Poster Child

The sous chef was still screaming as I lowered the splintered oyster crate into the sink and turned on the faucet. I held the first shell under cold water and scrubbed the green film clean with a wire brush. The sous chef stood behind me, swearing into my left ear. My eyes stung but I stayed at the prep sink, watching sand and bits of shell circle the drain. I knew not to take a moment in the staff washroom. He loved to light scraps of paper on fire and stuff them through the crack under the door. This was fine dining. I'd arrived.

I’d spent months swatting his hands when they reached inside my chef’s jacket. Swatting the hands of his line cooks when they reached between my legs. I smoked more than I ate. I stopped sleeping. People I hadn't seen in years stopped me on the sidewalk and told me I looked great. So thin. So beautiful. A journalism student I used to sleep with asked if he could interview me for an article he was writing about sexual violence in kitchens. I gave him a couple of soundbites about needing the paycheck and put him in touch with women I knew in the industry. His article was published in a literary magazine. It featured an interview with a lawyer who specialized in cases of sexual harassment. The journalist asked whether I had grounds for a case, and the lawyer said I did. “If she wants to be the martyr and sacrifice herself on the altar of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, more power to her,” he said. “But who’s going to blame her if she doesn’t?”


I turned twenty-three and went back to school. I spent eight months in coffee shops and lecture halls with wooden desks, writing papers and waiting for the anger to pass. It didn’t. I looked up the lawyer from the article and emailed him to ask if he would consider taking my case. He offered to put me in touch with one of his colleagues. I met the woman who would become my lawyer at her office, on the thirtieth floor of a glass highrise, a few weeks later. She said she was sorry for what I’d been through and offered me bottled water. Her assistant was still unscrewing the bottle cap when our meeting was interrupted by the arrival of a small, wide-eyed woman in head-to-toe Patagonia. She had heard about my case and had already begun covering it for a national newspaper. The rest of the legal consultation took place without me. The lawyer agreed to take my case on contingency in exchange for the publicity from the article. The reporter promised to use an alias instead of my real name.

I spent the summer being interviewed over coffee. The reporter offered me refills and cherry Danishes. She smiled when she asked invasive questions. She talked about her kids. She called me at midnight to tell me she couldn’t wait for the story to go to print. When her first draft was finished, she invited me to a meeting with her editors. I sipped iced coffee in a gray room with a dying spider plant as journalists in dress pants praised me for being the 'ideal victim'. They discussed the public's ability to relate to me like I was running for office. They asked to print intimate details, insisting it would get us more clicks. They explained that, although the article was finished, it wouldn’t go to print until I agreed to use my real name. An editor in a green striped shirt gestured from my feet to my face and said they’d also need a photo. When I explained that having my name tied to a sexual harassment lawsuit might make finding restaurant work tricky, a senior editor in a gingham shirt, who sat perched on the edge of his desk, turned to the reporter next to him. "Wow,” he said. “She's so well-spoken."

"She thanks you." I raised my empty Starbucks cup as though he'd paid me a compliment.


Email from the reporter to my lawyer. February 6th, 2015.

"I just want to say that I truly hope Kate decides to go on the record...I can say – from experience – this is a win-win situation.”

“She’s a true victim. Right now, as you know, our culture is acutely attuned to having empathy for people such as her...It seems to me that a victim, such as her, in this David and Goliath situation, can only be victorious here.”


The reporter got the photoshoot she'd been gunning for. On a Wednesday in June, as summer school students crossed the lawn on their way to class, I stood between a freelance photographer and a brick wall as the reporter directed me: Raise your chin a bit. What a good shot. You’re so pretty. I walked home from the photoshoot and cried.

My case made the front page. My grandmother called to tell me she was proud of me for being brave. "This is a big article, dolly," she said. "And it's very...detailed."

"I know," I said and stuffed the paper into a drawer.

