I was told to accept sexual harassment working in a kitchen, but that’s bullshit

Don’t accept it. Don’t get used to it. Fight. Complain. Be heard. 

NS

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I had a normal as can be childhood, well as normal as can be for a Catalan kid with an American mother and a family with a few different ethnicities in the mix. And I wanted to be a professional tennis player. My dream was to walk on to the red clay at Roland Garros in Paris and win the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. I played seriously, I was good, but injury ended my dream. 

I also loved being in the kitchen. Making macarons and madeleines with my French Moroccan grandmothers at my grandparents’ farm is still one of my favourite memories and I decided if I couldn’t conquer Paris as a tennis champion, I would as a pastry chef. So I signed up for school in the French capital. I was 17, wide eyed, naive, idealistic, but also without fear. Speaking fluent French meant the change to a new city was seamless. 

I fell in love with Paris. The avenues, the food, the people, the architecture, the culture, the art. I would walk around the city on my days off from school, get lost and immerse myself in my surroundings. I was truly happy.

After completing my training I started a job at a small restaurant. I worked twice as hard as anyone else there, as I was eager to prove my worth. My boss was a well-regarded chef and he treated me with nothing but respect. He taught me so much about how tough I needed to be to work in a professional kitchen. 

Soon I was offered a position at a prestigious restaurant and jumped at the chance to test myself alongside the best. It was the hardest, most demanding environment I had ever experienced. My body would hurt at the end of every day. Some days I wanted to go back to my apartment and cry. 

My new boss was a middle-aged chef who thought he was God’s gift. He remains the most arrogant person I’ve ever met and from day one he made my life hell. 

I got on with the job and a few months in, having learned the ropes, I felt good. The job was enjoyable. Then one day my boss approached me and asked if I had a boyfriend. I didn’t, having gone through a break up a few weeks earlier, and didn’t think much of his question. But then every day after he would ask me about previous boyfriends, what I looked for in a boyfriend, what kind of looks I went for. I would laugh nervously in reply. 

Kitchens are a male-dominated world. They can be aggressive, territorial hell holes but they are also full of life, energy and passion. Some of the best storytellers I’ve met work in professional kitchens and I loved working in that environment. Yes it was tough place to be as a young woman, but I coped by giving as good as I got. But with the boss... I didn’t know what to do. My standard expletives-filled response may have got me sacked and given he made it clear he was looking for an excuse to get me out of his kitchen, I decided to keep my mouth shut and get on with the job.

But it was difficult and got to the point where I dreaded the metro ride to work. I’d feel physically sick. The questions, the comments, the fact he would try and touch me at any point he could... so many days I came close to turning around and going home. But I didn’t. I tried to be strong. 

Then one day he went too far. I was putting a raspberry mousse in the walk-in fridge when he followed me and blocked my exit. He said I’d been flirting with him, which I hadn’t, and pinned me against the wall. He kept telling me not to tease him. He was hurting me and ultimately I was left thankful for whatever it was that happened outside that led to him loosening his grip. I got away.

I worked out the rest of my shift and then, as soon as I could and as quickly as I could, ran to the metro and back to my apartment. Once there I cried my eyes out, partly because I knew I still had to go to work the next day. 

That day he called me into his office. He told me he would tell everyone about what happened but insist I had instigated it. He would also tell everyone I was a whore and tell the actual boss I was bad at my job... if I didn’t sleep with him. I stood in front of him in stunned silence for what seemed like hours but was a matter of minutes. When I did speak it was to tell him I was going to report him to his superior, which he countered by saying I could have a promotion... if I slept with him. Once again I told him I was going to report him, and then I left.

I did report him. I complained. My word, that of a naive 22-year-old, against a respected middle-aged chef. What happened? I was told not to make “unfounded accusations” and get on with my job.

I tried but he made my life hell. He gave me the worst tasks and threw out perfectly-made food that he claimed was not good enough. My shifts were also changed so I didn’t have any time off. I became exhausted, so much so that one day – ironically as I went to get a coffee – I walked into a passing car and ended up in hospital with a concussion and bruises. 

I could have died and it would have been all his fault. That was the moment I decided enough was enough – I wasn’t taking any more. So having returned to work after a couple of weeks rest I walked into his office and threatened to tell the police about the harassment. My heart was racing, I felt sick, my rage having came to the fore, but it worked – he never harassed me again. He left me alone.

I stuck with the job for a while longer but one day, as I again felt close to burnout due to not having seen natural daylight for about four weeks, I decided to make a change and pursue my other passion – modelling. That is what I do now – I’m a lingerie model, specifically – and I love it. It is my future. 

Someone I worked with once told me, “if you look like you do and you are going to persist with working in a kitchen, harassment is going to happen. Get used to it. Accept it. Don’t complain”. But that’s bullshit – and if anyone ever says the same thing to you, don’t believe it. Don’t accept it. Don’t get used to it. Fight. Complain. Be heard. Don’t take it. Know your worth as a person. Fight for the respect you deserve. No man or woman deserves to be treated in that way. Be braver than I was. Tell someone. You should be believed, no matter your age, experience or gender. You are valid. Your words, feelings, actions are valid. 

It took me a long time to own who I am. To embrace my looks, my body, my sexuality, my power. It took a lot of knock-backs, traumatic incidents and hours in therapy. But now, aged 30, I’m where I want to be. I use my body and looks as my fortune. I took back who I am from the doubt, depression and agony.

Yes, I make mistakes and I still have a tendency to hide away, but self-growth is an  ongoing process and I’m proud to be who I am. I’m proud of what I am. I’m proud I fought back.