I Was Sexually Harassed By A Famous French Chef But That’s Only One Part Of The Story

The restaurant world is still a boys club and that can mean trouble for women in the kitchen.
Sara Moulton talks about the boys club that rules the restaurant industry.
Sara Moulton talks about the boys club that rules the restaurant industry.
Courtesy of Sara Moulton

In the wake of the profound conversations ― and the burgeoning reckoning ― the #MeToo movement has inspired in Hollywood over the past four months, women in other industries have begun to speak out about their own encounters with sexual harassment, sexual assault and inequality in their workplaces. Here, chef, food writer and TV personality Sara Moulton recounts her harrowing experience working in the kitchen of esteemed French chef Maurice Cazalis, Julia Child’s response to her story and her thoughts on the boys club that continues to rule the restaurant industry.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about what’s happening right now but then I thought about some of the big-name male chefs who truly do operate a “boys club” and I’m just so tired of it.

When I went to the Culinary Institute of America from 1975 to 1977, most of the chef instructors were European and most of the students were blue-collar young men. Men at every level in the school told me the same thing: Women do not belong in the kitchen. “They’re too weak, they can’t stand the heat, they can’t stand the pressure, they can’t lift the pots” — all of that. Luckily, for me, that was not a deterrent — that was catnip. My Napoleon complex kicked in. I thought, Fuck you! I’m going to show you!

Because I was a good student, I ended up doing very well at the CIA and it wasn’t long before many of the male students were asking me questions. I was 23 — I’d already gone to college and I was clearly paying attention. They were all 18 and what does an 18-year-old man have on his mind? Certainly not studying. Not that I didn’t love these guys — they were salt of the earth and had a lot to teach me about cooking. But, besides trying to show them that I can do this, and I will do this, I also now realize that I bought into the romance of working hard in the kitchen. You’ve got a million orders and you’re doing 500 things at once and you’re all screaming at each other. Every night is a war and some nights you win all of the battles and some nights you win some of the battles and some nights you lose the war altogether.

There are so many things that happen, and the battles aren’t necessarily even with the people you’re working with — they’re often with yourself. Can you keep up? Can you get those orders out? Are they going to be the way you wanted them to be? Is everyone going to show up at once even though you’ve planned it otherwise? It is very, very stressful but I bought into it — I said, “I can do that. I can be macho. I can be just like the boys!” and I wanted to. It was in many ways like the Wild West: drugs in the back, sex in the walk-in, lots of alcohol — it really is exactly like the stories you may have heard.

After school, I did a stint as a sous chef in a Cambridge restaurant before moving on to another job as the head chef of a little restaurant called Cybele’s in Boston. While working there I met Julia Child and she hired me as a food stylist and recipe tester for her show, “Julia Child And More Company.”

Julia was very fond of me and initially thought that because I was a CIA grad, I was accomplished. But, with time, she decided I needed to go to France and get more training. One day, an old buddy of hers from France, a famous chef named Maurice Cazalis, visited the set and before I knew it, she had procured me a two-month apprenticeship at his restaurant in Chartres, France.

I had no interest in going. I loved France and French food and I’d been trained in it, however I’d already been tortured in cooking school by these European men who thought women had no place in the kitchen. But what was I going to say? No? So, I thought, What the hell, I can do this.

At the time, as the chef at Cybele’s, I did the ordering, the receiving, the hiring, the firing, the food cost, the specials, the recipes, the menu — the everything. Suddenly I’m working with Maurice Cazalis as an apprentice – and all of the other apprentices in the kitchen were 15 years old. I was the only woman.

Right off the bat, he would not let me work the line. In some ways, it was good because I was assigned to do prep for all the stations so I learned about every aspect of the restaurant. But still, I was insulted!

Even worse, it turns out Maurice, who was 72 at the time, was a lascivious character and probably loved having me there because he thought he could have his way with me.

The restaurant was closed on Mondays and the first Monday we had off, Maurice took Janis — my soon-to-be sister-in-law who had come to visit France for a few days — and me to see some local chateaux, and that was fun; I didn’t think anything of it. Then Janis left and a couple of days later, Maurice wanted to “show me the wine cellar.” So we go down and I thought if he did hit on me — and I was pretty sure he might — I’d just talk a lot about my fiancé. Sure enough he starts trying to put the moves on me, and I immediately pushed back. He didn’t touch me but by the way he was talking, I knew I had to be wary.

So the next Monday — and this is how stupid I was but this is what women do sometimes when they find themselves working for powerful men — Maurice said, “I’m going to take you on an overnight trip to Paris to visit the Palais de l’Élysée,” which is the equivalent of the White House. One of his apprentices was the chef de cuisine there and I was really excited because I thought we’d get to go behind the scenes. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As we drove to Paris — it was just the two of us in his car — he suddenly tried to put his hand on my thigh. I had a tote bag with me and I put it in my lap to protect myself. We arrived at the Hotel California off the Champs-Elysées and I heard him book us one room. When we got to the room, I was slightly relieved because there were two single beds and two bathrooms and so I thought, Maybe I can get through this.

