Chef school draws heat for all-male panel

Toxic masculinity resides in “so many restaurants,” says prominent Toronto restaurateur

A George Brown College (GBC) panel discussion featuring famous chef Massimo Bottura was recently at the centre of a Twitter storm due its composition as an all-male panel.

Toronto-based restaurateur and writer Jen Agg criticized the Nov. 13 event for being all-male, at a time when discussions have opened up around sexism and sexual harassment in the culinary industry.

“Ok men here’s a fun idea, if you’re on a panel and there are no women on it, it’s a bad panel” Agg tweeted at George Brown during a lengthy twitter discussion. “How do you think this makes your female students feel?”

The issue of panels with all men on them, or “manels” as they have been named, has been in focus in Canada of late, with health journalist André Picard recently removing himself from a panel that had 10 participants, all men.

The GBC panel featured Bottura along with chefs Jeremy Charles, Antonio Park and John Higgins, who is a director at the centre for hospitality and culinary arts at George Brown. 

Christine Walker, who is chair of George Brown’s chef school, said that the criticisms are not looking at the “overall picture” of the culinary events the college runs, and pointed out that the panel was moderated by chef and writer Claire Tansey.

“We offer events for all different backgrounds and diversities and I think that what Jen did was just look at one event and try and cause a big scene about it, which I don’t think is the right approach,” Walker said.

She also pointed out that of the last six events, 12 participants were men and 18 were women. 

In response, Agg said “it’s cool that GBC does events with women and all but that doesn’t make it less glaring when a big-time chef gets an all-male panel. Representation matters.”

Agg is the owner of several restaurants, including The Black Hoof and Grey Gardens and has been a prominent voice in raising issues of gender harassment and sexism in the industry. Her recent book on her experiences in the industry is called I Hear She’s A Real Bitch, a nod to constantly being perceived that way even though she isn’t one, Agg said. 

Agg said she’s tired of all-male panels and the college can find non-male participants easily.

“It would have been so easy for the powers that be at George Brown to reach out to any number of prominent chefs in Canada who aren’t men,” said Agg.

Agg explained that the manels issue is about more than trying to achieve parity. Women deserve access to events like the Bottura panel to network with powerful men that run the restaurant industry.

Walker said that panel participants made sense because they were all featured in Bottura’s book.

“I appreciate that (Agg) wants us to have equal female representation but we’re not just going to place a female on a panel to make people happy,” she said.

Agg said that she doesn’t want tokensim, and there are plenty of qualified female chefs and food industry people to include on panels, including Suzanne Barr, Alexandra Feswick and Connie DeSousa.

Cora James, a George Brown culinary graduate who is now executive pastry chef at Mamakas Taverna and Agora, said she shares Agg’s concerns. James said via Twitter that manels impact every woman in the business and advocacy on the issue will “ultimately help change the way women are treated, appreciated, and viewed in the food industry.”

At work in mostly male kitchens, James said that men regularly offer to “help” her lift 20-pound bags of flour as if after 10 years in the business, she can’t lift them herself. 

James said that her pastry program at GBC was mostly women, but that the role of the pastry chef is feminized in concerning ways that tie in with homophobia and transphobia in the industry. 

“I’ve known male pastry chefs to be harassed on the grounds of their sexuality,” James said. “Like, they must be gay if they like sugar.”

Agg’s activism on gender inequities in the restaurant industry is not limited to Twitter or criticisms of manels, but is substantive and not limited to Canada. World-renowned chef Anthony Bourdain recently declared himself to be her ally on these matters.

Agg argues that dealing with gender inequality in the restaurant industry will benefit everyone. 

“Balanced kitchens are just better, and most smart, thoughtful men in the industry would agree with that, I assume,”said Agg. “But the toxic masculinity that dwells within so many restaurant’s walls is truly astounding.”


Chef school draws heat for all-male panel