A few months back, I sent an email to Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune. It was around the time news of her second memoir was announced, and I was looking forward to the follow up to Blood, Bones, and Butter, which was a formative narrative for me. It proved Hamilton had serious writing chops—that she was not only a formidable chef, but a talented writer. It was an exciting combination in someone who had a powerful voice and platform in the industry.
Life & Thyme was running a theme around the concept of language; I wanted to discuss straddling those two disciplines, and how thoughtful words would be so important to the future of the food world. I received no response, which isn’t terribly uncommon for chefs at her level.
But as an admirer of her writing and lover of her food, I know the story I’d have likely written. About the ability of her simple style of food to speak volumes over the course of two decades in New York City. About inspiring a younger generation of chefs to be more contemplative, deliberate in business decisions (until now, she’d owned and operated only one restaurant while many of her peers have built veritable empires). About her example. About her leadership.
And now, I’d be looking back at the piece with a whole lot more questions. Because last week, Hamilton decided to extend a bailout to Ken Friedman, who has been accused of sexual harassment, and been one of the key figures at the center of the food world’s #metoo movement.
We in the food media have a lot on our minds lately. Most of us have barely had time to catch our breath between reports of disturbing allegations and accusations that have leveled empires and left gaping holes at our highest levels. And now The Spotted Pig fiasco has us all arguing amongst ourselves, second guessing figures we once considered future legends. Even heroes.
I had a chance to sit down with Mario Batali years ago, and as Babbo was perhaps the first restaurant with which I had a real love affair, it was a bit of a dream come true. The piece I subsequently wrote was as much about the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes as it was about the man who popularized it in New York City. But now, I cringe when I recall the contents. It was an honest work and I was proud of it, but what I once considered a solid piece has been removed from any samples I share. I cannot allow words—even ones once carefully chosen—to elevate the image of someone with such contemptible associations.
And I’m not alone; in this industry, we’ve loved our leaders and demonstrated it liberally. In everything from television shows to documentaries to weekly think pieces, we exalt the work of chefs around the world. We’re a business that has long enjoyed a lighter side of life. Certainly food and feeding people has always been tied tightly to complex politics—it’s not a business of total fluff, of course. But many of us are having the kind of crisis of faith that befalls worlds more accustomed to the corrupt or disenchanting—or (and to use a term that perhaps isn’t being used enough in conversations about sexual assault) the criminal.
It got me thinking about idolatry. And in our society, we love our idols. There’s a reason superhero movies dominate the box office. We’re a culture in search of heroes. Of action. Of leaders. The food business is no different. Ancient societies looked to these godlike figures to explain away mysteries, to help them understand the inexplicable. But do idols still have a place in our world? And is it too much to ask mere mortals to do the right thing?
What are we to do? We’re losing our leaders, and we’re losing them to behavior that poisons—or at the very least, pits us against one another, and against ourselves. Do we still have dinner at the Pig if we don’t agree with the new ownership structure? Do we try to support the staff there, who may have genuine intentions and are simply trying to make a living? Do we boycott a restaurant that once served as a setting for despicable actions? Do we still take anyone’s word that their dream is to just feed and nourish their community, provide a little joy in their lives, and a place for families and friends?
Our industry, perhaps more than other artistic disciplines, has experienced a dramatic amount of change in a short time. “Celebrity” is younger and newer to those in this business than many others, and those who have it now should recognize their responsibility.
Some of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the food media as well. As our industry grows and faces more serious challenges, as professionals at our highest levels go from simply supporting their families or a small staff to literally hundreds of people, our coverage must become more discerning.
As journalists, we always do our best diligence, but along with questions about culinary philosophy and the latest sous vide technique, we must also consider what’s necessary to liberate such skeletons from the coat-check closets of fine dining restaurants and beyond. Not every chef profile needs to be an exposé, but it’s our job to hold those in positions of power to the standards of integrity any industry would demand of its upper echelon.
Because whether or not you put faith in idols, this is a business about human beings. And what we need right now are leaders. To inspire. To provoke positive thought and engagement, rather than the attention of local authorities. People who step up with the right intentions, with their feet on the ground. It’s time we take them off their pedestals and put them in a driver’s seat, where there are consequences if they take a wrong turn, steer under the intoxicating influence of ego or blind ambition or power—or something far worse. And remind them, they’re not piloting some flashy sports coupe, but a vehicle packed with people who rely on their every move.