 10, 2019
Thank you so much for reading, Christine, and for the kind words about my other essay.
Eric K. October 4, 2019
Thank you so much for writing this, Emma. It's moving and relevant, and I'm proud to have it on our site.
Amy L. October 4, 2019
Catching my breath, inhaling deeply, holding back tears, filled with love and feeling very proud and grateful that you are my daughter.
Emma L. October 10, 2019
I love you!