Chef Tiffani Faison speaks with WGBH News' Joe Mathieu.

Credit: Ciku Theuri/WGBH News

Tiffani Faison On What It's Like To Be A Female Chef

February 13, 2018

WGBH News' Joe Mathieu talked with Boston chef Tiffani Faison about her recent opinion column on misogyny in the restaurant industry, which first appeared on the food site Eater. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: Tiffani Faison is known for what she cooks but the celeb chef behind Boston restaurants Sweet Cheeks and Tiger Mama is making news with what she is saying, in what she calls the post-Besh, post-Batali moment, referring to chefs John Besh and Mario Batali, both brought down by sexual harassment allegations.

Faison has written an opinion column about what it's like to be a woman in a professional kitchen. It first appeared on the food site Eater, and it's been repeatedly shared on social media, generating scores of online comments, and adding an important element to a #MeToo story that's still being written. I sat down with Faison, who was a finalist on the first season of Top Chef, to talk about life in the kitchen and the message she's trying to set.

Tiffani Faison: I think there are a significant amount of women in the industry who have not been maybe directly sexually harassed, who have not had hands on them, who have not had to deal with things that rise to the level of really uncomfortable physical stuff in restaurants. But there's an underlying sense and feeling of misogyny that we deal with. And so you know, in a moment, and I think women are particularly adept at saying, 'Well, my experience wasn't as bad as this other person, right?' We play, like, checkers, and well, you know, this person actually experienced violence ... and that's true, and that doesn't invalidate any horrific violent or sexual experiences that happen.

Having said that, it also doesn't mitigate the fact that when there are misogynistic undertones or overtones in a work environment, and I think you get through sort of those early years, if you make it through, if you've been in a kitchen for a long time, and you either become a part of it, you fight against it a little bit, or you just become numb or neutral just to make it through, and then when you get to run your own kitchen whether you're a chef her chef-owner, whatever it might be, how does that then manifest? Has it stopped? And for me, I think the answer, and I think for a lot of women that are chefs as well, the answer is, no, it doesn't stop. It just takes on a different form.

JM: That's what I want to get to, a little bit, with you because you've made the point that full-on harassment and misconduct is present in the kitchen.

TF: Oh, absolutely.

JM: But you say, 'I'm a woman and a chef, and I shouldn't have to care if you like me.'

TF: Right.

JM: That's another wrinkle here. This is about just getting along.

TF: Right. And the other thing is, you know, what's missed in this title is, like, we are likable. You know, the problem is, I shouldn't have to prove it. And I shouldn't have to have that as part of my CV in my career, that I am talented, I'm capable, I can run a business, and also I'm this really exceedingly charming person that will never say anything stupid, will never put myself in a bad light, that doesn't have the ability to sort of have a devil-may-care attitude about the things that I do. Women specifically think about the consequences of what we say, how we behave, before we do the thing that we do, before we say the things that we say. Men don't typically have to do that.

JM: The headline on your piece is, "The Double Standard Holding Back Women in the Restaurant Industry." It's pretty straightforward. So you've opened yourself up to this. You're part of this story now. What's it been like, are you hearing from people?

TF: Yes, so it's, I mean, I think the first rule of anything when you put yourself out in the world, if you write something, is do not read the comments section, right? So my wife and I made a pact that we wouldn't read the comments section. I broke it. So don't do that.

JM: How long did you wait?

TF: A couple days. I definitely didn't go right at it.

JM: Was it ugly?

TF: No, there's a lot of supportive things on there and then there's just people there saying, 'Well you are unlikable, and this is who you are.' Like, they know who I am better than I [do]. So it's a reminder that there are people that are just never going to stop, dismantle their beliefs or their thoughts about how the world works or that someone might have had a different experience than than they have. But for the most part it's been really supportive. ... It's been overwhelmingly supportive, actually. There's a significant amount of women that have, both writers and people in the industry, that have said, 'Hey, this is exactly what I've felt for a really long time, or I've experienced pieces of this.'

JM: Did people encourage you to do it? And I ask you that because you have a celebrity status that provides leverage that a lot of other chefs wouldn't have.

TF: The simple answer is, no. I was definitely encouraged by a couple of people, but for the most part, it started with, like, just not wanting to be silent around ... we were having this really significant moment, how do we harness this moment? How do we have real and meaningful conversation? It makes me feel hypersensitive about now everything I'm doing, right? So I'm arguing that I don't, shouldn't have to think about whether people like me and I shouldn't have to worry about likeability, and I'm sure this will mellow out at some point but it sort of has had the unwitting effect of doubling that down for myself.

JM: So you've exposed yourself to something here.

TF: Yeah, sure.

JM: Has it changed the mood in your own kitchen?

TF: No. The people that are in my kitchen, that work for me and with me, have known who I am from day one. They know I'm not a wallflower. They know that I don't put up any sort of discrimination for anyone, not for women, not for minorities, not for people of any sort of sexual orientation or gender identity. I just don't. Our hierarchy in the kitchen is, how good are you at your job? How can you perform, and how can you support your team? And that's it.

JM: There's a great line in your piece, "the public thirst for all things chef." I was excited to meet you today. I watched the first season of "Top Chef." That's partly why people come here. But it also enables the worst behavior in the case, at least, of men.

TF: Sure. And I speak to it in my piece when I say, you know we have, we all sort of know that chefs' lives are hard. They're physically hard, they're mentally demanding, they're — we live on, sort of, a razor's edge of succeeding or not succeeding at all times. The output of a lot of people's careers is bad behavior, and it's been, it's been accepted, that we find it charming in men. ... I can give you example upon example of men that have risen in this industry, but their behavior is abhorrent. I can't give you the same amount of women, I can't give you any women that have been able to sort of rise in that way.

JM: Your mission as a cook is to make great food for people. I'm assuming that's what still gets you out of bed in the morning.

TF: That is still what gets me out of bed in the morning.

JM: And as a restauranteur to make a great experience. But is your mission, your personal mission, evolving a little bit as you mature in the industry? We're talking a lot about the business side of this and then the social side of this. And this is part of what you carry to work everyday, too.

TF: Yeah, I mean, I think just as anyone matures in their lives and their careers, that their mission evolves. No one is just one thing, right? Even though I'm a chef, I'm a cook, I'm a business owner I have interests in other areas. And one of those areas specifically for sure is making sure that as young women come into the industry that I am deeply part of and I love deeply that it is, indeed, the community that we profess it to be.

JM: Thank you for talking so openly with me about this and for bringing this issue to us on WGBH.

TF: Thanks for coming.


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