Nordic chef Christopher Haatuft weighs in on the importance of feminism
The restaurateur explains why equality is the one value on which he will not compromise
Journal > Nordic chef Christopher Haatuft weighs in on…

As a chef with my own restaurant, the ‘me’ and my work is one and the same. So when asked what feminism means for me, the natural way for me to answer is to look at how I consider feminism to affect my work place—Lysverket.

As a youth, I invested all my energy into a future as a no-good, do-nothing, nihilist punk. I wasn’t very good at it (I liked showering…), so luckily I ‘sold out’. I am now a capitalist servant to the rich, as any restaurateur must admit they are. But I kept some of my most important values. I still have a problem with authority and I can’t keep my mouth shut when I see stuff that fucks with my idea of equality and sustainability.

If I say that the industry that I choose to dedicate my life to isn’t always on par with modern values, that is putting it mildly. We are made to work too much, we idolize egocentrism and we find pseudo-scientific arguments to how we are working sustainably. We are not, really. But I think the most problematic is our Stockholm syndrome, and our inability to break the mold. Give a chef enough acclaim, and the crew will forgive any acts of psychic terror and abuse. It’s ‘passion’ – ‘non-compromise’ – ‘direct communication’.

In a male dominated work place, the men set the tone—and the tone is crass. The crass tone is passed on as part of the culture, and seldom questioned. Here, I don’t think we are that unique. There are lots of high pressure, alpha-male driven workplaces where women are seen as less valuable—probably way worse than a restaurant. But some we accept as assholes. Stock brokers? I bet they are the worst, but they don’t aspire to be anything else. We set such high standards for ourselves in our craftsmanship, but so low in our human interaction. My wife pointed out the idiocy in this to me and it made me feel like a total asshole. And it changed how I want my crew to treat and talk to each other.

A restaurant I worked at used to have all these code words and local slang for all kinds of stuff and it gave us a sense of camaraderie to laugh at our pirate vernacular amongst the civilians. One of the things we would call out in the kitchen was “Don’t eat corn!” or even better, “Don’t eat sweet corn!”. This would be if a pretty girl would come in the kitchen as part of a kitchen tour. The logic is as follows. If you eat corn, you get corn kernels stuck between your teeth. If you then smile at a pretty girl, you look pretty stupid with the corn in your teeth. So, “Don’t eat corn!” was meant as a warning—where you got a heads up so that you could look sharp. Make sure there’s no sauce stain on your apron, that kind of thing. The addition of sweet, just meant that the girl approaching was extra pretty. Pretty harmless, right? It was meant as a warning that someone was approaching, so make sure you look presentable! No sexual innuendo, I need to add, there was no room for sexism at the restaurant I refer to—it is the most professional restaurant in the world.

“I made sure I stopped using those types of jokes and that I expressively communicate that I don’t tolerate sexist talk in the restaurant.”

When I started my own restaurant, I brought with me some of these casual remarks and quasi-jokes. The vocabulary is part of what makes us recognize each other as part of the international brotherhood of hard-core chefs. Or at least that’s how we prefer to see ourselves. The turning point came one day when I casually threw out the corn joke, and laughingly explained to my wife the context of the saying. She gave me a hurt look and immediately made me feel like an asshole. Of course, I had no idea why she didn’t think it was funny. Her reason was as simple as it was revelatory—why do we, as guys, always have to make a point of the appearance of women? If a guy comes in the kitchen, the remark would be “Clean it up!” But when a woman came in, it was first about the fact that she was female, and then as an added bonus—extra funny if she was pretty. A plain woman would never elicit a ‘corn’ bellow. Who cares if you have corn in your teeth if you are not looking to screw her?

The way she so quickly understood the joke for the machismo it represented made me very self-conscious about all the other ways we would do the same, but with other code words, looks and snide comments. We have an open kitchen at Lysverket, so if someone pretty would come in the restaurant, we would pass on a candid “Check out table 8!”. Cooks would be eager to serve the food themselves and no-one would have corn stuck between their teeth.

I started thinking about all the ways I unconsciously make women feel like girls and uphold the stereotype of the macho, sexist chef that wants to screw the waitresses. I made sure I stopped using those types of jokes and that I expressively communicate that I don’t tolerate sexist talk in the restaurant. I won’t let anyone talk about who they screwed last night and I make sure I call the women, women. If it’s a problem that you are made to feel like a little girl, let’s for one call you what you—a woman. I am not a boy, so I prefer to be looked at as a man. I can only assume the 25-year-old cook next to me hopes she is looked at as a woman, not a girl.

There are some things I consider obvious—equal pay for equal work. Advancement through seniority and merit. A balanced management team. But then there are the areas where I feel I need to put in more work. I need more women in what is traditionally men’s work—cooks. I would love a female sous chef and eventually a head chef. I want the women to set the tone in the workplace, not the men. Then there would be very little talk about screwing, tits and ‘corn’. Women have more class.

My wife (she is very smart) said another thing that has stuck with me. “If the guy wouldn’t say or do something in front of his daughter, how come its ok to do or say it in front of the dudes?”. As I don’t have a daughter, I try to look at it like this—would I say it in front of the woman’s father? If the answer is no, then maybe you should shut up, put your head down and concentrate on work.

We reached out to our creative network in the lead up to International Women’s Day and posed a simple question: What does feminism mean to you? Christopher Haatuft sent these words, entitled ‘Crude Corn and Crass Comments’ in response.

Christopher, we’re proud to call you a friend—thank you very much for your words.
You can read more about Christopher in our portrait on him here.

Text: Christopher Haatuft
Photos: Daniel Müller