When I spoke to Mary Sue Milliken recently, I asked for her perspective on the #MeToo movement, given her over thirty years of experience as a famous female chef, and she admitted that in order to get ahead, she had to use, “my gender to my advantage whenever I could. There’s a certain kind of way of getting through that sexism that I’m not particularly proud of, I mean, I never slept with someone, but…” Despite those experiences, Mary Sue has been her own boss since she opened her first restaurant at 23. Her kitchen is atypical: it’s run by women. So when the news broke about her friend Mario Batali’s history of harassment last year, she was blindsided.
Most women in food aren’t so lucky. The restaurant industry has the country’s highest rate of sexual harassment reports.
Chefs Breanne Butler and Adrianna Urbina are tired of waiting for things to be different. Urbina says, “We want to help women in the food industry. We have so many horrible stories. Why not join forces and help other women?” Last night marked the first in a series of private dinners, events and classes they’re holding to build a network of femme food leaders (they prefer the inclusive term womxn), a community of chefs and activists that could spark some real change. They’re calling it The Table.
Butler and Urbina might not be household names, but you’re familiar with their work. Ever heard of Facebook? Butler was the in-house pastry chef. Food Network favorite Chopped? Urbina’s won the competition three times. How about the Women’s March? Yeah, Butler’s a co-founder. And both have cooked at James Beard and Michelin rated restaurants.
When I asked why they started this initiative, Butler was frank with me: “There’s no other industry that touches as many people as the restaurant and food industry. 52% of Americans work in food at some point in their lives, and that’s often their first job. When you think about the changing workplace culture, the restaurant world is still very toxic and patriarchal. It’s allowing a lot of these practices that as a society we’re trying to get past. If you’re fifteen-years-old and you’re taught that you have to engage in this behavior or put up with it, and if you report it what could happen, that’s absolutely going to affect how you move forward in your career.”
Through The Table, Butler and Urbina hope to change the culture of the kitchen so that anyone who wants to can go into food can feel welcome. As the duo has started to publicize The Table people from places as far-flung as Mexico, Dubai and Australia have reached out to ask when it can come to their cities. Why? Because every single one of these pop-up dinners will be entirely staffed by womxn. Everyone from the dishwashers to the bartenders to the chefs. But that’s not all.
According to Urbina: “It’s so hard to do all the logistics behind [a pop-up dinner]…we’re offering everything you need so you can concentrate on your art. Being a chef, being a wine-maker, whatever it is. We’re here to help you shine. We’re taking action by doing these dinners.” They’re also planning on paying those women as much as they might usually make in the course of an entire week.
That said, The Table wants to make sure that it’s providing access to activism at every possible price point. Last night’s dinner featuring Top Chef’s Adrienne Cheatham was expensive, but Butler says, “we also want to be able to have community dinners – really family style, encouraging conversation. We want to invite guests of honor who are in the industry… We’re working on having an industry night where we can highlight people in the front-of-house: people in wine, people that are mixologists and giving them a moment to shine. We’re putting together panels with dishwashers and bartenders and farmers talking about their different perspectives on food.”
Nothing will get fixed overnight, but Butler and Urbina are confident that this is the right moment for their message. They believe that with “opportunity and exposure,” we can give culinary women a voice. And think I’m not alone in saying that I can’t wait for their next dinner.