My lawyer suggested I do some TV interviews. It would be great for the firm, she explained. I sat in her office in a borrowed gray shirt, while a reporter in a blue dress asked why I didn't quit my job ‘if it was that bad.’ Another reporter wanted to know why I never went to the police. Because the Toronto police weren’t going to stop the sous chefs from reaching between my legs whenever my hands were full. I nodded and said I should have.


Days after the article was published, I got an email from a restaurateur who owned a few places in the city. She invited me to meet her for dinner at her restaurant. "This shit makes me so angry," she said. She rearranged shared plates of foie gras and bone marrow to make room for the next course. "I think what you’re doing is inspiring.” She pushed up the sleeves of her leather jacket. “I want to do something. I’m thinking of hosting a conference, something empowering for women. And the ticket sales will help cover your legal fees."

"That's so nice," I said. "Are you sure?"

"Please. It would be my pleasure."

The event was announced. Tickets were fifty dollars presale and seventy-five at the door. The restaurateur went on morning radio to discuss my case, the conference, and her upcoming book––a memoir about sexism in the restaurant industry.


My case went into mediation in September, the day before the conference. I stood outside Bay Station at seven a.m. and waited for my lawyer. She arrived wearing a gray skirt, New Balances, and a canary diamond engagement ring she’d just had resized. We walked from the subway to the Human Rights Tribunal. In the elevator, she pulled witness statements from her rolling briefcase and changed into heels with red soles. The mediator sat us in a room with a conference table, glass walls, and beige carpet. The chefs I'd named in the lawsuit sat in a room down the hall while the mediator walked back and forth, meeting with both sides.

"I highly recommend you don't take this to court," he told me, hours later. "They will attack your character. They’ll demand your medical files. It won't be fun for you." Well no, I thought. How do you top the magic of this experience? He clicked his green pen. "I think we can get them to settle. You should know, if we go that route, you will have to sign a nondisclosure agreement. I know it isn't the same as winning your case, but think about it."

I knew if I went to court, the other side would come after me: they'd ask how much and how often I drank, they'd ask about my sexual history and question my work ethic. I could keep fighting, but in the coverage of the court case, there would be another round of reporters wanting to know why I never went to the police.

"Wise choice," the mediator said, sliding the nondisclosure agreement across the table for me to sign. "This way, everyone can move on."

Nine hours had passed. Blue dusk hung over Bay Street and the red tangle of rush hour traffic. I stood at the window and watched first dates filter in and out of Red Lobster.

“Well,” said my lawyer, standing up and shuffling papers, “Thank you. I feel I was on the side of the angels with this one.” She stuffed the stack of witness statements into her rolling briefcase and left.

When I got home, I changed into my nightgown and a pair of my wife’s socks and called the restaurateur. I explained that I’d signed a nondisclosure agreement and could no longer speak on the panel she was planning. "I think she's mad at me?" I said to my wife after I’d hung up. "She seemed annoyed when I mentioned the NDA She told me I should have gone to court."

"That's not her call," my wife said, handing me a mug of tea. "It's for you to decide how to end this."

The next night was the conference. My wife and I were there early. Servers in black t-shirts and jeans were still lining up chairs, polishing wine glasses, and laying wooden platters of charcuterie and cheese along the bar. I sipped sauvignon blanc with my best friend while a panel of celebrity chefs discussed the ways women in hospitality could lift each other up. When the panel ended, the restaurateur switched off her mic and stepped down off the stage. I walked up to her with my arm outstretched.

"Thank you so much for everything," I said. “This is amazing."

She took a step back. "OK," she said. "Who are you?"

I could feel the embarrassment pooling in my cheeks. I'd trusted this woman. I could have sworn I’d seen her carrying a feminist tote bag. I searched the room for an exit and mumbled something about a friend waiting out front. Outside, the air smelled like hot tar, clean laundry, and steamed dumplings. I leaned against the wall and lit a cigarette. On the streetcar home, I thought about what I’d say when my grandmother called to ask how it went.

The next morning, I woke up to a white wine hangover and a text from the restaurateur––something about how different I looked at the conference. I expected to hear from her again but I didn’t. Weeks later, I reached out to let her know I’d received the invoice from my lawyer. I asked whether she would like me to forward her a copy.

