Kitchen (not so) Confidential

In the wake of a slew of sexual harassment claims that have reached industries ranging from health care to Hollywood, famed chef and television host Anthony Bourdain is raising his voice in support of the #MeToo movement.

One of the movement’s catalysts for public exposure has been Bourdain’s girlfriend and her allegations of sexual assault at the hands of a powerful executive.

“The quality of life has to improve” in the restaurant industry, Bourdain told students and family members attending the Dec. 19 graduation ceremony at his alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. “As chefs, as leaders, as employers, we are going to have to start addressing this in a very serious way.”

“What kind of a place do we want to work in? What kind of leaders do we want to be?” he asked the crowd in the school’s Marriott Pavilion auditorium. “It’s not just how are we going to behave as professionals, as employers, as leaders, but what kind of behavior will we accept in our presence?”

That question is one Bourdain himself has had to wrestle with in recent months. Allegations of sexual misconduct recently pointed to two of his well-known contemporaries in the industry, chef-owner Mario Batali and restaurateur Ken Friedman.

Anthony Bourdain appeared at his alma mater in December.Photograph by Bob Rozycki.

“What will we do about the things that we see? The way others behave? How are we going to account for ourselves a week later, a year later, 10 years later, 20 years later, when we look at our hearts and we say, ‘I saw a lot of ugly behavior, and I did nothing’? Do not be that person,” he said.

Bourdain got his start at the Culinary Institute of America four decades ago, graduating in 1978. He went on to work at New York City eateries, including Supper Club and One Fifth Avenue, before becoming an acclaimed writer, author and television host. His various series, including Travel Channel’s “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” and CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” have earned him more than a dozen Emmy nominations and four wins.

Bourdain in his graduation address pointed to his first work of nonfiction, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.” The book chronicles his professional history and offers a behind-the-scenes look at restaurant kitchens.

“I wrote a book as a working cook, as a working chef, intending to entertain a few line cooks, a few fry cooks down the street. This was my highest ambition for this thing,” he said. “I wrote an honest book reflecting who I was at that time, what little I knew and saw of the world.”

Today, however, Bourdain has a different take on “Kitchen Confidential,” which became a New York Times bestseller and propelled him to stardom.

“I realize in writing it, in being so proud of having endured a very tough world, a very different kitchen and restaurant world than you are going to experience, by celebrating that, by glorifying that, by being proud of it, by romanticizing it, I was writing a meathead bible. It has been dismissively referred to many times by women in this business, and rightly so, as the ‘bro bible.’”

Bourdain previously has said his view changed because of his girlfriend Asia Argento, the Italian actress and film director who was one of the first women to come forward with allegations of assault against movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

The author-chef said he feels strongly remorseful that his book prolonged a culture that allowed harassment to exist and even thrive. “If there’s a harasser in the kitchen who’s a jerk, chances are he’s got a copy of my book on his station,” he told his Hyde Park audience. “And I’m going to have to live with that.”

For more than a century, most kitchens have operated under the brigade system, which organizes positions in a strict hierarchy of authority and responsibility.

“The system was not designed to uplift or to educate,” Bourdain said. “For many years, the system was to push, to haze, to pressurize, to try to make them break.”

It was designed to allow kitchen higher-ups to ensure their underlings would not crack under pressure.

As a result, said Bourdain, the brigade system has filled the industry with many who exemplify “grotesque behavior.”

“Look around you,” he said. “You’re seeing giant, hundred-million-dollar empires vaporized overnight because of really hideous behavior by a few people in that organization.”

Bourdain said this new reality is something all actors in the restaurant business will need to address.

“Please, go out there in this new world that is being created right in front of us, right now, today and tomorrow and over the next few weeks and months and years,” he said, “and change that world for the better.”

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