Viewpoint: Celebrity Chef Matthew Carmichael’s admission of sexual harassment flags issues in service industry

By Patrick Barrios

Ottawa chef Matthew Carmichael’s recent admission that he sexually harassed three women at his downtown restaurants flags an urgent issue that’s been flying under the radar for far too long: the prevalence of sexual misconduct in North America’s restaurant industry.

The controversy surrounding Carmichael, acclaimed chef behind the well-known Centretown restaurants Riviera, Datsun and El Camino, has shone a light into dark corners of the city’s business community and social life.

More widely, statistics showing the widespread nature of the problem across the restaurant industry are disturbing. A 2014 U.S. report by Restaurant Opportunities Center United found that 90 per cent of women working in restaurants as tipped employees have experienced sexual harassment on the job.

And you guessed it – more often than not, the perpetrators are men.

ROCU’s report notes that 75 per cent of hosts, bartenders, and servers are women. One third of these workers are young, between the ages of 15 and 24.

In what’s often their first job, these young people enter an environment in which sexual harassment has been normalized by managers, customers and even fellow staff for decades, to the point where many dismiss mistreatment as “part of the job.”

According to a 2015 paper in the Canadian Journal of Law and Society, the situation stems from the fact that both restaurant employers and customers often consider themselves to be in a position of power. They think that because they pay workers’ wages — either through either paychecks or tips — they can get away with sexual misconduct.

The worst part, particularly when perpetrators hold positions of authority, is that bystanders almost never speak out against them.

The Carmichael case appears to serve as a good example.

A number of local chefs and restaurateurs spoke out after Carmichael made his admissions in response to a media probe. Some claimed his behaviour had been an “open secret” within the restaurant industry, stating that rumours had been circulating for months.

This kind of reaction is common, with male friends or colleagues only speaking out against a harasser after that person’s public fall from grace.

The ever-growing list of sexual misconduct allegations made against high-powered, high-profile men, which have spiked following a recent wave of women’s accusations against Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, has made this abundantly clear.

The world needs to realize that it doesn’t matter if someone has won awards or achieved great things. Success should never lift someone above expectations of decency.

If those in the restaurant industry had reason to believe Carmichael was acting inappropriately towards employees at his restaurants, they should have spoken to someone about it.

For now, the chef has relinquished his day-to-day roles at his four Ottawa restaurants.

He cited cocaine and alcohol abuse as factors influencing his behaviour, and reportedly sent his email apology to journalists after completing a 30-day therapy program.

In what he describes as a “clear state of sobriety,” Carmichael recently told CTV News that he wishes to become a “champion of change.”

That’s encouraging.

But if Carmichael is serious about improving his behaviour, the restaurant industry and society in general, he should know that an apology does not provide a clean slate.

For the rest of his career, he will need to demonstrate his commitment to ensuring that all employees in his establishments are treated properly.

If you are a restaurateur, a customer, or anyone in a position of authority in the restaurant industry, here’s a tip: Do not expect anything from workers beyond respectful service.