It’s time to fix Toronto’s food culture

Harassment, labour violations and staffing shortages – the hospitality industry is in crisis. We asked nine people how to make things better


Swinging kitchen doors or the din of a bar can cover up a multitude of sins. Shocking stories have emerged from the back rooms of the Toronto hospitality industry in recent years: sexual harassment allegations from the kitchen at Weslodge, an alleged gang sexual assault at College Street Bar and misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic comments from a long list of offenders.

This summer, the industry’s focus turned to working conditions and compensation. Employees at Susur Lee’s restaurants blasted the celeb chef for illegally withholding tips, while employees of the popular Poutini’s walked off the job, citing unsafe work conditions. A recent Toronto Star investigation uncovered hazardous conditions and shady temporary staffing processes at Fiera Foods, a North York factory where temp worker Amina Diaby was killed on the job. 

These incidents dovetail with what is considered by many to be a local shortage of qualified hospitality and kitchen staff. Recently, the Ontario government has moved to increase the minimum wage to $14 this January and $15 in 2018 many lower-paid workers applauded the move, while others in the industry warned of lost jobs and shuttered restaurants.

How to fix an industry starving for a more positive culture? We asked nine chefs, cooks, owners, managers, bartenders, activists and writers about the greatest obstacles they’ve faced on the job, and how they would create change within their own kitchens and across the industry.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

JEN AGG 

Owner, The Black Hoof, Rhum Corner, Cocktail Bar, Agrikol, Grey Gardens author, I Hear She’s A Real Bitch.

I was able to manoeuver myself into leadership positions fairly early on, and though I didn’t have to deal with being hit on by managers – because I was the manager – there were different problems, like issues with customers. I first really noticed the oppression within the industry, though, when I started to get more power. That’s an interesting turning point. The moment I became a threat to writers or other restaurateurs – even though that wasn’t my intent – things changed. 

Around 2012, I wrote an essay called “What A Bitch” about how I was perceived compared to my male contemporaries in the industry. I wrote it for a magazine, and the editor, a good friend of mine, emailed me: “Darling, I’m not sure this is the right direction for the magazine or even for the Jen Agg brand.” The “darling” part wasn’t even what bothered me – talking about feminism and sexism and gender isn’t right for my “brand”? 

My reaction was to never talk to him again. Obviously, I was correct about going forward that way because it ended up smashing open some doors. I still haven’t published that essay. I developed a public voice that started to pick up wind around that time, and a lot of it was based on that email. I’m a responder. That’s kind of my rallying cry: “I’ll show you”. 

It’s so important to point out what’s happening in certain restaurants, even though I’ve gotten a lot of shit for that. I think public pressure may be the only actual pivotal point in terms of change. I really believe that people are so scared for their bottom line, or that I or someone else might say something, that it will push them toward a better-run restaurant. But it’s ridiculous that that’s what will be effective. 

The idea that modeling positive culture is gonna be a good look for the men who control this industry is both heartening and upsetting. You don’t want it to be for the wrong reasons, and yet you think, “If it’s going to have a positive effect, does the reason matter?” But of course it fucking matters. People like me who have been shouting about this for years get ridiculed and ostracized. While, say, somebody who owns a really famous restaurant in Europe is given so much bro respect for writing a mea culpa-style essay — that’s wrongheaded.

For me, building a positive culture within a restaurant was less of a conscious choice and more like, “I want to build an environment where I’m happy, and that includes a positive culture.” I don’t want a gross environment around me. I don’t want people acting as enforcers. I want discipline – because it has to happen in restaurants – to be like, “Hey, this is what you did wrong, I’ve told you two times, I don’t want to have to tell you again.” I’m still a difficult boss. When you start with me, it’s a hard training process. But it’s never abusive. 

There’s a cyclical thing that’s important in abuser-abusee cycles. I think of a secretary working for an executive who’s constantly harassing her: “See you later, sweetie”. Eventually she responds, “Oh, night, baby!” Not because she wants to, but because she feels like she has to and she doesn’t have any power. So when young cooks are being hazed and humiliated, they might look you in the eye and be like, “Nah, bro, it’s jokes.” But when you’re 22 and you can lose your job for not playing along, maybe it’s not. It becomes so normalized.

