Culinary workers call for culture shift as .MeToo puts spotlight on harassment

TORONTO — Canadian culinary workers are calling for change in the wake of bombshell misconduct allegations against an Ontario winemaker that some say signals pervasive sexism in the food and wine world.

David McMillan of Montreal’s Joe Beef says the cutthroat industry makes it difficult for victims of harassment to speak out without fear of retribution, while former hostess Tari Shear says enduring sexual harassment was one of the “expectations” of her first job in the industry.

This renewed scrutiny of the restaurant business emerged after Norman Hardie apologized “to all those who felt marginalized, demeaned or objectified while working for or alongside me.”

The Globe and Mail first reported numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against the Prince Edward County winemaker earlier this week, including unwanted sexual contact and inappropriate remarks.

Hardie’s statement admitted some of the allegations were true, but denied other parts of the report.

Various players big and small appeared eager to take a stand on the issue Friday, with Ontario’s liquor control board, Quebec’s liquor commission and various restaurants across the country announcing they had dropped Hardie’s beverages.

Shear has since moved to an office job but says she stills hears horror stories from frontline restaurant workers.

“It’s a small network of people, and you don’t want to burn a bridge or speak up, and then no one wants to hire you,” she says. “It silences people. It makes you tolerate things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to.”

Hemant Bhagwani, owner of the Kolkata Club in Mississauga, Ont., says change has to start at the top of the food chain, which is why he was the first employee at the British Raj-style eatery to be trained about sexual harassment in the workplace.

Many restaurants are stricken by a “bro culture” that abets sexist banter among male coworkers, often at the expense of their female colleagues, says Bhagwani, who founded the Amaya franchise of Indian eateries.

“We just talk about the problems, I don’t think anybody talks about the solution,” he says. “I have to step up myself. I think it’s our responsibility, also, people who have done well in this city.”

Restaurateur Stacey Patterson says she founded Open Kitchen Toronto, a dining series showcasing female chefs, to foster camaraderie among women in a male-dominated industry. A portion of the proceeds from Monday’s event will go towards a female culinary scholarship at Toronto’s George Brown College, she says.

And the problem extends to the food manufacturing industry, adds Amy Proulx. When she got her start two decades ago, she says the number of female workers on the factory floor was exceeded by the pages of pin-up girls on her male colleagues’ lockers.

Proulx says her then-boss repeatedly walked in on her while she was changing, one of many “red flags” that prompted her to quit.

“It happened 20 years ago, and I still shake,” she says. “It’s like a ghost or a shadow that hangs over me.”

Now a food technology professor at Niagara College, Proulx says she shares that experience with her classes in the hope that female students will be able to work without fear of harassment.

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