Restaurant industry lore has it that, back in the early aughts, when Mario Batali and Ken Friedman were seeking a chef for the restaurant venture that would become the Spotted Pig, they knew they’d found the right person for the job when Batali got a look at her hands. April Bloomfield was missing a fingernail; her forearms were marked with cuts and burns sustained in the kitchen. According to Friedman’s memory, as reported by The New Yorker, Batali said that Bloomfield’s injuries indicated that she would “sacrifice her body” to the work. “She’s a star,” the recently deposed emperor of Eataly is recalled to have said at the time. “I can tell.”
Bloomfield was in her late twenties, a hardworking young chef who had come up through London kitchens with a solid reputation but without celebrity status. That interview with Batali and Friedman was the first time she had ever visited New York City. In the years since, she has more than demonstrated that she was up to the gig and any challenge that followed. Now in her early forties, Bloomfield has secured a spot among the few female chefs famous not for their daytime cooking shows but for their back of house brilliance. Along with Alice Waters, Gabrielle Hamilton, Amanda Cohen, and painfully few others, she has become an industry beacon for breaking gender barriers in the professional kitchen.
But while it’s nice to think that Bloomfield would have shot to success on the basis of skill and grit alone, the truth is that, in industries notoriously hostile to women, being anointed by a powerful man can change everything. How she handles that relationship can make or break a career, depending on the dynamic. Which is why the most recent #MeToo reckoning sweeping the food world is especially thorny.
In a New York Times story this week, Bloomfield’s longtime business partner, Ken Friedman, was accused of fomenting a work culture characterised by serial sexual harassment, abuse, and fear of retaliation. He is alleged to have groped employees, forcibly kissed them, yanked at least one’s head toward his crotch; discriminated in hiring and firing based on looks; and pressured staff to take drugs with him, among other behaviours. One disturbing quote from the Times piece making the rounds is that employees called the Spotted Pig’s VIP lounge — where Friedman, along with Batali, were often found schmoozing — the “rape room.”
Friedman, who is married to a former Spotted Pig staffer, swiftly announced he would be taking a leave of absence. What that means, in part, is that Bloomfield has been left to deal with the fallout. In her original statement, which appeared in the Times piece, she claimed limited awareness of the toxicity, saying that in the “two matters involving uninvited approaches that we brought to my attention over the years” she referred the parties to outside legal counsel while also addressing the situation in-house. Given her reputation as someone who works hard and plays little, there is some multiverse scenario in which she wasn’t fully aware of what was going on within her own establishment. But given that at least one employee said Bloomfield effectively told her to get to “get used to” Friedman’s behaviour or “get out” — what’s obvious is that she knew enough not to be blameless.
When it comes to fallen men and #MeToo: She’s not the only woman sullied by association. The last few months have been riddled with realisations about the women who enabled patterns of abuse, in some cases over the course of decades. Female executives who accompanied Harvey Weinstein to hotel bars — the producer’s honeypot scheme — so that the women he was meeting there would feel less threatened? Accessories. Network heads who ignored or minimised complaints in order to keep their star on air at all costs? Offenders whose actions undercut the careers of countless women. Bloomfield is paying for her part in Friedman’s transgressions with her reputation. In the days since the story broke, she’s been called “complicit,” an “enabler,” “guilty,” “as disgusting as her partner,” and worse than him “… the other pig in the Spotted Pig.” Her initial apology was characterised as a letdown not just to the people who work for her and women in the industry, but as a slap in the face of all women everywhere.
But is that characterisation hyperbolic? The idea that Bloomfield isn’t just a bad guy but the worst woman smacks of a certain slant of cultural sexism — the kind that puts the onus on women to “fix” the problem and lets men off the hook. We saw it when the Weinstein news first broke and it was suggested that “it is the responsibility of the female” to not just reign in but prevent harassment — which is just another way of saying “she was asking for it” — and we’re watching it play out again right now.
Because the thing is, it’s not that Bloomfield — or any of the women — are innocent here. If indeed she told employees to, so to speak, get out of the kitchen if they couldn’t take the heat. That was clearly, unequivocally wrong. So long as we’re critiquing: People can immediately sense the difference between an earnest apology and stiffly scripted damage control, which is likely why her second attempt, shared on Twitter late in the week, was constructed to sound more heartfelt and sincerely regretful.
"In meetings with [Friedman], I lectured, and I demanded, but now I know that it wasn't enough," she wrote. "Way too late — I am truly sorry... I pledge to show respect, always, and that under my watch no employee will endure this kind of pain again." That's a high bar promise that even with the best of faith would be hard to keep; the endemic gender issues within the restaurant industry will make it doubly hard to deliver on. Is a busy female chef in an industry typified by what one Spotted Pig employee "sexualised camaraderie" responsible for refereeing the line between bawdy fun and predation? If she fails to eradicate harassment from the workplace, does that make her as bad as the assistant who delivers a victim to a hotel room on a silver platter?
Turning Bloomfield into the worst villain in this story also conveniently overlooks a fundamental fact about the relationship between women and power. Namely, the idea that when women have it, their grip is ever anything more than tenuous. As with Weinstein, Louis C.K., Batali, Lauer, Moore, Franken, Toback, Simmons, and beyond: The women involved — both the ones who benefited from their connections to these men and the ones who came forward with their stories — had a lot to lose, too. How does that factor into balance of power? It’s not as black and white as “good guy” versus “bad guy," and we won’t arrive at an answer through Twitter infighting or on nightly news debates. We will only begin the untangling when we’re ready to talk about degree, nuance, and systems of power. And in this current environment: Good luck with that.
But it’s worth asking the questions. Starting with: What do we do with a man who demonstrates a commitment to women’s causes publicly but harasses them behind closed doors? What do we do with a man who has helped many women reach the upper echelons of their shared industry but pawed others at holiday office parties?
A few more: What do we do with the men who proudly proclaim their feminism but also ask their colleagues to watch them while they masturbate? What do we do with the ones who buy their way into female allyship, like an indulgence paid for some future sin, and then violate every trust? What do we do with an apology, even a good one? What do we do with the people who helped the aggressors? What do we do about exclusionary boys clubs, and misogynist locker room talk, and uncomfortable encounters in the elevator?
What do we do with the women who protect these men, who excuse them, who support them, who love them, who stayed silent, who looked the other way, who saved themselves at a price? How much fault do we assign to her, when the only thing we know for sure is that the system requires that she sacrifice parts of herself to succeed?