June has been yet another banner month for discussing the role of women in the restaurant business, and for all the wrong reasons. On June 13, Prune chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton and her co-chef wife, Ashley Merriman, announced that they would be partnering with accused sexual abuser Ken Friedman to take the place of former chef-partner April Bloomfield at the Spotted Pig. On the 19th, San Pellegrino announced the 2018 edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, with its grand total of four restaurants led by women, two of whom have male co-chefs. They also continued on with the outdated tradition of naming a Best Female Chef, not just unnecessarily separating men and women, but also clinging to a binary understanding of gender.
For almost two decades, food writers have adored Gabrielle Hamilton, considering her one of their own. She did, after all, have an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. She did, we all agreed, write one of the greatest food memoirs of all time, Blood, Bones, Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Ryan Sutton of Eater called her restaurant “as relevant as ever” fifteen years into its life, and in 2017, Pete Wells of the Times gave it two stars. In the Instagram era, an overlit plate of raw radishes served with sweet butter and kosher salt from Prune became a foodie staple.
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Hamilton had come to epitomize a certain brash femininity in food, her restaurant’s signature color a bright hot pink. She was considered an antidote of sorts to the bro-ness of the city’s restaurant scene, and was of the only two women ever featured during six seasons of The Mind of a Chef; the other, as it happened, was Bloomfield.
But two weeks ago, Hamilton and Merriman made their announcement, undoing almost two decades of goodwill. (Hamilton did not respond to a request for comment on this piece.) Matt Rodbard, editor in chief of Taste, tweeted a concise and near-universal statement: “And Gabrielle Hamilton is cancelled.”
Both the Spotted Pig deal and the World’s 50 Best List’s boys club — which, as a bonus, is also conspicuously Eurocentric — point to just how little has concretely changed since the mainstream emergence of #MeToo and widely vocalized calls for women to be centered in restaurant world discussions. The New York Times had outed Friedman as a serial sexual harasser at the end of 2017, and noted that the Spotted Pig’s third floor was known commonly as “the rape room.” Mario Batali wasn’t only a partner in the massively influential restaurant; he was also a rape room regular.
What was once a place known for being a haunt of the famous and home of an exceptional burger had become ground zero for the #MeToo moment in food. It seemed the revelations would mark a major blow to the industry’s desire to hide its issues on sexual abuse, harassment, and gender-based discrimination. At the very least, many felt, the Spotted Pig should shut its doors for good.
Which is why Hamilton’s announcement felt like such a betrayal. Some hoped she would walk back the decision once she realized how damaging this could be to her reputation. Instead, she and her wife doubled and tripled down, crudely comparing their business deal to Jóse Andrés’s humanitarian work in Puerto Rico. “Everyone gets so excited when José Andrés goes into these natural disasters and helps people,” she told the Times. “They ought to be happy that these two women are going into a man-made disaster to help make things right.”
Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy, as well as an outspoken critic of the erasure of women in the restaurant world who’s written about the topic for Esquire, sees Hamilton’s decision as “a complete failure on every level.”
“Morally it’s cynical and shortsighted,” says Cohen. “Personally, I’m disappointed in what it reveals about the key players, but most importantly, as a business decision I don’t understand why you would want to tie yourself to a restaurant whose biggest attraction is something called the rape room. No one wants the burger at the Spotted Pig anymore, they want a selfie on the third floor. Why would you want to be associated with that?”
At the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen just days after the announcement, Hamilton said she couldn’t buy the Spotted Pig outright. According to an interview Merriman did with Eater, though, they weren’t looking to expand before this opportunity arose. Regardless, one would think the owner of a successful, nearly twenty-year-old restaurant would have ample access to capital — especially after being named Outstanding Chef at the James Beard Awards just this year.
“Women mostly get covered when they get sexually assaulted or when they court controversy, as in this case,” says Cohen. “That’s not the most secure foundation for a multimillion-dollar investment in a restaurant, and if I was an investor I’d give my money to a male chef before I gave it to a female chef. Investing in the patriarchy is usually a safer bet.”
Hamilton, though, had seemingly infiltrated that patriarchy, winning prestigious awards and press coverage — something Cohen notes is especially key for restaurateurs.
“Who cares if [World’s 50 Best] thinks you’re one of the best restaurants in the world?” she says. “What matters is that being on that list raises your press profile to an astronomical degree and starts bringing a lot more people through your door, including international food tourists, judges for other awards, and people who use these lists to plan their vacations and are willing to spend a lot more on food and wine. When investors see that you can pull in these guests, they’re more likely to fund your next restaurant or your expansion, and it allows you to put more money into your restaurant and elevate the food and service, which brings in more guests and press, and so on, in a never-ending virtuous cycle. As long as women are left off these lists they’re shut out of these opportunities.”
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Cohen also points to the stories not being written, ones that wouldn’t focus necessarily on identity but on the work being done in food and restaurant culture.“There are so many amazing women and chefs of color out there running restaurants who get absolutely zero coverage,” she says. “There are still so many great articles to be written about the economics of restaurants that have nothing to do with gender. There are still so many great features to be written about why the best Thai chefs in New York all seem to be women, or what happened to the big wave of lady chefs from the Eighties, or the legacy of Anne Rosenzweig.”
Instead, the World’s 50 Best List is absurdly male-heavy. The New York Times food section, while reporting on sexual harassment in the industry, did not review a single woman-run restaurant between November 7, 2017 and May 1, 2018. The media and awards have let a few women, such as Hamilton and Bloomfield, stand in for the whole, which is why their collaboration with an abuser becomes such massive news and feels almost insurmountable. When we make heroes out of chefs, of any gender, the stories we tell never quite paint the entire picture.
The change will have to come from both people working behind the scenes and the media covering the industry, as restaurants helmed by abusers and harassers briefly assailed in the press continue to bring in customers as though it’s business as usual — because it is.