PARIS — In photos taken during visits from local officials, the high school-aged students, all clad in impeccable uniforms, stand with straight backs. They're the embodiment of order and discipline, a ringing endorsement, it would seem, of the Lycée des métiers de l'hôtellerie d'Occitanie, the hospitality school in southern France they attend.
Appearances can be deceiving, however, and what played out behind the scenes was a different story altogether. For starters, there were the sexist jokes and comments — from "at least one out of every two teachers," recalls Juliette M. "It was so common that we soon stopped recognizing it altogether."
Often the comments were about the physical appearance of the students. "Inappropriate remarks about girls' skirts," the now 21-year-old chef, who received her culinary degree in 2018, recalls. "It's an environment where 16-year-old girls are constantly sexualized without anyone seeing the problem."
Juliette M. remembers one teacher who would hover behind his female students "supposedly to show us how to clean the cutlery," and who didn't hesitate to slip a hand on their behinds whenever the mood struck him. "We were made to understand it was part of the game: Chefs make sexist jokes, they'll touch your behinds, it's official and if you're not happy about it you can leave."
In recent months, complaints about the violence and sexism that reign in many restaurants have multiplied. The backdrop of all this is a workplace culture that disqualifies women in the kitchen and normalizes violence, all in the name of austerity, pressure and perfectionism.
In this ultra-hierarchical, make-it-or-break-it world — where the chef is all-powerful (and sometimes admired) — people don't count their hours. They work late into the night and keep their mouths shut. It's a professional reality far from the golden reputation of French gastronomy, and it begins the moment training starts.
Driven by the #MeToo wave, the voices of female students and young graduates are starting to amplify as they testify to the harsh conditions of both their studies and their mandatory internships. Many of these stories have been anonymously published in recent weeks on the Instagram account @jedisnonchef (I say no, chef), created in 2019 by Camille Aumont Carnel, a former student at Ferrandi, one of the most prestigious culinary schools in Paris.
Juliette C., who also graduated from the Lycée des métiers de l'hôtellerie d'Occitanie in 2018, told us about a teacher who would actually hit students hard on their shoulders. "We're in the kitchen," she explained. "It's a macho environment so we get hit and you can't say anything about it."
Except one day, when the teacher hit her violently with a wet cloth, Juliette C. did speak out. She reported the incident to the school principal. "In the end, I was the one who had to apologize, even though I had a red mark on my neck," she said. "Multiple petitions were signed against professors who exhibited borderline behavior, and nothing happened. Everything is stifled."
It's a professional reality far from the golden reputation of French gastronomy.
Marine Melkonian, now 29, suffered her share of abuse as well. "Everything began during my apprenticeship," she says. Born to a family of restaurant owners in Cannes, Melkonian began her studies with big dreams. She wasn't naive, though. She knew things wouldn't be easy.
Early on, Melkonian found a job as an apprentice at the restaurant Ecole des filles, located in a charming village perched on the hills of Grasse in the south of France. As soon as she arrived, head chef Stéphane Lucas — who has since left the establishment — took her aside.
"He warned me that he would be harder on me because I was a woman," says Melkonian, recalling months of repeated insults, humiliation and physical violence. One day, he placed a towel soaked in burning oil on her arm. "So that the job sinks in," Chef Lucas told her.
Right away, the chef forbade her from wearing makeup and lectured her when she changed into a skirt after her shift was over. The idea, apparently, was to embody the "manly" aspect of the trade. Just 17 at the time, Melkonian also endured frequent comments about her breasts and backside. "Out of nowhere, in the middle of a shift, I'd get remarks like 'your butt is like a peninsula,'" she says.
One night, she and a male coworker unwound from their shift with a beer — a commonplace activity for kitchen crew. But suddenly, the man slammed her against the cold room and forced her to kiss him. "I fought him. I yelled, 'You have a wife and kids!' The next day, I lowered my eyes and said nothing. I knew I would be the one fired if I were to open my mouth."
Finally, following yet another violent outburst from the head chef — right after she had been hired for a real position as junior chef — she decided to leave. "He shoved me so hard I flew two meters."
At the time, Melkonian didn't file any complaints; The chef was a well-known figure in the area, and his photo was displayed in her school. "And I'd been told the kitchen was a place where you grin and bear it, so that's what I did."
When contacted by Le Monde, Stéphane Lucas insisted that he is an upstanding individual, and denied any sexist or violent behavior. "I was always hard on Marine because I know that women in the kitchen need to be stronger than the rest of us, otherwise they're done for," he said. "It's a gritty job, a masculine environment."
It's a gritty job, a masculine environment.
After this first experience, Melkonian decided to leave the kitchen for a career in waiting, and today she works in a pub in Toulouse. "I no longer had the self-confidence necessary to know if I would be able to react if a similar situation happened again."
What is the school's responsibility when this inappropriate behavior arises during a mandatory internship? In the case of Juliette C. and Juliette M., they both reported their experiences to staff of the lycée des métiers d'Occitanie. Their complaints were ignored, however.
Juliette C. interned in a two-star restaurant where she was constantly "degraded" and called "thing." She then worked in the restaurant of a big company where "the men left the doors of their changing room open so they could show me their genitals, and asked me to take off my t-shirt."
Juliette M. talks about working for a semi-gastronomic restaurant where every time she bent over a member of the staff simulated rude sexual acts. "You're 17 years old. You're far from your family. How are you supposed to react to that?" she asks.
"My school never checked to see how my internship was going," explains Laëtitia Faudier, a former student at a culinary school near Paris. "I was a teenager. I didn't feel capable of opening that door by myself and I wasn't sure I'd be listened to. When you're a woman in the restaurant industry, you're often reminded that you don't belong there, or that you only serve as a sexual object."
At 17 she was attacked multiple times by a pastry chef who forced her to kiss him and touched her inappropriately. After a witness reported one of these incidents to a senior member of staff, the man was transferred. But Laëtitia never filed a complaint, even when a public prosecutor took up the case.
"At the restaurant, I was told I clearly asked for it and that I was going to destroy his life," explained the young woman, who ended up abandoning her culinary career. "I didn't want to cause any more problems."
Breaking the chain
Marion Goettlé, head of the Parisian restaurant Café Mirabelle, is part of a generation that wants to put an end to the violence endured in kitchens. The 26-year-old says there's an "immense delay" in culinary schools and, together with chef Manon Fleury, is creating a prevention and awareness program to help culinary students combat sexist violence.
You don't need to scream at someone in order to make beautiful food.
"In the restaurant industry we start really young, at 14-16 years old, and are directly immersed in an environment of crude jokes — a culture that we never learn to question," Goettlé says.
Through the program, she and Fleury hope to teach young chefs how to identify abuse, name crimes and understand the mechanisms of violence. "It's absolutely crucial to emphasize this isn't 'normal,' which is what they tend to teach those starting their culinary career," Goettlé insists. "We're also doing this prevention program to say to schools: Take responsibility."
Goettlé is observing the beginning of a new dynamic. "The establishments that show interest are feeling positive reinforcement from certain teachers. But still too many don't seem to see the problem," she says.
The Information Center for Women's and Family Rights (CIDFF) in Paris has come to the same conclusion: They contacted dozens of schools to offer Goettlé's training, but only two said yes. Others make the excuse that the COVID situation was holding them back.
Goettlé still thinks this new generation of chefs "could be the one that breaks the chain." It's an endeavor that will also require an overhaul of how the culinary world sees management. "You don't need to scream at someone in order to make beautiful food," she says. "You can have discipline without violence."
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