When the Culture War Comes for an Abusive Boss

Before Covid-19 forced Fat Rice to close on March 15th, it had presented itself as the model of a successful, progressive restaurant. While not Chicago’s best or most prestigious restaurant (i.e. Alinea), it was among the most beloved. Women made up the majority of management, and — at least during my time there — the lucrative dinner bartending and serving positions were filled by a crew that represented the cosmopolitan diversity of Chicago itself. Of the ten or so people working the best-paying serving shifts, no more than two were white men at any given time, a significant departure from the hiring and promotion practices typical of high-end Chicago dining. Furthermore, Fat Rice was one of the first independent restaurants to offer health, vision, and dental insurance to all full-time employees. The restaurant also marketed their Macanese cuisine as preserving an endangered cultural heritage. In turn, Fat Rice received glowing press coverage, steady business, and a James Beard Award, the restaurant industry equivalent of an Oscar.

In other ways, however, Fat Rice was much more typical of exploitative service industry workplaces. The chef/part-owner, Abe Conlon, incessantly bullied, sabotaged, and verbally abused his employees. Nearly every shift he worked, he needlessly humiliated us. One preshift, he tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned around, his face was about one inch from mine, and he whispered that I “look like a fucking slob.” Before I could react, he was halfway across the dining room. I said, “thank you, Chef!” and went back to eating “family” meal, my heart speeding up and my face turning red. I witnessed him berate coworkers of mine to the point of tears for missing small, unnecessary steps of service, which they had never been trained to do. An account in the Chicago Reader of a tantrum Abe threw at a photoshoot conjures the atmosphere in the restaurant when he was at large in the building. 

Because we lacked effective legal protections and had no immediate recourse besides quitting, Abe forced us to choose between our dignity and our ability to pay rent. I and many of my coworkers stayed on at Fat Rice for a very long time because we knew we could expect similar treatment at whatever other restaurant might hire us. (Speaking personally, Abe is only the third worst chef I’ve ever worked for.) Given the culture of abuse and impunity passed down from one chef to another, combined with the structural imbalance of power in restaurants, we were forced to accept that a certain degree of abuse and degradation is inevitable.

Over the course of three months following the initial Covid-19 outbreak, Fat Rice became engulfed in scandal. Frustration over a bungled employee fundraiser, pent-up anger from years of workplace abuse, and an opportunistic social media callout converged to destroy the restaurant. Unfortunately, the terms of the story were dictated by aesthetically radical but essentially capitalist voices and their allies in the liberal press. Incoherent allegations of cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity drowned out criticism of Abe’s universal mistreatment of his employees. Indeed, the critique leveled at Abe Conlon along cultural and identitarian lines served to naturalize the inherently exploitative structure of restaurant employment. This episode represents a tremendous missed opportunity to demand meaningful reform along the line of working-class solidarity. Only by recognizing our common interests, unionizing, and leveraging the withholding of our labor will restaurant workers win the concessions to ensure our dignity and security in the workplace. 

Notes on a scandal

On March 22nd, Fat Rice, like many Chicago restaurants, announced a fundraiser to help its newly furloughed staff. This fundraiser was unorthodox in three respects. First, it would be collecting donations through its own in-house website rather than through an established fundraising platform. This raised concerns about transparency and potential for theft, especially since the restaurant ownership had been sued in the past for illegally withholding tips from its front of house employees. Second, ownership would need our “help to set up, run, and manage [the] campaign, by volunteering [our] time, talents, and effort.” Finally, although we, the staff, would be doing the work, ownership said it would be keeping 70 percent of the donations for itself. We texted among ourselves about how ownership’s cut was whack, but what could we do?

On April 4th, Abe and his business partner, Adrienne Lo, sent us an email wherein they “conclude[d] that Fat Rice cannot come back as a restaurant any time soon,” and advised us not to expect for them to return for “at least a year and a half.” In the same email, bewilderingly, they invited us to reach out to them if we were interested in doing “potentially dangerous work” on a “strictly volunteer basis.” For the next few weeks, we heard little from the restaurant, aside from a recipe for vegan one pot curry with a Malaysian spice paste.

On April 28th, in an article that blurred the line between news reporting and press release, the New York Times reported that the restaurant would be rebranding as Super Fat Rice Mart, and would soon be selling $100 meal kits as well as Chinese and Portuguese pantry staples.

On May 25th, police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, igniting a global protest movement.

What happened next is complicated. Separate yet concurrent posts emerged on Instagram criticising Fat Rice for 1) cultural appropriation in both its food and music selection, 2) its flat-footed social media response to #BlackLivesMatter and the George Floyd killing, 3) Abe Conlon’s personal bigotry, 4) lack of transparency about its fundraiser, and 5) abusing its former employees. After six days of increasing social media controversy, the restaurant closed its doors, and Abe posted an apology both for his behavior as a chef and for his alleged complicity in 500 years of colonialism. 

