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5 January, 2018

Stop Inviting Known Bad Men to Food Festivals

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It’s easier than you think

At the 2018 South Beach Wine and Food Festival, a sprawling food mega-event held yearly in Miami, San Francisco-area chef Michael Chiarello and Texas chef Paul Qui are both on the featured talent list. Chiarello, chef-owner of restaurants Coqueta, Ottimo, and Bottega, will participate in a $350 “Best of the Best” tasting event on Friday evening, alongside 60 other chefs from across the country, and on Saturday night, he will co-host a $250 “Spanish dinner” alongside Jose Garces and Norman Van Aken. Qui, meanwhile, will join 12 other chefs, including headliner Andrew Carmellini, for the “Chicken Coupe” dinner on Saturday night, where diners can enjoy high-mark-up fried chicken to the tune of $325. Both these men are presented as just two more food world stars to schmooze and dine with, one of an endless litany of celebrity chefs who populate the festival, and nothing more.

Popularly known as “spring break for chefs,” a coinage attributed to the festival’s founder, Lee Brian Schrager, and repeated by talent ranging from Anthony Bourdain to Emeril Lagasse, South Beach Wine and Food is one of the most famous culinary events in America. Major media sponsors include the Food Network, the Cooking Channel, and the New York Times; food brands ranging from Goya to LaCroix; and major companies like American Airlines and Audi. It is a coveted invitation, and a loaded one. “Spring break” conjures both a sunshine-soaked, alcohol-fueled beach party, and a dark, exploitive, no-rules-apply rager.

In March 2016, Michael Chiarello and his restaurant group, Gruppo Chiarello, were hit with two lawsuits alleging a “sexually charged, hostile, and abusive environment.” According to court documents, Chiarello claimed female customers left “snail trails” in their chairs after speaking to him, rubbed his genitals against the backside of a gay male employee, and shared such quips as “Martinis are like tits. One is too few, three is too many,” with female employees. Those suits were settled six months later. Also in March 2016, Paul Qui was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend in their apartment. According to her statement in the police affidavit, Qui “picked her up and started throwing her up against the walls and doors and told her she wasn’t going to leave.” The charges were later dropped.

Food festivals are expensive, of dubious culinary merit, and shitshow-prone, but ultimately, for attendees, festivals promise fun. They’re a chance for diners and food TV fans to meet their favorite chefs, and to hear lectures and sample special dishes no one else will get to try. For those able (and willing) to plunk down hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for tastings and dinners, the reward is a weekend of high-class day drinking, endless culinary variety, and a buzzy, insidery look at the excitement of the restaurant industry.

Inviting a chef who’s settled a sexual harassment suit, or a male chef accused of domestic abuse, implies the women in attendance don’t count: Nothing kills a sense of belonging faster than knowing one of the men cooking at a dinner could be back in the kitchen discussing your genitals. For women chefs, the endless free-flowing alcohol — and reduced social boundaries at these festivals — increases the danger for all types of unwanted and unwelcome behavior. Networking at parties can easily transform into fending off harassment — one woman chef told Eater Mario Batali groped her breasts, moments after offering her a job, at a wine auction afterparty.

For chefs, to be invited to an event like SOBEWFF is a coveted perk. Getting onto the festival circuit is an honor and a resource: They’re a means of making connections with other ambitious chefs who might champion your work, national media who could bestow coverage and awards, and wealthy restaurant enthusiasts who could become repeat customers or even investors. One of the few obvious, and simple steps that can be taken when a chef harasses, assaults, or otherwise makes the restaurant industry a worse place for women is to refuse to invite him to a fancy food festival.

This is, we are told, a moment of “reckoning” with the epidemic, noxious levels of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. Or, it’s supposed to be. In the New York Times this week, Pete Wells decried the process as “excruciatingly slow” — so slow the Times’ sales department, who are responsible for festival sponsorships, is in danger of undermining the publication’s essential reporting on the restaurant industry’s harassment epidemic — and overly dependent on media watchdogs, rather than inspiring accountability from within. (Though, notably, the inclusion of both these chefs in SOBEWFF was spotted by chef and writer Richie Nakano on Twitter and boosted by bar manager Nicky Beyries.)

The larger issue: The reckoning is often of the wrong kind. Merriam-Webster defines “reckon” first as a transitive verb, where it means to count, estimate, or compute. This process is well underway, with new notches on the wall every day. To reckon can also mean to “consider,” and many hands are being wrung. But what is needed, and what is only frustratingly just beginning, is reckoning’s second, intransitive use: to settle accounts.

Women in the restaurant industry like Jen Agg and Allison Robicelli have been calling for consequences for months now, but serial harassers are difficult to swiftly financially punish when they are also co-owners and investors of sprawling business empires. The media can pursue and publish investigations into chefs and restaurant groups, but are still struggling with how to cover those businesses in the wake — what is on or off a list, who is or is not worthy of a review, and what about reporting on a new restaurant’s opening, while also noting the accusations against the chef? (Information that, say, Yelp, which will pick up any new opening regardless of who owns it, is not a resource for.) As for what to do with the problem of abuse in kitchens, period, that conversation is in its early stages — and there’s little mainstream consensus what consequences should be faced by, say, SOBEWFF guest Jenn Louis, who has also been arrested for assault.

But when it comes to men who have clearly made their businesses unbearable for women, the only recourse that does seem clear is excision, and that includes from the festival circuit. If harassment is a cancer, then it must be cut out.

The other missing piece is a movement toward justice for the women who have fought against a sexist industry for too long with too little help. Food festivals are notoriously bad actors in this realm. From Gelinaz! featuring topless women in masks in 2013 to — oh hmm — SOBEWFF hosting a beach volleyball game between chefs and Sports Illustrated swimsuit models in 2014 (as noted by Allison Robecilli on Twitter), festivals often feature women as objects. In 2013, Eater found that at SOBEWFF, only 15 percent of the featured chefs were women; in 2017, that number dropped to 11.9 percent. Racial representation numbers are more difficult to determine, since it is not always clear how a person identifies, but a quick glance at 2018’s SOBEWFF talent roster suggests the numbers are not good.

If your festival serially under-represents white women, let alone women of color, and invited an alleged serial harasser, then use the addressing of one problem to make a small step toward addressing another. If a male chef does get his golden ticket revoked, a woman should be invited in his place. (Scott Conant, for example, publicly stated he wanted to take a planned SOBEWFF event with John Besh “in a different direction” after accusations of harassment against Besh came to light; chef Amanda Freitag took Besh’s place.) And if the invited woman cannot afford associated costs, then a festival should cover them.

As for the notion that a chef’s fame should override their behavior when deciding who is invited, two things: Our idea of what makes a chef notable is shot through with gender bias, and, in my anecdotal experience speaking with food festival goers, most want to see one or two extremely famous chefs whom they enjoy watching on television, and otherwise are excited to discover new faces. If one of those extremely famous marquee chefs is outed as a bad actor before a festival, odds are far fewer festival goers will be eager to attend their dinners.

There is nothing inherently wrong with spring break — it’s the harassers, rapists, and predators who turn getting drunk on a beach into something horrific. Women attendees, and women talent, are painfully aware of both sides of the bacchanalia coin. The very least a festival can do is make it clear this is a party for them, too.

Meghan McCarron is Eater’s senior correspondent.
Editor: Erin DeJesus