Tosi, the founder and CEO of Milk Bar, is pretty well-connected in the restaurant industry. By the time she was 30, she had worked for prominent New York City restaurateurs Wylie Dufresne and David Chang, and then gone on to start Milk Bar with Chang's Momofuku restaurant group. Now 36 (and married to Will Guidara, a fellow New York food mogul), Tosi juggles judging Fox's MasterChef TV series with running her 12-location, 200-plus-employee company, one that closed a funding round in November.
This was just about the time that the sweeping #MeToo movement came for the restaurant industry. In the past few months, many women have leveled accusations of harassment and assault against several high-profile chefs and restaurant operators, including Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, and John Besh.
The volume and degree of these accusations seem to represent an overarching industry sexism, one that Tosi acknowledged in a recent interview. However, she also raised concerns about a potential backlash, and pointed out that "there are a lot of incredible men" in the restaurant business.
Some of Tosi's comments echo concerns that have been expressed by various #MeToo critics: Is the backlash worth it? By focusing on the horrific crimes allegedly committed by the likes of Harvey Weinstein, this argument goes, women risk damaging and alienating the men who still hold most of the power in the business world--and risk increasing more subtle discrimination. For example: Maybe, now, men in power won't feel comfortable being alone with their female employees, or will avoid hiring or promoting or investing in women. (This argument, though, tends to overlook the fact that women are already under-promoted and underpaid relative to their male peers.)
Tosi walked through her complicated reaction to #MeToo in the course of a wide-ranging interview about her company for Inc.'s March/April issue. My question on this topic was two-fold: How had Tosi's career been affected, or not, by restaurant sexism and harassment? And did she see the industry changing in light of the recent allegations against high-profile chefs and restaurateurs?
Tosi's response, below, edited for length and clarity:
I do see it changing. I think right now [we're] in a tricky position. "What is it, and what isn't it?" I think is an important question that we're not quite asking. Everyone's on a witch hunt right now--and I don't mean to imply "witch hunt" as though it's not real. It's 100 percent real. I've dealt with it. I've dealt with it since before I even moved to New York and I was working in restaurants in Virginia. It's a thing, it's real. But I think it's happening so quickly, or vocalizing it is happening so quickly, that what it is and what it isn't--we're still struggling with that.
I can't remember the French actress's name that came out with that signed letter [Catherine Deneuve]. It was a really interesting thing for me, because I think the voice that I try to always have in the conversation is: There are a lot of incredible men. There are also a lot of men that are abusing their power and that are doing wrong, but there are also a lot of men that are doing right. There are also a lot of women that are doing right and there are also a lot of women that are doing wrong. So I try and shape the conversation that way, first and foremost, because I think otherwise it won't be productive. It will alienate as much as it will be productive, and I worry that the sum of that will just equal zero. I think that's one thing that we might be missing as women.
My experience is that, 100 percent, it's happened to me. I'm grateful to have been raised with a very strong sense of self and a very strong backbone and a very strong sense of fight. I dealt with all of that in the minute and then let it go and it didn't affect me in I think the way it's affected other people--and every woman is different, everyone that's dealt with it is different.
I think hopefully, we can all find the right tone and tenor of conversation--and again, I think it starts with this sense of "Not every man is a sexual harasser, a sexual predator. And not every woman is right, necessarily, in the context of their conversation." If we can start there, I think it can be a really productive conversation to make the world and the workplace better.
... I'm all about girl power. Lord knows Milk Bar is very largely female, but we have a lot of incredible men that work for us as well. And they're the kind of men that I want to make sure aren't alienated by the conversation. They're the ones that we need behind us! It's a thrilling conversation, but there is so much to consider.