Eating & Drinking

Does Matt Carmichael’s admission of sexual harassment mean we’ve reached a tipping point?

I started working in the service industry as a dishwasher when I was 14 years old. By the time I retired some 19 years later, I’d worked as line cook, a server, and a bartender. I never wrote a resume. I didn’t have to. In the service industry, your reputation is everything. Especially in a place the size of Ottawa where it often feels like everyone knows everyone. This ‘one degree of separation’ is both a blessing and a curse — it is depressingly easy for one big fish to poison a very small pond.

That said, I do not know Matt Carmichael, the former celebrated chef of Riviera, Datsun, and El Camino personally. But when news broke that he had admitted to sexually harassing women in his employ, I couldn’t help but see his admission as an attempt to put himself ahead of the story, because we’ve seen this strategy played out before: Apologize. Say you’ve completed rehab. Commit to doing better. That way, at least you can get some pats on the back for admitting wrongdoing instead of fumbling to do damage control if/ when more details bubble to the surface. Or I could be completely wrong and Carmichael is coming out and admitting to sexual harassment apropos of nothing but the kindness of his heart and a desire to see changes in the industry.

If that sounds cynical, it’s because I am. Almost half of my life was spent in an industry that, for women, calls for cynicism — it’s more than a defence mechanism, it’s a job requirement. It’s as necessary a skill as being able to add up the price of 15 drinks in your head or carry a 30-pound platter of food up a flight of stairs on your shoulder. A healthy dose of cynicism can mean the difference between succeeding in an industry that’s doing everything it can to expel you or crying in the staff bathroom. If you never expect it to get better, you won’t be disappointed – or surprised – when it doesn’t.

I didn’t want to be cynical. No one wants that. But it hurts to think about how much more I would have loved my job – and I really did love my job – if I didn’t have to constantly make allowances for being disappointed by men.

I once asked one of my chef friends why he worked in the industry. Without missing a beat he said, “Because sexual harassment is still acceptable here”. He laughed. I laughed. The rest of our friends laughed. And that friend was one of the good guys. Sure, he hugged a little too long, and had a habit of leaving white, flour handprints on the asses of female servers. But by comparison, that was tame.

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As women have known since the dawn of time, and many men are apparently only just now realizing, men in positions of power will often take liberties. One male manager’s pre-shift pep talk consisted of the phrase: “Remember girls, big tits mean big tips!” The owner of the first bar I ever bartended at came up to me at the end of my first shift, slipped me a $50 bill, and said, “Great job, maybe wear a tighter tank top next week.” These same men would often be the first ones to rough up a customer who literally grabbed me by the crotch. They would corner me in a restroom, blithely believing themselves to be my heroes. And on the tilted, gin-rusted scale that dispenses service industry justice, sadly, they often were. Compared to some of the horror stories I heard from other servers, my experiences seemed positively G-rated.

Yet at almost every single job I’ve ever had in the service industry I’ve heard the phrase: “He’s not a bad guy when you get to know him.” Eventually I realized what that really means is: “He’s an asshole but you’ll learn to tolerate him.”

In the last couple of decades, pop culture — through bad-boy chefs like Anthony Bourdain and rage-aholic Gordon Ramsey, not to mention arrogant chef judges on reality cooking shows — has glorified the food industry and its bratty, unprofessional behaviour more becoming of a high-school kegger, albeit one with better snacks. But this type of over-the-top chef character isn’t a total cable TV fabrication. I’ve worked with chefs who scream and throw plates; chefs whose ultimate goal is to make at least one staff member cry each shift; chefs who will put your food up first regardless of the chit order if you flirt with them, and put your food up last if you don’t; chefs who thrive in toxic workplace environments and who get away with this behaviour because their restaurants make money. Their inflated egos and god-complexes would be almost comical if they weren’t so destructive and sad.

The service industry is in the business of selling a good time. It is an industry that actively promotes alcohol, partying, and hook-up culture. In his interview with CTV, Carmichael shared that he has been in rehab for alcohol and cocaine addiction, and that he believed his actions were in part a result of being under the influence. Maybe so. But in my past as a bar star, I partied enough for 50 people and not once did I sexually harass anyone. Alcohol and drugs, in my extensive yet admittedly anecdotal experience, doesn’t turn anyone into a predator who isn’t already so inclined. But it does make potential victims more vulnerable to unwanted advances.

This is why Ask Angela – the campaign that encourages patrons to discretely approach bar staff if they’re being harassed or feeling uncomfortable – has become globally popular. Ironically, Ask Angela trains bar and restaurant staff to offer assistance to anyone who feels they are in a dangerous situation. And yet the safeguards for staff reporting harassment themselves are limited at best.

In my experience, reporting any kind of mistreatment to management often results in punitive measures for the person reporting. “A co-worker is harassing you? We’ll change your shift, not his. He’s friends with the owner and this is his first offence.” Keep complaining, or heaven forbid call the labour board, and you’ll be labelled “difficult”; instead of firing you, which would require the establishment to prove due cause and pay two weeks severance, you’ll be banished to the Monday lunch shift until you get so frustrated and broke that you quit. So instead, you just suck it up and smile weakly when your manager says, “Come on, he was only joking. He’s a really good guy once you get to know him.”

The service industry has to change, but how?

I interviewed prominent feminist and activist Julie Lalonde for Ottawa Magazine and she suggested inserting bystander intervention and sexual harassment awareness into Smart Serve, the alcohol training program required for service industry employees in Ontario. Another positive step would be to get rid of tipping altogether and pay service industry employees a guaranteed living wage with insurance compensation. A lot of unwanted customer attention occurs because servers rely on tips to live. But even further, if you know exactly how much you’re going to earn week to week, and you’re not afraid of being punished with less lucrative shifts for speaking up, reporting abuse becomes less daunting. It’s also easier for a male co-worker to have his female co-worker’s back if he isn’t worried about the same kind of economic retribution.

Related — Women are targets of violent crime and Julie Lalonde wants to talk about it

Both of these ideas would require changing established patterns for businesses and for patrons, but both are doable if we’re all willing to admit we have a serious problem that needs to be fixed.

It seems that we have reached a tipping point where women are becoming more confident in reporting abuse and men are becoming more aware of not only how insidious this is, but how they need to be allies for women and agents of change. My experiences may paint a bleak picture of the industry because I’ve left out all of the exceptional male co-workers, managers, and owners I’ve been lucky enough to work with. This is by design. The work has barely begun. There will be time to hand out gold stars when real progress has been made (but the true allies don’t need or expect them). Now is the time to listen to women, and find out what we need to do to make workplaces safer for everyone.

I do genuinely hope that Carmichael is sincere in his desire to get better, because I believe in second chances. But women need to be given the first chance — to be respected in the workplace and to be believed when they tell us they’re not.