It’s really easy to not run your restaurant like that, but you have to be here, watching. It has to do with gate-keeping, more than anything. Making sure that when you hire someone, they understand what you’re trying to do — that’s the first line of defense. That means sitting in on interviews or having staff you trust doing the hiring. Once they’re in, you have to set good examples.

I recently had someone showing dick pics to a female employee and I was like, “Nope. Goodbye.” I was angrier than I’ve ever been at a person who was working for me. I gotta say, I didn’t get the best vibe from that person beforehand. If I’d been hiring, I may not have hired them. Sometimes you need people so badly, you are less discerning. But then if you let someone in who’s not the best fit, you still need to be on them. 

I think that part of the labour shortage is that there are a lot more restaurants than there used to be — I’d be really curious to see the rate of restaurants versus the number of people joining the industry. 

But I also think millennials have a different attitude — and not in a lazy sense. There’s an enlightenment moment happening: “You’re asking me to do unreasonable things. I value myself, I like my time. I could just go and work retail — or even front of house.” I don’t think it’s a problem in front of house as much as it is in kitchens.

It’s really hard to advise people who are in a negative workplace situation on the right way to handle it. The immediate answer is often going to have a tinge of privilege, like “you need to find a new job”. That’s not an option for some people. But there just isn’t one good answer. There isn’t HR, unless you’re a corporate restaurant. But bigger restaurants are getting their shit together in that way — not because they think it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s always economic. So if that means they have to be a little bit nicer to people, or they have to treat people with humanity, they will, so that someone like me doesn’t embarrass them or call them out.

We’re fine with the minimum wage increase because we’re already paying it. So everyone else needs to get on board. If you can’t pay it, raise your prices. People need to realize that food costs money, and expensive food costs more money. It makes me enraged when people are like, “I could have made this at home.” Could you have?

I’m basically a huge cashmere socialist. I run businesses and I ultimately want these businesses to succeed, but not just for the sake of my bank account. I have a lot of people working for me, and almost to my detriment, I put them first. I know it sounds like lip service, it’s what everyone says. But I go out of my way to make sure they have good lives. It’s not that hard to do. And it’s the right thing to do.

MaryRoseAllen-2151.jpg

Samuel Engelking

MARY-ROSE ALLAN

Kitchen manager, the Lockhart host of the upcoming podcast Kitchen Woes (instagram.com/kitchenwoesTO)

I’ve always been a boss, though my bosses have always been men. The upper management, the company president – I really didn’t feel like those people treated me with respect because I’m a woman. It was also difficult managing as a woman, although I do have a don’t-mess-with-me attitude that I’ve had to build up. I’ve had a lot of push-back from younger male staff.

Last summer, I had to start from the bottom at a new restaurant. The chef had 40 years of experience. The sexism wasn’t there right away, but he started calling me “little lady” every single day. The fact that I am only five feet tall doesn’t help. I’d be doing something [physically demanding] like punching french fries and he’d say, “Hey, little lady, you wanna cut this lettuce instead? Would that be a better job for you?” 

There had been lots of complaints about him, and he was fired not long after, but the enviroment never really got better. That kitchen, in particular, was super-understaffed, and I felt like our kitchen manager just didn’t care. I was worried that since I was the last one to blow the whistle on the chef, maybe they didn’t like me any more, because I put them in a difficult position.

It’s a male-dominated industry, and it’s a really tough job. I think there’s a lot of stigma about being a woman in the kitchen – even though men think we belong in the kitchen anyway, which makes no fucking sense. 

The Lockhart is my favourite kitchen I’ve worked in so far. We try to create a really positive, open, communicative environment.

I have zero tolerance for [violence and harassment], and I would really like to have people feel safe in my kitchen. If I feel like the person’s temper is too much, and I don’t feel like putting the emotional labour into mentoring them, that person’s gone.

