Sexism and sexual harassment have long been endemic to workforces everywhere and the culture of the restaurant industry is no exception. A restaurant kitchen – at the heart of the business itself – adheres to power dynamics that have historically favored male leadership and engendered inequality between women at the front and back of the house and their male counterparts. And now, the #MeToo reckoning has finally addressed our industry, toppling once deified chef and restaurateur icons and giving voice to the countless women who have been victimized.
As journalists and media around the globe shed critical light on their stories, we believe it is our responsibility, as a company’s whose mission is to help restaurants grow and thrive, to foster the community of women in the restaurant industry to start a conversation, act, and drive meaningful change in complicated times.
In this spirit, OpenTable CEO Christa Quarles, alongside industry powerhouses Barbara Lynch, Elizabeth Blau, and Kerry Diamond, hosted a dinner on Wednesday, January 10, at two Michelin-starred chef Melissa Perello’s Octavia in San Francisco. Under the glow of Octavia Street with the restaurant’s open kitchen hard at work through the pass, influential chefs, restaurateurs, and restaurant businesswomen met and mingled over bites of gougères, oysters, and duck liver mousse hors d’oeuvres. Not a single RSVP was absent.
“The stories I have heard through the course of tonight inspire me,” Quarles said as she welcomed the room of attendees from across the country. “We want to celebrate you. We also believe there is so much passion in this room – how do we turn this passion into activism? How do we take a moment and create a movement?”
Citing similarities between the restaurant industry, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley, Quarles alluded to her own experiences: “I’ve seen it. I’ve personally been groped. I’ve personally been pushed aside, not listened to, not heard, underestimated – and I know the stories that are inside of the kitchen. We [at OpenTable] want to be here as a mechanism of support.”
Over a beautiful family-style dinner of Perello’s signature Cali cuisine, leaders from all corners of the restaurant world led an impassioned, thoughtful, creative, and, at times, radically candid conversation. With calls to action from every speaker and guests who stood up to share their unique perspectives and solutions, the purpose was to start a conversation about how we band together to find solutions.
“It’s about all of us stepping forth and saying this isn’t acceptable,” concluded Elizabeth Blau, Las Vegas restaurateur and OpenTable Advisory Board member. “We need to work on other terms, like equal pay and so many other things.”
The Open Conversations event itself was the brainchild of Quarles and pioneering restaurateur Barbara Lynch, an industry titan whose own story of owning and operating eight of Boston’s best restaurants, including Menton, undoubtedly inspired countless others in the room. Lynch’s drive and happen-making personality are admired by many – and were palpable that evening.
“Twenty years ago, I had the balls to open a restaurant,” Lynch recounted. “I am on a mission for what I believe in – and one of the most important things you can do is to build a culture within your restaurant group.”
As courses were served and housemade seeded bread devoured, discussion at each table bubbled over to the larger group, until it truly felt like one big dinner conversation. Cherry Bombe editor-in-chief Kerry Diamond spoke eloquently about the magazine’s #86This campaign and its decision to give women of all backgrounds the opportunity to share their stories through publishing them online, a first-ever digital edition for the quarterly indie magazine about women and food.
“Put your mission on your website,” Diamond proposed, an immediately actionable move to help guests in search of socially responsible meals feel confident in the businesses they support. Speaking to the complicated times faced by the industry, Cherry Bombe is committed to giving voice to a long-silenced side of the industry in which it’s entrenched. With chef April Bloomfield as the cover star of their most recent issue, Diamond posed the question of why it is problematic that the community jumped to attack her in the wake of allegations against her business partner, Ken Friedman (an unfortunately common occurrence given who is truly responsible.)
Then, the popcorn began. With influencers attending from Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Denver, San Francisco, and beyond, each contributed a personal anecdote and details about how they’re tackling the issue in their own backyards.
“If you see something, say something,” The Perennial owner and San Francisco restaurateur Karen Leibowitz suggested. “What about a poster [prominently displayed in restaurants] about what to do, just like the choking one we’re all so familiar with?”
An increase in awareness and knowledge that the community is listening were at the heart of the sentiment of the evening. Men in the restaurant world, or as Diamond referred to them, “our imperfect allies” are listening.
World-renowned baker and Tartine Manufactory co-owner Elizabeth Prueitt tied the conversation back to what happens when we come together and take advantage of the tightly-knit nature of women in the industry. She spoke to a recent instance in which local women banded together via Facebook to create a group to share negative stories involving a Bay Area chef, who was identified and further exposed by a journalist who herself was in the room.
When Quarles introduced the evening, she spoke to this way of thinking, of working, as quintessential of the local restaurant community: “I am humbled by the tenure, background, history of who is in this room,” she said, referencing a chat with Joyce Goldstein, former chef of Square One and a legendary figure in San Francisco restaurants. “We’ve always been a rebel town and this is an example tonight.”
At OpenTable, whose home has always been San Francisco, we, with Quarles at the helm, have committed to getting to 50/50 within our company. With the help of proactive recruiting, we aim to bring greater equality, inclusion, and moreover, business performance to our workplace. It is in this spirit that we turn our focus to the industry we inhabit and serve, in the hopes that through fostering a means of connection at the table, we can #86This once and for all. #TimesUp
Photo credit: Kassie Borreson.