A key player in the posting drama, Joey Pham, who uses they/them pronouns, demands special introduction. They worked at Fat Rice briefly in 2014, and now operate an online cake business in Chicago. In addition to being a full service restaurant, Fat Rice also included a bakery. Pham’s marketing of their business overlapped with Fat Rice’s in many key respects: both were high end, twee, and consciously self-presented as progressive. With many businesses pivoting to delivery as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, Fat Rice’s bakery would have been a formidable direct competitor to Pham’s online cake business. Pham’s business interest in destroying Fat Rice gives a sinister spin to their relentless call-out. None of the extensive press coverage of this controversy makes any mention of this conflict of interest. 

On June 1st, Fat Rice posted to Instagram a photo of a spray-painted heart with “STAND FOR CHANGE” written in the middle. The accompanying text read, in part, “We remain dedicated to our values, we oppose all forms of racism.” In the comments, which Fat Rice has since deleted, Pham instigated their call-out. “You’re really not going to say it? You’re not going to say #BlackLivesMatter, even though you take from Black culture ALL the time?”

Pham next posted an Instagram story accusing Fat Rice of appropriating Portuguese and Asian food. Fat Rice was jointly owned and operated by Abe Conlon, who is of Portuguese descent, and Adrienne Lo, who is of Chinese descent; their restaurant was called out and forced to close in large part for selling food that directly reflected their own heritage.

The story continues with allegations of antiblack racism. Pham makes reference to an old blog post about a controversy over the inclusion of uncensored mainstream rap music in the restaurant’s playlists. Next, Pham shares an anonymous allegation of Abe code-switching, which described him as “the racist you see everyday. One who isn’t aware of how he treats women and minorities.” Although Pham would go on to make reference to tip-stealing and indiscriminate verbal abuse later in the story, these allegations were presented as subordinate to complaints relating to unconscious bias and cultural appropriation. In effect, this framing reduces a grossly abusive boss into a guy who sometimes code switches or otherwise microaggresses inadvertently. 

On June 4th, disgruntled former employees organizing in a group text agreed to post a letter and dump their old uniforms at Fat Rice’s door. The letter read in part, “What has transpired in the past few days has left many of us heartbroken, hurt and angry. You had the opportunity to really amplify marginalized voices, to use your power and influence to affect change […] We see you putting profit and business over black and brown bodies.” The letter was signed by eleven former front of house employees. They also left signs reading, “BLM” and “STOP PROFITING OFF OTHER CULTURES. SPEAK UP!!!” 

These co-workers of mine had been pissed on for years as workers, as the direct consequence of an unequal economic relationship, but they framed their anger in terms of  “amplifying marginalized voices” and exploiting “black and brown bodies.” What do these grievances even mean when leveled at a closed restaurant with a history of progressive racial politics and hiring? Maybe some of those who signed were being opportunistic, seeking to hurt their former bosses by any available means, but I think that many believed in the note they posted. I know and like everyone who signed the note. They genuinely want to build a better world. It’s tragic that their legitimate anger, once refracted through the prism of culturally hegemonic social justice discourse, expressed itself so incoherently.

The press weighs in 

On June 16th The New York Times published another article about Fat Rice. It provided a gloss on the Instagram drama, and reported that the overwhelming consensus among Fat Rice staff was that Abe Conlon was a remarkably terrible boss in an industry notorious for terrible bosses. While apologizing and promising to change, Abe blamed his bad behavior on personal trauma. The remainder of the article is concerned with allegations and anecdotes of racism. Abe was again accused of code switching when talking to black employees. A black woman said that she felt singled out when she was asked to wear a hair net after hair was found in a guest’s food. (Note that hair coverings are required by Illinois law, and that I have witnessed Adrienne Lo require white employees to wear hair nets in the same circumstances.) The article ends with a story of Abe confronting a black food runner mid-service, escalating the interaction, threatening to call the police, and subsequently firing the employee.

I want to make clear that I am not criticizing the black employees featured in the Times’ reporting for speaking about their experiences at Fat Rice in terms of racism. Ownership had an ugly tendency to single people out. A black employee might reasonably conclude after a one-on-one with Chef that he must have a problem with black people, rather than a problem with habitual social aggression.

