Porter Novelli

This past Sunday I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion with three outstanding chefs who not only are stand outs in their field, but also stand up for equal rights, in and out of the kitchen.

  • Chef Aarón Sanchez, arguably the most popular Mexican chef in America
  • Chef Eli Kirshtein, a young Jewish chef from the South
  • Chef Sarah Simmons, a female chef and entrepreneur in a male-dominated field

Why chefs and equal rights?

If you think about it, the dining experience is pretty symbolic – it is one of the rare settings in which people are eager to experience the blending of cultures and actually practice giving, sharing and accepting each other. People connect to one another through food, and with so much media/consumer attention on the food industry, chefs find themselves in a unique position. They have been given a platform to speak out for or against myriad issues on a level consumers can understand, helping to affect change in ways that people can relate – through food.

SXSW_Standing For Equal Rights

First up in our discussion was the topic of race/ethnicity. Kitchens have been the center of Civil Rights for decades… it was only in 1964 that restaurants were legally desegregated and took many years after that for some establishments, particularly those in the South, to even honor those desegregation laws. Even today, ethnic minorities are still in supporting roles in the kitchen. A recent study in Chicago found that nearly 80% of whites work in the front-of-house while nearly two-thirds of Hispanics work in the back. For Chef Aarón, this issue is personal. A Mexican chef, he said his dream is to have a restaurant filled with “gringos” in the kitchen working for a Hispanic head chef. In his restaurants, he works with and helps mentor the staff helping them move through the business, as they learn each part.

Race is not the only prejudice in the kitchen. Despite major strides, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that of chefs/head cooks, only 1 in 5 are female while 85% of hostesses are female and 72% of servers are female. Further compounding the issue is a “locker room” mentality that often pervades kitchens. Chef Sarah has experienced first-hand the discrepancies women face in restaurants. She told us how when she is not in her chef whites, male chefs will make passes at her, be dismissive or treat her as though she is the help – in her own restaurant! And when she is tough, she’s called a “b—“ whereas the same behavior is expected and celebrated for male chefs. Of course, this isn’t much different than how gender differences play out in other work environments, something Sarah also experienced in her corporate experience prior to becoming a chef.

Now, over the last year, one of the biggest catalysts for people coming together has been the support of gay marriage, and chefs have certainly done their part to move the issue along. Chefs Aarón and Sarah both participated in 2014’s Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table Dinner in New York City. It was a group of chefs coming together to peacefully protest the Mississippi Religious Freedom Act, a law that did get passed and allows businesses, including restaurants, the legal right to turn patrons away citing religious beliefs – otherwise known as the “turn away the gays” bill. A similar bill was brought forward in Georgia, and Chef Eli shared his dismay that while the Governor has stated that he does not support the bill, his reasons are economic – not in support of civil rights.

Working in a restaurant relies heavily on teamwork – each part dependent on the other for success. And what the chefs so clearly and passionately shared was that this requires treating everyone equally and fairly and setting the tone that anything less is not acceptable. For them, there’s no room for egos. And it shows in the quality of the food and dining experience.

So, next time you’re dining out, consider everyone that is a part of making and serving your meal. We can all support equality, in and out of the kitchen!