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INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY

'We don't dare complain': Sexism and harassment plague French restaurant kitchens

In France, the #MeToo movement has yet to make it through the restaurant kitchen's doors. (Photo illustration)
In France, the #MeToo movement has yet to make it through the restaurant kitchen's doors. (Photo illustration) © Jeff Pachoud, AFP

If the #MeToo movement has knocked the sexism out of some professional kitchens around the world, the restaurant sector in France has not followed suit. On International Women's Day 2020, FRANCE 24 takes the temperature in French kitchens.

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Workplace sexism and sexual harassment is not breaking news to anyone working in the French restaurant sector. A facade of glittering Michelin stars and the quest for culinary excellence often hides a daily struggle for women. More than two years after the birth of the #MeToo movement, sex harassment and assaults in French kitchens are still rife. 

Gastronomy is considered to be a matter of state by French President Emmanuel Macron. It is such a culturally and politically charged issue that “there is a reluctance to talk about cooking, cooks and outbursts in the world of cuisine", Célia Tunc, secretary general of the Collège Culinaire de France, explained to FRANCE 24. "It's as if we are protecting this world."

French chefs – the male ones – continue to win all the awards. They are the "representatives, the carriers and the heirs of French history", according to Macron. 

Acclaim for male chefs is nothing new. In 2013, Time magazine devoted its front page to the "Gods of Cookery", but somehow managed to leave women out of not just the cover image, but the entire "family tree" of the 50 most talented chefs in the world.

For its part, the Michelin Guide claims to give pride of place to women. However, in 2020, it only awarded one French female chef three stars, Anne-Sophie Pic, and just one other received two stars, Stéphanie Le Quellec.

This gender imbalance had already been documented by The New York Times in 2018, which described it as a trend towards fraternity instead of equality in French kitchens.

Harassment and sexual assault

"Considering all professions, women experience the most harassment in the culinary arena," says Maria Canabal, president of the Parabere Forum, a worldwide organisation that promotes gender equality in the culinary world. 

“I am far too regularly presented with testimonies from women or members of the LGBT community who have been raped or harassed in the kitchen. And I encourage them to report this to the courts. Denouncing attackers through social networks or anonymously does succeed to raise awareness of the problem, but it does not solve it. We live under the rule of law and this must be how we end this."

Few victims dare to speak out publicly. Examples of abuse are plentiful, but most victims are determined to remain anonymous and will only report their experiences to online sites. "Fear of being blacklisted." "If I pursue him, it will be the end of my career." "I'm already the only woman in the kitchen, if I complain on top of that!"

Faced with these obstacles, young women – often still teenagers – do not know how to act or who to turn to in this sector dominated by men.

"Being in the kitchen is like being in the army," says Lucie, a chef. Now 29 years old, she was only 16 when a sous- chef (under-chef) locked her in a cold room because she refused his advances. "We're told so many times to respond to everything 'Yes, chef!' and that 'this is just the way it is', that we don't dare complain."

Why so many vacancies?

The French hotel and catering industry is very short-staffed, with nearly 130,000 vacancies each year. But no one is talking about why there are so many unfilled jobs, or, if they are, they are not talking publicly.

But they are talking privately. From the "lapin chaud" (hot rabbit) to the "grand malade" (weirdo), female kitchen staff know whom they should avoid at the end of their shifts. However, the tacit code in French kitchens is to not balance ton porc, which translates, roughly, to not "squeal on your pig" – i.e., not identify your harasser.

Screengrab from Je dis non chef! on Instagram
Screengrab from Je dis non chef! on Instagram © Instagram

Alexia Duchêne was a finalist in season 10 of the popular television show “Top Chef". She revealed to entertainment site Melty that she had experienced some unwelcome attention in the kitchen. “In Michelin-starred restaurants, guys will grab your ass, talk trash to you. I got texts when I was 15 years old at 2am from guys saying 'Come to my place’.”

For Canabal, there is only one way that this will change. "You have to stop repeating over and over that this treatment is normal, that 'the world of cooking is simply like that'. No, it's not normal. It's neither 'cultural' nor 'job-related'. It's simply harassment.”

Starting the conversation

This conversation is finally starting to take place in cooking schools, after victims pointed out the omertà that has surrounded this topic. 

Nicknamed "the Harvard of gastronomy" by Le Monde, the Ferrandi School in Paris has almost achieved gender balance within its student population and it is now addressing this key issue. 

Education and support in the school have evolved over the last ten years to include a harassment prevention programme, monitoring of female apprentices by a nurse and a social worker, and theatre workshops to try to encourage more open discourse about the issue. 

"However, we can't force students to talk," says Bruno de Monte, Ferrandi's managing director. "When we are alerted to a problem, we react immediately. It happened with a 15-year-old female apprentice. We contacted the establishment to tell them, 'either the chef leaves or we're taking the student out’.”

The question remains: Is this response significant enough to have any lasting change on such an intractable industry?

‘In women’s DNA to give birth’

The gender-based anomaly is that most chefs – and 94 percent of professional chefs in France are men – evoke a mother or grandmother when they are talking about their vocation. Cooking, considered naturally feminine in the domestic sphere, becomes masculine in the professional sphere. One of France’s most famous chefs Paul Bocuse made a clear distinction between the cuisine of great chefs and that of "little women", even though he admitted he was himself trained by women.

Sadly, this attitude does not only belong to the old guard. In September 2019, when questioned about the absence of female chefs at a symposium for the World’s 50 Best (a British rival to the Michelin Guide), Yannick Alléno, a three-star French chef, gave his opinion: "I regret it, but there are structural obstacles. A lot of women ask to work at noon because in the evening they have to take care of the children. We men are lucky. It’s in women’s DNA to give birth."

Hope for the new generation

"There are no women experts in the field"; "The ones we contacted were not available"; "In any case, there are no female candidates in the competition" ... 

Faced with such excuses, the Parabere Forum has set up a database of more than 6,000 culinary women in 60 countries, including chefs, sommeliers, producers, and winemakers. These contacts have been made available to promote gender equality in the sector. 

"Seven years ago, at the first Parabere Forum, no one was talking about equality in the culinary world," explains Canabal. “The conventions, the juries in the competitions, the roundtables were 100 percent male. Everybody thought it was normal. Today, the public reacts when there are no women on stage, the change in mentality is tangible."

Will the new generation also change things? 

"Little by little, things are moving forward. Before we were afraid of not being believed, this is no longer the case at all. There's an evolution in the right direction," Camille Aumont Carnel, creator of the Instagram account Je dis non chef (I say no chef), speaking with French television channel LCI. 

"In this environment, we have a thousand Harvey Weinsteins, who rape, harass and blackmail careers. We need a #MeToo for the restaurant business, our own Adele Haenel, to the end the anonymity so that the eyewitness accounts can openly flood in and heads will finally roll."

This article was adapted from the original in French by Sophie Gorman.

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