Chic, elegant, and trendy, nothing screams “gay friendly” more than the upper echelon of the urban fine dining experience-at least on the surface. But for those working behind the scenes, that sleek exterior may mask a macho atmosphere that can include homophobia. As anyone who’s seen TV’s Hell’s Kitchen can attest, such sleekness often belies working conditions that enforce a rigid pecking order, a subculture of macho posturing, and even cases of outright discrimination against one group or another.
The gritty, not-very-pretty reality behind the gilded wallpaper and orchid floral arrangements at some of the finest dining spaces was revealed when a Manhattan waiter, Joseph Bassani, recently filed a lawsuit against Jean-Georges for forcing him to have simulated sex with a prostitute during a private party. Jean-Georges isn’t just any restaurant, or even any top restaurant. It has garnered the ultimate accolade, four stars from the New York Times, and is generally considered by foodies one of the top four or five restaurants in the city.
According to the lawsuit, “The prostitute, who was naked, pushed him onto the top of one of the dining room tables (and) straddled him. Bassani shut his eyes and waited for the assault to end.” But that assault was allegedly only the worst of many such instances in which the waitron said he was harassed due to his sexual preference. Bassani claimed that his co-workers often called him a “whore” and that a supervisor once mockingly attributed his recent weight loss to his having contracted full-blown AIDS.
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New York attorney Anjana Samant believes the case blows the lid off the tightly closed pot of discrimination at these top-shelf eateries. “A lot the discrimination that takes place goes on behind closed doors, especially at high end restaurants,” she said. “There’s a very genteel, prim and proper faÃ§ade but what goes on between shifts or in the kitchens is something the public doesn’t see on a regular basis.”
Samant, a [lawyer] at Outten & Golden, specializes in worker exploitation and discrimination. She pointed out that, in contrast to Bassani’s high-profile suit, most claims of harassment are made by lower-level workers-and all-too often go unheeded by management, as they are easily replaceable and there is often quick turnaround in the industry.
“These are low-wage workers,” she said. “They don’t necessarily have the resources or the wherewithal to take on their employers.” The types of harassment, she added, run the gamut from racial to sexual-and not only in terms of the working atmosphere. Sometimes, she said, the discrimination comes about from a direct decree (albeit often tacit) from management, who would often relegate minority workers to the back rooms or refuse to compensate them for overtime work.
The Bassani headline came right on the heels of a New York Times story on noted French restaurateur Daniel Boulud that suggested that he singled out workers of his eponymous Upper East Side restaurant Daniel because of their Hispanic heritage. Boulud, who, along with Bobbie Flay and a handful of others, is one of the most famous chef-entrepreneurs in the world, was hit with a discrimination suit claiming that Latino and Bangladeshi waiters were denied promotion at Daniel because of their ethnicity. The suit further alleges that management banned speaking any Spanish at all in the kitchen. French and other foreign languages were allowed.
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Samant is quick to point out, however, that New Yorkers are in a slightly better position than most, as city and state laws offer broader protections. “This is really a remarkable and powerful weapon,” she said, “because that goes so far as to offering protection not simply to people who identify as homosexual but also to folks who identify as trans-gendered and may have a more complicated, nuanced claim to make.”
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