My name is Emma, but no one at my first kitchen job called me that. I was a stage for the summer, mid-college, which is to say: I worked for free. It was an Italian restaurant with unlimited bread, good Bolognese, BYO wine.
Instead of Emma, my coworkers called me: My love. My girlfriend. My wife. The mother of my children. "No, no, no!" one shouted. "She's the mother of my children!"
I would ignore them or smile or laugh. Sometimes I'd say, "I have a boyfriend," as if that had anything to do with it. And I didn't tell my then-boyfriend about any of this.
Actually, I didn't tell anyone. Or I didn't think it was a big deal. Or I didn't want to admit that, despite my eagerness to learn, the cooks didn't take me seriously.
Well, two did. The first was the pastry chef, a smart, kind woman who taught me how to dock focaccia with my fingertips, bake soufflés to order, and whip zabaglione — a sweet Marsala custard that we served with fresh berries — until it fluffed into a cloud.
The other was one of the chefs who ran the main kitchen. He was older and, while the other guys called me sweetie, he had me pounding chicken breasts and rolling arancini, fried risotto balls stuffed with meat sauce and green peas.
I cut myself two times that summer: The first, I was chopping onions and snagged the tip of my finger. One of the chefs saw and said, "Go home." The second, I was washing knives and sliced my palm open. The older chef bandaged my hand, gave me a latex glove, and told me to get back on the line.
As summer got hotter and hotter, I spent more time with him. He asked about my education, what I wanted to learn during my apprenticeship, how I hoped this would inform my career.
Then he started asking about my boyfriend. How does he treat you? Good? Good. He should treat you good. Does he love you? Yeah? He should love you. Think you'll stay together? Yeah? Well, who's to say. You're so young. And what do you think about older men, anyway? Yeah, like dating them. To me, age is just a number. To me, anyone can be with anyone. Don't you think?
At the start of every shift, the front-of-house guys would take coffee orders for the back-of-house guys. These men memorized orders for a living, but they'd insist on the same schtick every day. It'd go something like:
"No thanks," I'd say.
"No sugar?" the older chef would smile at me. "Aren't you a sweetheart? Aren't you a sweet girl?"
"Yes," I would laugh. I'm a sweet girl.
What to do when your boss is starting to creep you out, but he's your boss:
1. When he asks you something that makes you uncomfortable, keep the answer short, then pivot. For example, if he says, "How often does your boyfriend tell you he loves you?" say something like, "I don't know, every time we talk...oh, the Caesar dressing! I should make it before service, right?
2. Find a new kitchen mentor, preferably one who's female. If she specializes in an area you aren't interested in learning about, pretend you're interested.
3. Report him to HR. Scratch that. There is no HR.
At this one job, I got promoted from garde manger to sauté cook. It was a two-person line with those two positions, so it was kind of a big deal. This was an open kitchen, with the cold station facing the customers, and the stove facing the wall.
One lunch service, I was juggling this stir-fry, that soup, and I heard a couple of the female servers giggling behind me. I turned and smiled, expecting something about an order. Instead, one of them said, "Emma! You've got a booty!"
At this other job, I had this boss who was a few years older than I was, but way more seasoned in the kitchen. In a past life, he was a history teacher, and he told me all about how he wanted to apply that experience to me.
In fairness, he did teach me a lot. Like how to properly dress a salad. And peel ginger. And julienne a whole case of carrots. He also taught me that what I say doesn't matter, not in his kitchen.
Like when he rated our female guests on a scale of one to 10 ("Seven!" he'd whisper as someone walked in the door), I said, "Please stop," and he wouldn't. Or when he made jokes about my sex life, I said, "Please stop," and he wouldn't. Or when he ranted about us getting "raped" during lunch service, I said, "Please stop," and he screamed at me across the kitchen:
"Have you ever been raped before?"
I stared at him.
What to do when your boss does that:
1. Finish the shift. Then go home, crawl into bed, and cry for three and a half hours.
2. Consider reporting him to the owner. Pro: She's a woman. She gets it. Right? Con: You don't know if she would actually fire him over this. Double con: What if she did? What then?
3. Pretend nothing happened. Start updating your resume.
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This story was originally published on Food52: Cooking in restaurants taught me what workplace harasment is