When hiring, I definitely shy away from the typical chef who’s super-temperamental and irritated, even though kitchens are an irritation chamber. I have a diploma in social work, so I’ve been able to use that as a way to reason with people.

I really think that idea of “You can’t handle that” in kitchens needs to get the fuck out. And if people can’t take the heat, maybe we should turn it down a notch and make it not quite such a tough work environment.

I’ve always tried to hire women, as well, just to surround myself with more support, but I have noticed that a lot of women don’t apply to kitchen jobs. I’d say 99 per cent are men.

Finances and labour costs are all part of my job. I wouldn’t have a job if I didn’t keep our labour costs at 30 per cent, and without charging a huge amount, it’s really difficult. I’d like to see higher salaries for chefs and kitchen managers and line cooks — basically, a livable wage in whatever city or province you reside in. And more relief staff. Give your cooks time off, a vacation. Benefits would be amazing — standing all day is not really good for you. A lot of things here are not really good for you. And more support from upper management — I think owners and bosses need to be working at their establishments at all times.

Those moves are expensive, but I think you can take small steps, like respecting your staff by giving them a fucking break once in a while — people develop smoking habits in kitchens because the only breaks you get are your two-minute cigarette break. We can (enforce) the labour laws that are in effect already. 

I’ve noticed that really bad things can happen in one shift, where it’s kind of a domino effect: Your linens don’t come in on time, and then your produce guy doesn’t show up, and you have somebody coming in to do a review that night. There are lots of experiences that are like that, and I want to interview people in the industry as part of a podcast (Kitchen Woes) and shed light on the industry in a different way. 

My main goal with this podcast is to reach out to those who work in restaurants, but also to the customers. While they’re out enjoying time with their loved ones, we’re often working in not-so-ideal conditions. I think this would help change the mindset of people who eat out often and maybe be a little more forgiving when their experience isn’t perfect.

I also don’t want people to be deterred from working in the industry because of everything that they hear. I found my place at the Lockhart – I believe there is a place for everybody.

Evelyn-2052.jpg

Samuel Engelking

VIKTORIA BELLE

Coordinator and co-founder, the Dandelion Initiative

My first two years as a bartender were horrible. I was assaulted and harassed at work, and I would just put up with it. At 20, what do you do? No matter how much of a hardcore queer feminist I was, I didn’t have the tools to deal with it. 

I reported that one of my coworkers was sexually assaulting me at my first bar job. The next day, at the end of my shift, they gave me an envelope of money and said, “Gimme your keys.” The response was, “How dare you make these false accusations. We thought you were gay anyway.”

Then I started working at Rancho Relaxo, a space where my manager and boss were telling me that my autonomy, safety and needs were the most important thing. I was like, “Whoa!”

In 2015, I was sexually assaulted walking home from my local. They arrested him, and then I went through six months of hell. It went to trial, and he was let go because of insufficient evidence. Being assaulted years after feeling secure and safe and empowered, having that ripped away from me, brought back a lot of residual trauma that I had to deal with, and the way I know how to deal with stuff is to organize.

The Dandelion Initiative mainly focuses on action and education. The first big thing we organized around was the College Street Bar shutdown. The night [the alleged sexual assault at that bar] happened, I was in Ted’s Collision, across the street. I didn’t want to reach out to the survivor themselves because I didn’t want to compromise the court case. So I just stood outside, handing out flyers. Then I put up a Facebook event and got a 2,000-signature petition in less than 24 hours. We were able to ask city council to strip them of their licence.

We then launched our Safe Bars project, and that’s about using trauma-informed practices and an anti-oppression framework to create safe spaces in bars and restaurants. Establishments don’t know that under Bill 132, they have to have anti-violence and harassment policies and training – but it doesn’t say who delivers it or what those policies look like. It’s toothless legislation. 

I realized we need three main things: training that is survivor-centric and informed by different types of people holding establishments accountable to policy and eliminating disconnect between managers and staff.

Bars sign up, and we have an open dialogue with staff about their challenges and resources. Then we do three hours of training, with presentations and mock situations that give them concrete, tailored tools and tactics. Then they agree, in writing, to provide zero-tolerance spaces for harassment and violence, and to provide this training to new staff. My dream is to walk down the street and see a bunch of Dandelion stickers in bar windows, showing that people are proactively creating safe spaces.