In two glaring omissions, the Times made no mention either of the botched fundraiser’s role in the restaurant’s downfall or of Joey Pham’s business interest in calling out Fat Rice. By spotlighting accusations of racial bias and ignoring other contributing factors in the scandal, the Times downplayed the fundamentally exploitative nature of restaurant employment. Analyzing Abe’s behavior in terms of the employer-employee relationship yields conclusions that are anathema to the Times’ elitist, anti-worker politics, which prefers to view Abe’s behavior in terms of his identity as a white male. But ascribing the flaws of the Times’ reporting merely to ideology and ineptitude fails to encompass the entire problem. For the most part, the framing and emphasis of the Times’ reporting accurately reflected the terms of the scandal itself: many people on Instagram, and many of my most vocal coworkers, articulated the problems at Fat Rice in terms of cultural appropriation, personal bigotry, and hashtags. (Of course, the Times has played a decisive role in shaping the woke ideologies of many of the main players. This allowed the Times to report the story with some semblance of neutrality, while still conforming events to its racialist ideology. Hegemonic liberalism, that demonic ouroboros, perpetuates itself through this process.) In any event, it is not the Times’ job to make the case for unions and better employment laws, or to describe events through the framework of class struggle. That’s the job of the left, or at least it ought to be.

On June 17th Eater reported that Super Fat Rice Mart would be “closed for the foreseeable future.” The article reported former server Taylor Rae Botticelli’s accusation that “white males were more likely to receive promotions,” and Abe Conlon’s denial of that claim. Note that Taylor herself spent very little time in the entry-level position of food runner before being promoted to the lucrative PM serving position. During my time at Fat Rice two other hires made similarly rapid ascents from food runner to PM server, one a white man, another an Asian man. 

Unfounded accusations of bias like Taylor’s may hurt women and minorities who want to work in restaurants. Fat Rice was patronized by many powerful chefs and restaurant owners and executives. Those who followed the business on social media knew that the majority of management was female, and those who came to eat at the restaurant saw the diversity of our front of house staff. Fat Rice had an open kitchen; anyone getting lunch would have noticed a woman in charge of the daytime kitchen crew. Readers of the Eater article aware of Fat Rice’s legitimately progressive practices might reasonably conclude that the work of recruiting and mentoring a diverse staff is simply not worth it from the perspective of managerial self interest, given that the media will present accusations of bias uncritically regardless.

Cultural politics lead nowhere good

In recent months, news coverage of Fat Rice has ceased. Their website now opens with a popup declaring, “Black Lives Matter. We are closed for the time being.” My former colleagues and I don’t expect it to ever come back. About this we have mixed feelings. We made good money, and enjoyed the community that flourished at the restaurant in Abe’s absence. Most of us hated Abe, and we take delight in his downfall. But his comeuppance feels hollow. Those who experienced Abe’s abuse primarily as the result of his position as a boss and owner are still waiting for justice.

The uproar about alleged cultural appropriation and alleged bigotry stifled any discussion of the forces that actually contribute to miserable working conditions within the restaurant industry, namely the vast power of ownership and the disposability of workers. Thanks to the development and media coverage of the scandal, Chicago chefs and restaurant owners have learned that they can continue to exploit their workers, so long as they take sensitivity training first. They can continue to steal from us and abuse us so long as they stay on top of social media, keep their playlists clean, and limit their cooking to boring New American cuisine. Nothing fundamentally will change in how ownership treats its staff.

Locally, the most prominent liberal project to reform restaurants is the Chicago Hospitality Actions Accountability Database, or CHAAD. (The acronym makes a cheeky reference to the archetypal privileged white male they conceive to be the root of the industry’s iniquities.) With a focus primarily on high-end restaurants, CHAAD reports on the racial demographics of ownership and engagement with #BlackLivesMatter and other social media activity, while encouraging notoriously ineffective diversity training. The project hopes to eventually deploy an app that would empower consumers to make informed, woke choices. 

Happily, there is a better way forward. Through unionizing, restaurant workers would ensure their own dignity and prosperity, rather than being forced to depend on the questionable better natures of their clientele. At Fat Rice specifically, a union could have demanded that Abe limit his role to menu development and publicity. In addition to higher pay and better working conditions, restaurant unions would likely lead to more equitable racial outcomes, too.

Once in a meeting, Abe Conlon demanded of an employee, “Would you care about you if you were me?” My startled coworker replied, “Well, yeah.” Abe asked again, incredulous. “Really? You’d care about you if you were me?” My coworker eventually relented and agreed that, no, if he were an owner, he wouldn’t give a shit about his workers either. As leftists we must be as unabashed as my old boss about stating the fundamental class antagonisms at play in workplaces all over this country. Let’s build a movement that makes it in our bosses’ interests to act like they care about us, even when they don’t. Let’s not let the next opportunity to confront them go to waste. Our dignity and our survival demand nothing less.