"I was having a terrible day," says Butcher & Bee's top pastry chef, Cynthia Wong, a James Beard Award semifinalist and a 44-year-old mother of two who's been amassing accolades since she opened Cakes & Ale in Atlanta in 2008 and debuted her famous "phatty cakes" sandwich cookies.
"He came into the office and this was probably the second time I'd ever seen him in my entire life," Wong says recounting the day last spring when a vendor visited Butcher & Bee to collect a work order. "I probably wouldn't have been able to recognize him in a lineup. He said, 'Oh sweetheart, you look so stressed right now. Let me give you a kiss,' grabbed me by the hand, pulled me into him, and kissed me on the face."
Wong says the response when she called the vendor's headquarters was worse.
By now, you've heard this. Not Wong's exact story, but something not unlike it, whether from a woman accusing Donald Trump or your friend posting "Me too" on Facebook.
'Tis "a season of sex scandals," The New York Times announced in early October, as if declaring Pumpkin Spice Lattés passé.
When you track the ever-growing list of perpetrators and the industries that have black-labeled them, it starts to feel like one massive nonversation. Accusations arise, faux apologies fly, there's a highly-publicized defenestration, and then on to the next one. One year ago it was Trump. Then the Bill Cosby trial. Then Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Louis C.K. Matt Lauer. Garrison Keillor. CNN's "(Incomplete) List of Powerful Men Accused of Sexual Harassment after Harvey Weinstein" is updated daily.
"The people I spoke to was the man who was in charge," says Wong, describing her call to the vendor. 'One of them was like, 'are you sure you want to cancel your order?' The only thing he cared about was losing the account." She then spoke to the president of the company and Wong says, "he said they gave him [the employee] a stern verbal warning." Wong was unimpressed telling the company's president, "This man I don't know put his wet mouth on my face.' And he still didn't really do anything about it."
Ten days before Halloween, New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh was outed for sexual assault and propagating misogyny throughout his restaurant group. The news was more juicy than any restaurant review in 2017. Twenty-five women came forward to call out Besh, who subsequently stepped down from his restaurant group, partnership with Harrah's Casino, and post at the Catholic Ethics Board.
For Charleston restaurateurs, the Besh news hit close to home.
"When I heard about John Besh, I was shocked, but I wasn't surprised," says Leon's Oyster Shop owner Brooks Reitz, who's worked in food and bev since age 16. "I've seen sexual harassment in one form or another in almost every restaurant I've ever worked in. It ranges from someone saying 'nice butt' to John Besh."
Restaurants, like Hollywood casting studios it turns out, have their own particular set of vices. And Charleston is nothing if not a restaurant town.
"It's kind of like the wild west of industries," says Lindsay Collins, another food and bev careerist, who started waiting tables at age 18 and still does, along with hosting the Charleston foodie radio show Effin B Radio . "Being a physical, close-quarters job, it [sexual harassment] gets overlooked and kind of built into the culture. Now it's to the point where you really step back and realize how bad it was."
Collins laughs sadly when remembering the Catholic schoolgirl-style uniform she wore for work at a beer bar in college, and she's still outraged at the customer who joked about seeing her naked while he enjoyed dinner with six other guests.
Wong, thinking back to her pre-Butcher & Bee days, says, "there were tons of situations where I just took my lumps and kept going on. I've worked for people whose mindset of men and women is from the fifties. It's like they've been cryogenically frozen in the fifties, woken up, and opened a restaurant."
Michelle Weaver of Charleston Grill expressed a similar take via email: "The price of doing business in those days was go along or move on. There was a lot of 'boys will be boys' and 'that's just how it is in the kitchen' attitudes. At least now people are talking about it."
Last year, when hundreds of women gathered in Charleston for the inaugural FAB Conference — a two-day symposium by women in the food industry for women in the food industry — those attitudes came to the forefront. During talks covering everything from legalities to sprinkles, FAB creator and former Charleston Wine + Food director Randi Weinstein watched sexual harassment and HR issues arise in nearly every discussion.
"I knew then just how prevalent and relevant it was," says Weinstein. "Like anything, you always feel like it's happening but it's more of a surprise when it's happening in your neighborhood."
