Sara Moulton on Sexual Harassment in the Food Industry’s “Boys’ Club”

published Jan 31, 2018
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(Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

In recent months, many industries have been rocked by stories of sexual harassment, misconduct, and worse. The stories may be more public now, but the events they describe are not new. In many cases, harassment and overt sexism have been pervasive problems that have been dismissed, ignored, swept under the rug, or held as a sort of family secret for decades or longer. The food industry is far from being alone in this, but it is a high-profile example of an industry where

sexual harassment has been treated as a normal thing

Sara Moulton has worked in the food industry longer than most. She was one of the first stars of the Food Network, the on-air food editor for Good Morning America, and the chef of the executive dining room at Gourmet magazine for 20 years. If anyone knows the industry, she does. And this week she wrote about her own experiences with sexual harassment and discrimination. She described the food world as a “boys’ club,” and says that after 40 years in the industry, she’s sick of it.

Moulton enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in 1975, and she says that from the start she was surrounded with people telling her that women did not belong in kitchens. They bolstered their arguments with scientific-sounding but uncited reasons, saying that women were too weak for kitchen work, couldn’t stand the high temperatures, couldn’t take the emotional pressure, and even that they couldn’t lift the pots. One would think those arguments would have stopped when Moulton graduated with highest honors two years later, but they didn’t.

Moulton started working in restaurants after graduation, and then was hired and mentored by Julia Child herself.

French cooking was Child’s passion and her life’s work, and Child said Moulton had to go to France to study more. She even arranged an apprenticeship with Michelin-starred French chef Maurice Cazalis, and that type of position was extremely difficult for a woman to get. (In her memoir, celebrity chef Cat Cora says that after she graduated from the CIA, she sent a fat file full of her culinary awards and achievements to the heads of 10 Michelin three-star restaurants in Europe, trying to get an apprenticeship. Eight of the chefs — including Paul Bocuse — allegedly responded that they didn’t accept women in the kitchen.)

With Julia Child in her corner, Moulton got the apprenticeship, but says the chef would not allow her to cook on the line. The married, 72-year-old Cazalis also hit on her constantly, while she tried to deflect him by changing the subject or talking about her fiancé.

Moulton writes that Cazalis once told her he’d take her to visit the residence of the President of France, where one of his former apprentices was the chef. That’s a perfectly reasonable sort of thing for a mentor to do for an apprentice. But on the trip he allegedly tried to put his hand on her leg in the car, surprised her by booking them a single room at the hotel, talked about how he slept naked, and stood in front of her in his underwear. When they went to dinner, instead of going to a restaurant with good food — which would be a normal choice for a chef and an apprentice — he took her to the Folies-Bergère for terrible food and topless dancers. She says that while she tried to talk about food, cooking, and his career, he talked the whole night about what great lovers French men are.

Moulton says she slept with her raincoat over her pajamas, and it took her six months to gather up the courage to tell Julia Child about Cazalis’ behavior, and that Child’s response was, “Oh dearie, what did you expect? They’re all like that. Get over it.”

At the time Moulton was surprised, but then she says she started thinking of it as a lesson in being tough and not letting things — like sexual harassment from old, married men — stand in her way.

But Moulton says she’s been thinking differently about the experience lately, because she says this sort of “locker room” culture still exists. Moulton’s experience with Cazalis happened decades ago, but recent allegations against chefs Mario Batali, Johnny Iuzzini, and John Besh indicate that this is not a 1970’s problem — it’s a today problem, too. Sexism and sexual harassment have been a part of kitchen culture for so long that it’s normalized and seen as just part of “the industry.” Victims are told to shrug it off and move on, while the harassers get to continue doing it without consequences.

Like many of the stories of harassment coming out of restaurant kitchens lately, Moulton’s is not a new one, and it wasn’t even a secret. Alex Prud’homme described the exact same story in The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act.

Part of the problem, Moulton says, is that the culture of the professional kitchen is so close and tight-knit that objecting to that sort of thing marks a person as being a bad sport or not one of the team.

“The chef community is a tight community. If you start to say that something isn’t acceptable — even if it really isn’t acceptable — suddenly you can be accused of not acting like a member of the team,” Moulton wrote. “You also worry that there will be consequences — and there most likely will be.”

After 40 years in the restaurant industry, Moulton says she’s sick of the status quo, and she’s right.

“This has to end,” Moulton wrote. “I don’t have a neat and tidy happy answer to any of this but I do know that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem and everybody has to say no this is not acceptable. This is not how humans treat other humans.”