Culture

Gabrielle Hamilton Will Partner with a Restaurateur Accused of Sexual Harassment

Why the decision feels like a betrayal and what it means for equity in the restaurant industry
Gabrielle Hamilton Will Partner with a Restaurateur Accused of Sexual Harassment
Photo: Alyssa Ringler

It might be too easy, after hearing the news of James Beard Award-winning chef Gabrielle Hamilton's choice to partner with accused sexual harasser Ken Friedman, to burn the nearest copy of Blood, Bones & Butter.

Please don't.

This may instead be the perfect moment to peruse Hamilton's autobiography, which tells of a woman who moved to Manhattan at age 16, entered the world of food and hospitality, and rose to prominence in a field dominated by men. If you, like many who are perplexed by the announcement, are looking for a window inside Hamilton's brain, it's one place to start.

As The New York Times reports, Hamilton and her wife and business partner, Ashley Merriman, plan to pursue partial ownership and run The Spotted Pig. The New York restaurant has been at the center of the restaurant industry's #MeToo movement after a chilling report by the Times back in December revealed a culture of sexual predation, including accusations by 10 women who said Friedman made unwanted sexual advances. It told of a culture so noxious that the restaurant's private third floor was nicknamed the "rape room" by employees.

Friedman stepped away from day-to-day operations but recently regained control after chef April Bloomfield, his previous business partner, severed ties with the restaurant.

It's a hell of a story, one that, understandably, has left many stunned and upset. How can such a prominent female chef—Hamilton's iconic Prune restaurant is approaching its 20-year anniversary—even begin to fathom going into business with a man like Friedman?

In a further twist, Hamilton has defended the partnership in an off-the-cuff manner through multiple statements, responding that her detractors "ought to be happy that these two women are going into a man-made disaster to help make things right," comparing the venture to chef José Andrés's humanitarian work in Puerto Rico.

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There have been months of controversial back-and-forth in which folks are determining what to do with a restaurateur routinely labeled disgraced, showing that people's concerns about the partnership are valid. We're all asking essentially the same questions, including Merriman herself, who asked in a follow-up interview with Eater, "What does the possibility of redemption look like? Is it possible? I don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t think anyone does."

But I think we do. When you strip away the spiraling news cycle of reactionary responses and remove the tales of endemic sexual misconduct, what you're left with is the business of power and women's equality in the workplace.

Late last year, Rebecca Traister wrote cogently about this intersection in the wake of the #MeToo cultural reckoning, and the parallels are clear: Friedman's case goes beyond sexual harm to include professional harm and power abuse. And how we got here is men ("specifically white men," as Traister wrote) hold an unequal amount of power, leaving women to be dependent on those men for work and approval, among other things.

That's not to say Hamilton or Merriman are depending on Friedman for economic security. It does, however, seem to be a fruitful business deal. And perhaps that's what makes Hamilton's decision so gut-wrenching. If she and Merriman were angling for unconditional ownership, this would be a completely different story. But for all of her talk of "helping the industry at large" and going in there and fixing everything, the culture cannot change until we reevaluate the systemic disadvantaging of women from a sheer business sense of who ultimately wields the power and who makes the profit.

If Hamilton and Merrian truly believe what they're doing benefits women's advancement toward social and professional equality, they may need to take a harder look at Friedman, whose actions in the past exemplify exactly what holds women back. No, we may not have any definitive answers, but I do know the people around me are demanding them. And one thing is for sure: Hamilton's book will not be enough to illuminate the situation.

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