Sexual harassment in the food industry is endemic and females must speak up, says top chef

Eleanor Steafel
Darjeeling Express founder and chef Asma Khan - This photo is copyright of JNVisuals and only to be used with express permission and for a minimum usage fee of £160.

A prominent chef has accused powerful women in the hospitality industry of staying silent on sexual harassment. 

Asma Khan, who runs her Soho restaurant the Darjeeling Express with an all female kitchen, said powerful women in the food world needed to speak up on harassment.

She said: “I’ve not seen powerful women in hospitality - the big Michelin star chefs, the females - say a single thing about any male chef who has said something derogatory about women. 

“I would be so upset if I worked for one of these high powered female chefs, as a woman lower down the ranks, and felt the person who I looked up to did not defend women in general.” 

Speaking at the Telegraph’s Women Mean Business Live event, Khan said women who have made it to the top may feel they don’t want to draw attention to the fact that they are a woman by speaking up on women’s issues.

"It’s really a problem in our industry because we do not have anyone speaking up for women at every level because suddenly the very powerful become invisible,” she said. 

“I don’t know whether women who have made it as head chefs, who have had Michelin stars, feel suddenly that they have made it because they’re a chef and they’re no longer a woman. I disagree very strongly. You’re seen as a woman. You’re a leader.”

Khan said harassment was endemic in kitchens. “The narrative is that it’s a very pressured environment, very stressful, a very compact space.

"Touching a woman without consent is almost seen as acceptable. I hear stories about men slapping women, touching them intimately, pushing them into fridges, groping them.” 

She said harassment was often attributed to “stress”. “Men who are doing this because they’re stressed need to get out of the kitchen and go into therapy.” 

Khan said women enduring harassment in kitchens often found they had no one to turn to.

“Women don’t complain because who will they complain to? At the end of the day everything is stacked against them… because you treat your head chef, your sous chef, as God… because the restaurant’s future depends on the head chef they will never remove the head chef because they’re untouchable because they’re God-like in the kitchen. 

“They’re allowed to be bullies because they’re untouchable. Can you imagine working some place where no one can sack you?

Khan wrote a piece in the Telegraph last week slamming Heston Blumenthal, who had come under fire for claiming that fewer female chefs reach the same career heights as men because of their biological clocks and their struggle to lift “heavy pots and pans” after childbirth. 

She said: “I don’t know what sort of cooking they’re doing in Heston’s kitchens but why any of his chefs (pregnant or otherwise) would have to move a very heavy pot more than once or twice a day is beyond me. And if they do, is it really such a problem to have one of the others move it for them?” 

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