What’s a Man to Do?
Setting Egos Aside to Improve Gender Equality in RestaurantsEdward Lee
March 07, 2018
In our ongoing op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.
Our latest piece comes from multiple JBF Award nominee, cookbook author, and Boot Camp alum Edward Lee. Below, Lee reflects on his own place in the movement for a more equitable restaurant industry, and suggests that, at least for him, male members of the culinary community can no longer sit on the sidelines.
As a male chef, I’ve gone back and forth about what to do in the wake of the sexual harassment scandals. I’ve been told to speak out. I’ve been told to stay silent. I’ve been told it will pass. I’ve wondered if anything I’ve done in the past could be considered bad. But mostly, I’ve felt guilty for not having a clear and decisive response in the first place.
It’s been a few months now since the news cycle first ignited with these articles. With some distance comes perspective. While I don’t have all the answers, I am certain of a few things:
- One, this movement is not going away, and it shouldn’t. It was long overdue, and this much-needed correction is forcing everyone to be more aware and make better choices.
- Two, this movement is not, and never was, a witch-hunt. It is not driven by an anti-male sentiment. At its core, it is balancing the scales of a system that has favored one gender over another. I can see why that is unsettling to some, but it shouldn’t be. The system should never have gotten so unfair in the first place.
- Lastly, the answer to what a male chef should say or do is still complicated and unresolved. Everyone will come at it differently. The conclusion I ended up with is that neutrality is no longer an option.
Recently, I sat at the James Beard Foundation listening to a roomful of professionals tackle the industry’s inequality problems. I was one of a small handful of men attending. Sitting in that room was awkward, and there was nothing that I heard that was new, but I still needed to hear it. I needed to hear it again and again. I’m a slow learner, and it takes a long time for me to put my ego aside and just listen without feeling guilty, or defensive, or exhausted. It’s hard. As chefs, we like to dominate a room. But listening has been the most important skill I have learned in the past few months. I listened to story after story about how difficult it has been, and still is, for women to climb the ranks in an industry so dominated by powerful men. It is a story I never paid much attention to while I was busy making my own way up.
The notions of a powerful man and a compassionate man are not mutually exclusive. If this movement is to have a lasting effect in the way we treat others, it will have to be embraced by everyone—because I believe, without a doubt, that our restaurant industry will thrive if the next generation is led by an army of women chefs, managers, and owners.
So what’s a man supposed to do? I don’t know exactly. But I do know that we have a rare opportunity to show the world just what we do best in our industry: adapt, move on the fly, and change for the better. We are rooted in hospitality and community, and that makes us better equipped to turn these lessons into practice, quickly and effectively. And maybe, someday, that may even include a place of forgiveness and redemption.
I’ve started a non-profit initiative with Lindsey Ofcacek to help empower women chefs in Kentucky. Together, we’re creating programming to inspire the next generation of leaders. So far, the overall response has been positive—a few women took issue with me because they felt I shouldn’t benefit from a women’s pain. I don’t think that’s what I’m doing, but I get it, and I will accept the criticism. This movement is too important to ignore just because I’m worried that my ego will take a few hits. We gain nothing by standing still. But if we can set egos and fears aside, we can be a part of a major sea change just by catching up to a movement already in full stride.
Edward Lee is the chef/owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky, and Succotash in Washington, D.C. Learn more about Lee and his restaurants here.