The challenge from the owner/operator side seems to be: How do I create a safe environment? How do I hold my patrons accountable without losing business? From a staff perspective, it’s: How do I intervene safely? How do I hold my establishment accountable without fear of losing my job? And then there are environmental concerns — let’s say I work in a really dark bar. I often work by myself. I can’t really see in the far corners and the music is loud. My owner/operator doesn’t want to change it. What do I do?

Last year, we had 30 bars sign up for this training that hasn’t even fully rolled out yet. We’ve just filed our non-profit paperwork. We’re also going to start applying for grants and fundraising so we can actually pay the survivors that have been working their butts off the last two years. We’ll be charging for training, and will also be working on a subsidy system, so if a large organization can afford to pay $1,000 or $2,000 for the training, their share will subsidize a smaller bar that can’t afford that fee. 

Education is the first step to creating the culture you want. If I went around with a pitchfork and burned down every bar where something shady happened, a hundred others would pop up with the same shit. Education, empowerment and meeting people where they’re at is how you transform culture.

I look at the workforce, and we’re not mobilizing women. We’re not mobilizing trans people or non-binary and genderqueer folk into positions of power, because oftentimes those are the people disproportionately affected by violence. Now add on if you’re a person of colour or Indigenous. It’s a snowball effect. I think the service industry could be a very safe space, a very community-driven space, a really awesome work experience for young people to have, but we need to make sure it’s safe.

Evelyn-1771.jpg

Samuel Engelking

EVELYN CHICK  

Head bartender, Pretty Ugly

When Pretty Ugly opened, all our staff happened to be female. There’s been some verbal harassment from customers. We have a door person who’s female, and she’s had a lot of rude things said to her.

As a leader, you have to let your staff know that no matter what, you have their back. You have to empower them to say, “This is the point where my service and hospitality to this person ends, because this is a threat to myself and my guests.” Now, we also have some extremely supportive male employees who have our back. 

We have weekly meetings about issues that arise during service – being aware of your surroundings, what language you can use to resolve and defuse these situations. They’ll say, “I just bumped into this situation, I did it this way, how would you do it?” 

There’s often very little emotional transparency in kitchens – there’s that sense of needing to leave your emotions at the door and be professional. But once you have that constant communication with your staff, you’ll have a better idea of what’s happening in your kitchen.

I used to be a very harsh, unapologetically rude manager, to be honest. I would come down on my staff, and I learned very quickly that this method just doesn’t work. You need to allow people to make mistakes, so they’ll understand why things are done the way they are. If I were to put a wrong key in a keyhole, I’m not just gonna say ‘This key sucks, I’m never gonna open a door again’. You have to try and try and try to find the right key.

Your employees also perform better every day if they’re on a decent emotional and health spectrum. If one person’s feeling not so great, then everyone is at level three instead of level 10. Whether or not staff can perform a task is trainable, but their job satisfaction – you can’t just make them have it.

I think the wage increase is beneficial to certain establishments – especially ones that are low-paying and don’t provide a percentage of tips. The whole Susur Lee IOU thing happens everywhere. They’re just the first restaurant that’s been outed. 

But I don’t think the higher dollar figure encompasses what needs to be done in terms of labour or creating a better environment. You’re increasing the wage, but in terms of benefits, education, protection – how does that help? 

With a wage hike, prices also have to go up, which has to be taken into consideration. The Toronto food industry is already so unaffordable compared to a lot of cities – it’s not awful, but it’s at a point where you can notice a drop in customers going out during the week, and more of a focus on once-in-a-while splurges. 

We do classes for our staff, tastings, seminars (on top of paying a good wage). I think that’s a lot more beneficial toward building a positive work environment than only raising wages. It all comes back to job satisfaction: if I were getting paid $9 an hour, and I’m learning lots and feel safe and fulfilled and happy every day, I’d rather do that than earn $15 in a place where I feel like crap.

