Fork

Advocate file image - A fork and knife sets the table for another meal.

You know the saying "if you love something, set it free." How about, if you love something demand that it lives up to its own potential?

That could be the next phase of the conversation around the culture and character of our hospitality sector, now that it has been up for new assessment

The sexual harassment allegations brought to light against John Besh and his company have people talking about their own experiences. The refrain is that harassment is common in the restaurant and bar business. To which seemingly every woman who has worked in the sector says “no kidding,” or something saltier along the same lines.

But during interviews with industry veterans for a story on why this is so often assumed to be “just the way it is,” a parallel narrative emerged. Even as people aired grievances, they shared why they value the hospitality business.

Calling for change, they sounded like people beseeching a loved one to do better.

“If the attitude is, ‘well just toughen up and take it,’ how will anybody learn and grow?” Tyler Chauvin told me.

She's a lifer in the New Orleans hospitality sector, and in our interview she shared stories of harassment but also talked of her devotion to the field.

“The beauty of the service industry is you’re working with so many different people,” she said. “If done right, the service industry can open doors to such rich, diverse relationships with people. If not done right, it can be horrible.”

Many have called out specific steps that can change institutional vulnerabilities to harassment. That includes stronger human resources support, establishing clear workplace rules and keeping consistent consequences for breaking them. Some also question the structure of the tip-wage system, which critics contend leaves many workers susceptible to mistreatment.

But to refute the idea that harassment is “part of the culture” of the business, there’s also a more affirming part of that culture that can come into play.

There can be a deep camaraderie among people in the industry who work hard and do not get much outside recognition. They have each other‘s backs, and sometimes that camaraderie is what keeps them going. People talk about “my crew,” “my kitchen,” “my bar” and “my restaurant,” even when they have no ownership stake in the venture. It is a career that can inspire strong allegiances and personal bonds. 

This seems crucial now in the conversation of how people treat each other, what is considered normal and what is out of bounds.

“If you’re harassing someone and you’re not called out on it by anyone except the woman you’re harassing, it just goes back to playground bullying stuff,” said Katie Juban, a chef who has worked in many restaurants in New Orleans and elsewhere. “How do the other men react, how does management react? When we see immediately that behavior won’t be tolerated, that’s a big difference.”

The notion of hostile environments and toxic workplaces is at odds with the ideals of the hospitality industry, and it's unfair to paint the whole sector with the same brush. There is industry culture, after all, and then there is the culture that each business develops on its own.

But it's indisputable that many people drawn to the field have known harassment as a penalty to continue pursuing their calling. Eventually some will decide it's no longer worth it. That makes me wonder how much the “just the way it is” attitude has held us back.

“If you keep encouraging the same behavior how does this business grow?” Juban asked. “It’s not just for women’s comfort, but for the growth of a restaurant. If you’re actively driving away talent, how is that good for the business? If nothing changes, the consequence is that the industry stagnates.”

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.