high end restaurant

Is Racial Discrimination Pervasive in the High-End Restaurant Industry?

By Douglas Lipsky

Fast-food workers, line cooks, servers, and other restaurant workers who represent minority communities are at risk of being discriminated against. According to a recent story in the New York Times, racial discrimination is especially pervasive in the high-end restaurant industry,  where women of color, in particular, suffer the combined effects of both racism and sexism.

If you have been subjected to racial discrimination in a high-end restaurant, you have powerful legal remedies under local, state, and federal law. The best way to protect your rights is to consult with an experienced employment lawyer. In the meantime, this article is a brief discussion about racial discrimination in New York’s upscale restaurants and what workers can do about it.

Fine Dining and a Side of Racial Discrimination 

The feature article notes how the Black Lives Matter movement prompted a number of fine dining establishments and chefs to support racial justice and vow to diversify their staff. 

The story also spotlights several female African American chefs who say they experienced discrimination in high-end restaurants. 

Despite the show of goodwill, these women say they have yet to see any meaningful change; the story sites recent studies indicating that racial discrimination remains a pressing problem not only in high-end restaurants but the broader hospitality industry.

As an example, a July 2020 study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit advocacy group for restaurant workers’ rights, indicated that a combination of racial and gender biases makes it especially difficult for African American women to get promoted. Even worse, a variety of factors prompt many women in this group to leave the industry, including: 

  • Openly discriminatory hiring and training
  • Implicit bias among employers and customers
  • A lack of networking and training opportunities 

Also, an earlier report by the center found disparities in pay: women of color made less  compared with men of color, white men, and white women. 

Moreover, African Americans are underrepresented in the upscale restaurant space. According to a 2017 report by the National Restaurant Association, black workers accounted for nearly 12 percent of all restaurant employees, but only 9.5 percent of all chefs, while non-Hispanic whites were 53 percent of all workers and about 42 percent of chefs.) 

Crossing the Racial Divide in High-End Restaurants: The Brigade System

The Times’ story and the cited studies show that fine dining restaurants have greater inequalities, and these biases lock people into certain positions. Today, most high-end kitchens continue to follow the so-called  “brigade system,” a relic of 19th-century French kitchens that sets out a formal path for aspiring chefs based on the mastery of certain skills at each station.  

Like many other work environments, climbing the ladder takes getting noticed and then being mentored by someone at a higher level, but this rarely happens for women of color. The question remains as to whether this is a matter of visibility or discrimination.

The Takeaway

While racial discrimination remains a pervasive problem in fine dining establishments, aspiring African American chefs in New York are protected by a number of anti-discrimination laws, including:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)
  • The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL)
  • The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL)

The best way to protect your rights is to consult with an employment discrimination attorney.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.