If you have a good support system from top to bottom, your whole team will be stronger. And if every restaurant, every bar, has that strength within their staff, then the community will be stronger.

Evelyn-1711.jpg

Samuel Engelking

IVY KNIGHT 

Writer former cook host, 86’d Mondays at the Drake founder, The Food And Wine Industry Navigator Facebook group

I don’t work in kitchens any more – you couldn’t pay me to go back in. But I still love the scene. The best part, aside from working with food, is the camaraderie because you’re in such a crazy business together. It’s this wild, dark side, like an alternate reality you get to live in. But an industry where so much happens behind closed doors and where there’s no real accountability makes for a perfect situation for [abuse] to happen. 

The closest the public has gotten to seeing that side is a Gordon Ramsay freak-out or something. I remember my stepmother saying, “Is that what it’s like in the kitchen?” And I said, “Yeah, but the insults are better.”  All the stuff about being asked to work overtime and not getting paid for it, having your tits manhandled – it was just part of what you signed up for.

When I was cooking, I was always searching for a place that wasn’t bending the rules in some way. I’ve seen so many sleazy things. We used to be told to come in at noon and not punch in until two. I said I wouldn’t, and the chef said, “We need to get this prep done, and if you won’t do it we’re fucked, you’re not part of the team.” That’s a difficult thing when you’re in the trenches with your buddies and you’re the only chick, and they’re all saying yes.

Women still aren’t presented as headliners in things like the S.Pellegrino Young Chef panel or in festival lineups, because they aren’t “names” – or that’s how the argument goes – but they won’t become names until they’re put there. I can understand, if you’re a guy and you get asked to be in some festival, that’s great for your career. You’re not going to turn it down just because there are no women. It’s every man for himself. 

Dominique Crenn’s response to San Pellegrino has been shared by thousands of people, but only one guy I know shared it. It would be great if all these guys who are staying quiet would speak up. I’ve told them, “It’s great PR, just do it!” I know they believe in having women in kitchens. Everybody does – because we’re in a crisis. Restaurants need cooks. They’re not going to ignore half the population.

When I was cooking, and being abused or assaulted and not helped by my managers, there was nowhere for me to go. I couldn’t go onto a Facebook group like the Navigator, and say, ‘I just got the shit kicked out of me. Does anyone need a cook?’ I didn’t know anybody. I was just some dirtbag line cook. 

Now, everyone knows who everyone is and you can check everybody out, and I’m so glad I have that job group. We recently partnered with an employment app called Pluggd, which I thought would be great way to help even more people find jobs.

I know the line from everyone in the industry is that profit margins are really slim. But how did those Lee boys [Levi and Kai, Susur’s sons] afford $20 grand worth of clothes? How much Singapore Slaw do you have to sell to be buying Bimmers? I was surprised and so happy to see [employees] saying, “Fuck this, I won’t put up with this any more,” and the media picking up on it and running with it. That’s only going to embolden more people to put their foot down. 

For me, it’s like, just give [cooks and employees] more money. I don’t give a shit about your bottom line. With minimum wage going up, we’re gonna see a lot of change in the next year. 

Restaurant owners complain now that people don’t show up for interviews or for their first shift, but it’s because they’re not desperate any more. The owners are the desperate ones. It’s time for them to figure something out, whether it’s benefits, paid sick days – basic human rights. I think those are going to get a foothold going forward.

_MG_2316.jpg

Samuel Engelking

Lucah Rosenberg-Lee  

Former bartender (five years)

Jabari Tate Morgan

Former line cook/food runner/busser (six years)

L: I never worked in hospitality before transitioning. I knew I’d be given a super-feminine job, be a hostess, have to wear this and that. It wasn’t until I transitioned that I started to realize I actually wanted to work in hospitality. Once I did, I did feel more comfortable, presenting as male and wearing what I wanted. But there’s a lot of sexism, a culture between men that isn’t necessarily comfortable for everybody, a lot of physical touching. Things like top surgery and passing – I feel like if I didn’t have those, I wouldn’t be able to work at restaurants.