As the harassment allegations continue rolling in and Besh's downslide steepens, Charleston restaurants find themselves at an unusual vantage point.
Nearly 8,000 Charleston residents registered as food service employees in 2015 — that's at least 12 percent of the city's total population. For all its Top Chef fame and acclaimed eateries though, Charleston is still a relative newcomer on the international foodie stage. Many restaurants here are still defining their culture, and in many, women are stepping into powerful positions — in addition to Wong, Weaver, and Weinstein, there's Jill Matthias of Chez Nous, The Getaway's owner Genevieve Mashburn and chef Emily Hahn, Basic Kitchen's Air Casebier, Toast's Billie Littles, and James Beard finalist Lauren Mitterer of WildFlour Pastry — to name a few. Our restaurants are booming; our female chefs are killin it; and our Southern culture keeps us proper, right?
"I'm sure that it is happening," says Weinstein, "I can't even venture to say where I think, but I'd be a fool to say I don't think it's happening here."
Even Reitz, who sent a company-wide memo the day after the Besh story broke denouncing any and all forms of harassment or abuse, agrees that our city is not spotless.
"We [in Charleston] are no mightier than any other restaurant industry. I have heard some crazy stories about other people in our business," he says. "I don't know if they're true."
"No restaurant can say without a doubt that nothing like that has ever happened in their restaurant," says Collins. "It's already gone too far, across the board. In every city."
In a male-dominated field with long hours, high tensions, fast turnover, and, especially in Charleston, close quarters — the lines seem to blur and gaslighting is notoriously easy. Reitz cites the drinking culture of restaurants. Collins points to tiny kitchen thoroughfares where "everybody is always behind you ... it's a constant fluid motion with so many bodies moving in and out." And there's the notorious restaurant slang: hot behind! Balls, nuts, legs, finger condoms, and boners (that usually means a butchery knife).
"It's like being in a play at a theater," says Collins. "Weird things happen that would never happen in regular office culture. That lowers the standard by proxy and then all of a sudden you're in a place where you really have to start examining what is okay."
Following the maelstrom of Besh allegations, Charleston restaurants did exactly that, reexamine. Some owners, like Reitz, reminded staff of their strict standards; others revamped anti-harassment policies; and The Post & Courier published the full text of Charleston-area restaurant groups anti-harassment policies.
"Every company should have that [anti-harassment policy], yes, but three years down the line are they [workers] reading that policy every day before work? No," says Reitz. "You've got to create a top-down culture of respect. If you own a restaurant, you are in a position of power whether you think you are or not. Outlining it in the manual means nothing if you don't actually live by that creed and hold people responsible."
That sentiment echoed across every kitchen I talked to.
"A policy is just something to cover you from being sued," says Collins. "Unless it's run from the inside that way, it's just legal jargon."
Jargon is a nice cover, she says: "They [perpetrators] don't want to throw stones in glass houses. They can't come out and say, 'we don't do any of that here,' because they know they do. So everyone's just like, 'let's review our sexual harassment policies and say we have HR.'"
Are things really improving in Charleston restaurants? As far as Wong knows, her complaints elicited little more than "a stern verbal warning." The post-Besh Charleston might look, to the outsider foodie's eye, relatively unchanged.
"It's too early to say," says Reitz.
"It's hard to look at what's going on politically and say that there's any progress at all, but there are more women in positions of power," points out Wong optimistically; "That's my hope," wrote Weaver; "Look at it like ethnicity," says Weinstein, "how long have we been having these conversations? What has changed?"
"This feels different," says Collins, somewhat reluctantly, "if for no other reason that people are scared. People don't want to be the next John Besh."
John Besh was not the beginning, nor the end. Charleston restaurants might wish he was both though — a wake up call and an isolated incident. Instead, chefs are now sharing the sexual assault spotlight with Hollywood producers and presidents, and Charleston, for better or worse, is a city largely known for its foodies.
"We have very powerful megaphones. What do people talk about, read about, do on vacations? It's food and drink," says Reitz, looking out his office window to Leon's across the street, which is about to field another dinner rush. "When you're in the limelight I guess you have to expect that you'll be held up to the light in ways you maybe didn't want as well — don't ask for the attention if you're not ready to accept all of the consequences that accompany it."