That night, Cazalis took me to dinner. I imagined we would probably go to some incredible three-star restaurant, because he was so well-connected, but instead he took me to the Folies-Bergère, a nightclub featuring a dance revue with topless women. The food was awful. While we were there, he told me things like “French men are such great lovers” and I purposefully misunderstood him. I responded, “Oh, tell me more about your career!” We had this whole conversation with him not listening to me and me not listening to him.

“It took me six months to share with Julia Child what Maurice had done and her response was, 'Oh dearie, what did you expect? They’re all like that. Get over it.'”

Finally we went back to the hotel where he told me that he normally slept “tres nu” (very naked), but for me, he’d make an exception and wear his pajamas (pee-jah-maaa). So he went into his bathroom and put on his pajamas and I went in my bathroom and put on my pajamas — and my raincoat with the belt tied tightly ― and we each got into our separate beds and, needless to say, I did not sleep well that night. He did not lay a hand on me.

However, in the morning, after I got up and went into the bathroom to change, I came out and he was using the mirror in the bedroom to shave while wearing just his BVDs. I ignored him. We went to the Palais de l’Élysée and had Champagne with the sous chef. That was the last time I went anywhere with him. Every Monday after that I found things to do or friends to see so that I never had to be alone with Chef Cazalis.

When I got back to the United States, I told Julia that I had a great time and learned a ton. It took me six months to share with her what Maurice had done, and her response was, “Oh dearie, what did you expect? They’re all like that. Get over it.” When she first told me that, I thought, “Whoa!” but I wasn’t mad at her. Then, about five years ago, I thought, that’s Julia — she never let anything get in her way. And I was the same way ― I never let anything get in my way, and I told myself, “Don’t get hung up on stupid ‘feminist’ things.” But now, I’m thinking about it differently.

When people ask me, “How do you think it is for women in the restaurant industry today?” I always respond, “It’s better but it’s not best.” My experience with Maurice was years and years ago but the boys club in the restaurant world definitely still exists. Many men were brought up in a culture that believes that “locker room conversation” is fine and taking it beyond locker room conversation is fine too. That kind of behavior isn’t an aberration. If you’re raised that way, you think it’s fine. Our culture permits it and even encourages it. Just look at our president ― the “Molester In Chief.”

I’m waiting for more stories of harassment by chefs to come out. I think women feel like everyone has bought into the idea “that’s just what happens in kitchens.” You have to be cavalier. You have to have fun. You have to walk on the edge. You have to do drugs and drink way too much alcohol. I did drugs too! I did coke! We did all sorts of coke ― I was the head chef doing coke! That’s just what you do. The chef community is a tight community. If you start to say that something isn’t acceptable — even if it really isn’t acceptable ― suddenly you can be accused of not acting like a member of the team. You also worry that there will be consequences — and there most likely will be.

For the longest time people would ask, “Why are there no women chefs in New York City?” It was because the restaurants were owned and helmed by chefs who were European men and simply didn’t want women anywhere near their kitchens. Women would have loved to work in those restaurants but that door was shut. Finally all of those chefs died off and there were a lot of young women moving up the ranks, who got a good education at cooking school or trained directly with a female or sympathetic male chef.

But, today, when they reach the top, female chefs still don’t get the same benefits as male chefs. They don’t get the same publicity, the same real estate proposals, or the same backers as male chefs and the male chefs prefer to keep it that way. It’s like so many other industries. And many of the top male chefs — the names that we all know and love and I love many of them too — want to keep the boys club alive and thriving. Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy in New York City, recently addressed this head-on in an excellent piece in Esquire.

Men have been not only abusers but also enablers — the ones who watch this kind of behavior happen and say nothing. Women, too, in some cases. This has to end. I don’t have a neat and tidy happy answer to any of this but I do know that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem and everybody has to say no this is not acceptable. This is not how humans treat other humans. Everybody has to be far more conscious. Unfortunately, the thing about “women’s issues” is that for many people, as soon as they hear that phrase, their brains shut down. It becomes “feminism, how boring!” or “women are whining again!” but it’s not that. I’m not sure anyone can really understand how it feels until it’s happened to them, but we have to have these conversations and we have to tell these stories.

(As told to HuffPost’s Noah Michelson)

Sara Moulton hosts the public TV show “Sara’s Weeknight Meals,” now in its seventh season, writes the weekly column KitchenWise for The Associated Press, composes a monthly column for The Washington Post and is co-host of a weekly segment on Milk Street radio. Sara is the author of four cookbooks, including the just-released Home Cooking 101.

Sara was the executive chef of Gourmet magazine, food editor of ABC’s “Good Morning America” and the host of several well-loved shows on the Food Network during that channel’s first decade. For more from Sara, visit her official website.


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