J: I was not out at work. I was pretty stealth. My front-of-house experience was amazing, but working in the back, there was a lot of toxic masculinity, name-calling and sexism. It made me question what my masculinity looked like. You’re thinking, “Should I be that way, too?” And if you’re not that way, you’re shamed. I learned to accept the fact that I’m not a part of that, because I don’t want to be, and that’s okay.

As a dude, you’re not supposed to speak up. Even if you see women being harassed, you can’t say anything about that either because you get read as something different than the norm. 

L: At one job, the manager tried to buddy up. He took me out for a smoke and gave me this speech about wanting me to be his spy, to watch the women on staff in case they were doing something wrong. It was this very male-versus-female dynamic, which is weird, especially when you’re trans.

J: We’re still trying to get used to our own bodies, and to what we should be expected to tolerate because “we’re guys now.” Once, I got my nipple pinched at work. I was like, “Why?”

L: Even when they know you’re trans, they’re like, “Oh, you’re a guy now, right? We’ll just do the guy stuff.” Even if they’re cool with you, that won’t prevent [harassment]. I feel like in that industry the rules have been so lax for so long [so no one respects them].

J: Tip-stealing was a thing at one job I had. We weren’t allowed to question the managers, and if we did, people got let go. I’ve had to call the labour board several times – sometimes they care, sometimes they don’t. At one place that was really toxic, one of the owners was drunk a lot. One day he got in my face, calling me names, being super-abusive. I was in therapy at the time and told my supervisors, and one of them started making fun of me. Some of my co-workers were in on that as well, teasing me, calling me a bitch or a pussy.

L: It’s a very manipulative industry. They’ll do anything to have you come in or stay. I’ve been tricked into coming in for a “meeting” and then working a shift. Or they’ll say “your shifts are only this long” or “you’ll only work three days a week” – and that’s a lie.

J: Restaurants also take back a lot of people when they’re short-staffed. At the last place I worked, a guy sent some inappropriate texts to a girl. He got fired – but they were short-staffed, so they called him back. I was like, “Are you really not taking this seriously?”

But when I worked back of house, I couldn’t call in sick at all. I could break my arm, and they’d be like “Yo, just prep with your left hand.”

L: But the reason they don’t staff appropriately is their bottom line. I hate that — as a customer, too. It makes for a bad experience, and it obviously affects the restaurant’s tips.

J: And breaks in restaurants aren’t a thing. You can’t provide good service like that. Having more people on call would help.

L: In terms of change, it would be great to have more tip transparency, as well as some kind of HR. There’s not somebody you can talk to who’s a go-between. I think it comes down to better relationships between staff and management. 

J: A lot of managers get drunk, do drugs, don’t show up sometimes, and they don’t get in trouble. If people are being disciplined, there should be rules in place for management as well. And better communication between staff and management — that would be a game-changer.

Alexandra Keswick_MG_0020.jpg

Samuel Engelking

ALEXANDRA FESWICK

Chef de cuisine, the Drake Hotel organizer of The Dinner Party (October 29 at the Drake Commissary, drakecommissary.ca for tickets)

Every time I question why we need to be talking about women in the industry or hosting events [focusing on female chefs] like the Dinner Party, something will happen where I’m like, “Oh, okay.” For example, the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition didn’t recognize any women on their board as worth advertising this year. When I did the 2013 Dinner Party, we were talking about how Time magazine had just come out with their “Gods of Food” list and there were no [female chefs] on it. We haven’t gone anywhere.

I’ve always been of the mind that if I want something, then I’m going to go for it. That’s why I was prompted to throw the Dinner Party again. What we want to be recognized for is cooking – so let’s cook. 

We’ve structured the dinner so that it’s three groups of 10 chefs, so they have to collaborate with one another. It’s a way to get know each other better because it’s hard when you’re knee-deep in a restaurant to get out there and network.

I’m championing female chefs with this event, but I’ve thought a great deal about involving male chefs, because I want us all to be looked at as “chefs”, not divided by gender. “Is this the best female chef in the world?” Who cares? Why isn’t she the best chef?