She emailed me back. “I assume (and correct me if I'm wrong) the settlement was enough to cover your legal fees easily…the conference was expensive to put on. Hope you’re well.”

“I believe there has been more than a little opportunism at play,” said my lawyer when I told her what happened, “and when the winds shift and you can no longer assist, her interest in you and willingness to help you has dwindled. That said, I can’t imagine that she would want to appear as anything but your ally since you are her golden goose.”

I took my laptop out onto the balcony and read the restauranteur’s email to my wife, who set down the watering can, sipped her beer, and shook her head. “You know,” she said, “when we went for dinner at her restaurant, I went outside with her for a smoke. She spent the whole time texting another big-name chef, telling him her plans to star in a documentary about sexual harassment and take her conference across North America. And then she got mad when the chef texted her back saying, ‘I think you might be making this about you.’”

I drafted a careful response, expressing my gratitude and reminding her of the commitment she'd made in print and in private to help with my legal fees. “You have a lot of wrong information,” she emailed back, “and you're talking like a lawyer which isn't the best way to keep a pleasant relationship with an ally.” Maybe not, but ally was her word, not mine.

"This is my last foray into politics," read the final line of her final email. "My expertise is not in planning charity events."

While this was happening, I started receiving emails from women I didn't know. They told me they'd been harassed by their boss, assaulted by a coworker, fired for reporting the assault to HR. I should have replied with something inspirational. I didn’t. I didn't want them to relive their humiliation in cramped newspaper offices, while senior editors in Brooks Brothers shirts ranked them on the ideal victim scale.


Two years later, I was working as a hostess in an Italian restaurant when the owner assembled the staff for a meeting. He'd printed out the restaurant's new harassment policy for each staff member to sign. As he passed the host stand, he asked if I wanted to lead the meeting since I was "the poster child for sexual harassment." I laughed at his joke, the way you have to laugh with the person who signs your paycheck. Then I went back to answering the phone.

As the servers lit candles and rolled cutlery for dinner service, I wrote out guest notes for the chef: Gluten allergy on table 10. Table 24 is an anniversary party—send prosecco on arrival. Outside, women in pink knitted hats trudged through the snow on their way to the Women’s March. I took the iPad we used for reservations and checked the news. Up came the headline: “‘You are part of history right now,’ Toronto women’s march told.” I wasn’t. I wasn’t there.

On the walk home, I stopped at the used bookstore down the street from my apartment. On a discount table at the back was the restaurateur's book. Flipping through it, I saw my name, the words extremely brave and three pages devoted to the women’s empowerment conference. Nothing about hanging up on me for settling the case out of court.


During one of my first shifts as a hostess, the name of the man whose restaurant group I’d sued flashed across caller I.D. The phone rang as I searched the room for someone to take the call. When I checked the book and explained we were full for the evening, he said, "Do you know who I am?" I handed the phone to one of the owners who rearranged the reservation book to find him a table. I sat in the basement and waited for him to finish his meal. I still wore the experience like an apology. Like it was my shame to carry.

The law firm’s senior partner came in for dinner and split a mushroom pizza with his granddaughter. The reporter came in for dinner with her husband. I sat them by the window in a draught. My therapist and her wife sat at the bar and ordered the egg-yolk ravioli. I hung up their coats, thanked them all for coming, and made it sound sincere.


I was twenty-six and working as an event planner when the Harvey Weinstein story broke. I read Ronan Farrow’s reporting while printing wedding menus. At the bottom of the article was a link to a piece about a Me Too moment for the restaurant industry. The restaurateur was back. The voice for the voiceless. In the New Yorker, Munchies, and the New York Times. Using my name. Discussing my case. Promoting her book. I was happy for her. And I was glad I could help. As women in the industry, it's so important we lift each other up.

KATE MAY's work has been featured on CBC Radio. Kate holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of King's College. She is the 2021 recipient of the H.R. Percy Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Toronto, Canada.