I know I’m not alone in feeling like I get asked to do things just because I’m a woman. I was in a cooking competition once against two male chefs. The woman that organized it was talking to someone: “So, we’ve got our veteran chef, we’ve got our hip, new, cool chef – and then we’ve got our female chef!” I won, but I ended up thinking, “Why did I win?” In my opinion, I thought I was the best. But was I the best in the judges’ opinion or was it fixed?  

I’ve been working at the Drake for three and a half years, so I feel like I’ve become removed from [labour abuses in the industry]. I can’t even imagine how that looks anymore. Restaurants are already hard. We’re asking people to work on evenings, weekends and holidays, and [you’re] not even paying people what they should be paid?

I try to balance out the kitchen with regards to gender and cultural background. It’s not that I’m actively seeking out people for any particular reason – I never hire anyone just cuz they’re a woman – but I give everyone equal opportunity, because being able to learn new things from everybody around you is super-important as a cook.

It’s hard to reconcile being a parent with being a chef. But when I got pregnant, I promised myself I would commit to both things. At the same time, I do recognize that I’m the executive chef here and that gives me different leeway. Since the hours are already so demanding at the Drake, when someone needs time off, whether for their kid or something else, 95 per cent of the time I make sure that happens for people because I feel like you get back what you give. I want people to work for me for a long time. I want to invest in them like they are going to invest in me and the Drake.

Deborah Reid.jpg

Samuel Engelking

DEBORAH REID  

Freelance writer for Food & Drink, Eater, the Globe and Mail and others

I feel a bit split on what the food industry’s biggest hurdle is. I think labour and wages are huge. We can’t attract and keep talent because of what we offer in terms of wages or benefits, and quality of life is poor. The other part of me is focused on the issue of women’s access to media, corporate deals and corporate events. We’re not even close to parity on those issues.

Women still bear a lot of the burden for family. Oftentimes, child-bearing age coincides with a period in a woman’s career where she’s really accelerating. And but for people of colour, non-binary people – it’s even more horrendous. How many chefs do you see who aren’t white and dudes?

I wrote a piece in the Globe in the spring about the number of events that don’t have women involved. We aren’t anywhere near where we should be. A lot of men don’t look around themselves and say, “Jeez, we kind of all look all the same – is that a problem?” They’re just on autopilot.  

There’s a fabulous woman on the international scene, Maria Canabal. She’s said outright, “I’m not going on a panel if there’s only one token woman.” I think we, as individuals, need to start setting those terms. I think one of the big barriers is that a lot of people want the solution to be easy. But if you’re hiring or putting something together and you commit to really ensuring diversity, it takes work to make sure everyone’s represented.

I’m totally for this $15 minimum wage raise. The [complaints] are a scare tactic used by restaurant associations worldwide. They all sing from one choir sheet, and that is, “The sky is going to fall.” The hospitality business is the biggest minimum wage employer in Ontario. There’s a lot of power in the corporate sector to keep minimum wage low.

It’s always bothered me that we’re one of those few skilled trades that isn’t unionized. I’m not totally pro-union, but I think this is really an industry that needs to grow up when it comes to caring for people – paying people well, giving them some kind of work-life balance, having benefits. 

It’s an industry you retire out of so early because of an aversion to paying for experience. You need skill, but you’re not willing to pay what that costs. I can tell you a well-run restaurant is probably already paying people $15 or more.

I’ve noticed that the Ontario government is currently advertising for positions that investigate labour cases. I think that is one indication that we’re getting more serious about the culture of labour. 

I still act as a mentor to people coming into the business. I speak candidly with people around me about what needs to change.

But it’s tough because a young person comes to you with their passion, and I’m not gonna squash that. I don’t feel excessive cynicism about the industry either – I think we can make progress. I certainly feel that so many more women are just rising up and being counted.

I wouldn’t counsel anyone to not go into food, but I think people need to be aware. Any young person interested in the industry is also aware of what’s going on – but they still have the desire to get involved. 

Thank goodness. Someone’s gotta cook my dinner down the road.

nataliam@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

Leave your opinion for the editor...We read everything!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *