Sofia Bodovic Olsson: “You can either choose to take a part of this or you can choose not to take a part of this. Either way, you’re going to have to. And if you don't act now, you're going to regret it in a couple of years because you’re not going to have any people working for you or any guests coming.”
Hello and welcome to a special episode of The Recipe.
I’m your host, James Clasper.
As regular listeners will know, this is a podcast about the new generation of restaurants and the people behind them. A show in which we explore topics related to opening and running a restaurant — like the importance of having a strong concept, of finding the right location, or choosing the right name.
But here’s the thing about the restaurant world. It has a dark side, too — one that we don’t believe we should shy away from on The Recipe.
Because if the new generation of restaurants sincerely wants to do things better than their predecessors, then surely that involves having frank conversations about some ugly home truths — and then working to make a change.
So in this episode of The Recipe, we’re going to be talking about gender equality and sexual misconduct in the restaurant industry.
Recent years have seen a depressing litany of cases, from the impending trial of Mario Batali to the eyeopening accounts on sites like Hospitality Bullshit, to the fresh wave of allegations about the Danish restaurant scene.
But while it’s important to shine a light into the murkiest corners of the industry, it can sometimes feel like little is being done to actually change it.
Which is what makes the work of Sofia Bodovic Olsson so interesting. A decorated chef based in Gothenburg, Sofia reached a boiling point last year, following misconduct allegations by a dozen women against one of Sweden’s most famous male chefs.
Angered by the culture of silence that had enabled his impunity, Sofia launched a campaign to deliver structural change to the Swedish restaurant industry.
To learn more about the campaign and what inspired it, I phoned Sofia in early February and began by asking her to introduce herself.
Sofia: My name is Sofia Bodovic Olsson. I'm the operating manager of restaurant Vrå in Gothenburg, Sweden. So we are situated in a big hotel, right in the middle of Gothenburg, the Clarion Hotel Post. And we are owned by the hotel, but I run the restaurant. We started in 2012, as a very small restaurant with only 30 seats and a very small budget, and now 10 years later, we are in another location of the hotel and a much bigger restaurant, with 90 seats. We are working with the local produce of the west coast of Sweden and we are influenced by Japanese techniques and flavours.
James: It sounds amazing. I must come and visit at the soonest opportunity. Tell me, how did you become a chef? Why did you become a chef?
Sofia: Basically it was always a passion, first of all. So, as with many other chefs, my grandmother and my mother and my whole family did a great job of teaching me and spreading the passion and love about cooking and also to meet around cooking on the stove and the kitchen and all of that. I think I was around 14 when I started working in cafes and restaurants. So it was always there and I was cooking a lot at home as well. And when I was around 23, I was working as a chef, cooking vegetarian food in a cool place here in Gothenburg, with lots of music and young people. A really fun place. And at that point, I was 22, 23, I realised that this is what I should do. When I started working in the kitchen, it was like a revelation. For the first time in my life, I realised that I can walk and talk and use my hands and my brain at the same time, and I am finally chasing the clock instead of the other way around. This is finally something that I could do. I feel alive.
James: From the moment you were in the industry, did you experience the darker side of it?
Sofia: Yeah, I would say so, definitely. Especially after I decided to really make a career, or it was more that I really wanted to be a good chef. So I realised I need to get the proper education. I started from the beginning. So when I was 24 and had my first daughter, I decided to be serious and really try to develop within the industry. And then I came to the first Michelin-starred restaurant I ever visited, on the practice, and I would say it started right there and then — that I realised that it's not only about the passion for the job and the passion to deliver the best experience for the guests, but there's also something else that I need to understand and I need to kind of handle, to be able to continue in the industry. So there was a lot of sexual harassment and just a feeling that I was not just the chef but, first of all, I was a woman and had to have a strategy to kind of cope with being different to the group. And I just wanted respect as a chef and as a professional, but my experience was that it was really difficult to be seen as one in the group. I was first of all a woman and someone you could objectify and so on. So that was something I needed to handle at the same time as I needed to handle how do I learn as much as possible as a young chef and how do I develop as fast as I can in this environment?
James: And did you feel that you were able to speak up about what you were experiencing and seeing happen?
Sofia: Yes. I have a lot of support from my family, both my husband and also my mother. I grew up with my mother. She's a very strong woman and she's always been in leading positions and she's never been afraid to speak out about rights. So I feel I have very good support from at home and it was really important for me to always draw the line, so to say. So if I experienced that someone was walking past my line, I was always telling them. It's really hard, you know, when you are the youngest and you have the least power, and you're really dependent on the person in charge of the new place where you are. It's always difficult when you're in that position to speak out because you are risking so much, you know? They can just put you out in a second. But what I realised throughout the years is that I really draw the line where I felt that this is not acceptable at all and I said that this is not acceptable for me. But there are so many things, you know, in the grey zone, so to say. You know, there is black and white, but there is also a very, very, very big grey zone. And that's maybe the hardest part because the more and the worse the harassments are, the more difficult it is to identify what's happening in this grey zone that's okay or something I can live with, but at the same time, it's really affecting me in a bad way. And I'm also getting used to this behaviour, normalising it, because it's not as bad as the things that are really over the line, so to say. So this is something I realised now, many years later.
James: And of course what you're talking about as well is your own individual response to a problem, but really what we're talking about here is a systemic problem. So tell me how you became a chef activist. Tell me the story of how your thinking evolved and the role that the restaurant industry in Sweden's response to MeToo was a spark of sorts and how that kind of inspired what you ended up doing last year.
Sofia: Yeah, basically, I've always been a person who had a strong motivation to speak out and try to make things better. So that's something I have in me. And I was a vegetarian and a vegan when I was young, for many, many years, and I was part of an association called Food Not Bombs, when I was 14, 15, 16. We collected free food from a lot of different stores and we cooked the food and gave it to homeless people, every Saturday in Gothenburg. And it was a really concrete way to show that the system is fucked up. so to say. You know, we have free food and we have people starving and if we connect it, we can solve problems. So I always had that kind of motivation to try to contribute to a positive development. And then when I started out in the industry myself, I kind of collected experiences from different restaurants, having a feeling that it could have been done in another way, you know? If I one day get the possibility to set the frames, I would try to do it in another way. And 10 years ago, when we opened here, we were two female chefs. It was me and my former boss, and that kind of put me in a new framework because there were no macho men who took over. And it was a very cool experience because it was either me or her. There was no one else to depend on. And there was no one else who took the leading part, so to say. So she was like, “Okay, this is meat, I'm not good at meat. You have to fix the meat. The meat part is yours.” And I was like, “Okay. You take the hot stove. I’ll take the cold section." And so I had the possibility to develop my own skills in a very safe environment. And I realised quite quickly that this was the first time I worked in the kitchen without any male chefs and my way of making jokes, my way of talking suddenly changed. So I realised, aha! The humour, the talk, the way of speaking — it wasn't my way of speaking. I was just adjusting to the ruling way of doing things. So that was important knowledge for me to get. And from there, I just started to develop more and more and more. A couple of years ago, I took over and Frida moved to Stockholm to open another restaurant, and I was thinking a lot about the culture in the restaurant. So, how can we make the culture in the group be better? And how can we work with how we take care of the knowledge of the team and how we include each other and so on? When I realised it was working and it was getting results and a lot of young female chefs were applying to my kitchen to work, I realised it was possible to do it in that way. And it was much easier for more people to adjust to that. And then we had #MeToo. It was amazing strength in the collective way of saying, “I'm not going to carry this shame and this guilt and this shit anymore because it's not my shit to carry. We’re going to put the blame where it belongs, with the molester, not with me.” And with so many women doing that all over the world, it was a great feeling of freedom. At the same time, I had, like everyone else, to re-experience everything I had buried deep down. And in Sweden, we had a lot of different appeals from different sectors, and one of them was from Swedish female actresses. Really famous actresses came together and spoke out. We also had one in the restaurant industry, but it didn't really take off. My experience is that nothing really happened. We said together that this happens here as well, but then it was “case closed”. But the actresses got a lot of attention because they were really famous. And a lot of people like myself thought, “Oh, if that famous actress has the guts to say stuff like this and say what they have experienced, maybe I can do it as well.” So I saw something really important in that and I had already thought we should have done the same in the restaurant industry because we have a lot of famous chefs and people are looking at us. But nothing happened at that point. A couple of years later, there was a big scandal in Sweden, in the Swedish restaurant industry. One of our most famous chefs, who was also cooking for the king, 12 females who had been working for him witnessed really serious harassment in different ways, both sexual and others. And also the consequences, threats, economic deals to make them be quiet. And so I was really upset. I was really angry about it because it was very obvious that this had been happening for a very long time. It was a part of the culture. A lot of people had known about it and no one had said anything. And I also got the feeling that this could have been a scandal for a couple of days and then the same thing was going to happen: you put the lid on it again and nothing happens. So that was my biggest motivation to try to do something about it for real. So, first of all, I thought that we needed to go together to a lot of females in leading positions, with known faces, so to say. We need to go together. We need to show Sweden that this is not only an individual, it's not an individual molester, this is a structural problem that needs to be solved in a structural way. And I thought we also need to support the victims that had the guts to speak out about this because it's so easy to say, “It’s just hard. It's just that one. It’s just him, he's an asshole or whatever but you know,” and then you don't do anything about it. So I thought if we share our stories as well as famous faces and we share the same stories from our experiences in working in the restaurant business, and we say, “We are here, we have the same stories and we haven't achieved our positions because of it but even though we have these experiences, we have come to the positions we have, and we are ready to put the blame where it belongs”, and something that was really important for us was also to make a mark that we are also leading a positive development of the industry. It's not just that we are saying that we are victims or we had it really shitty in the past, but we're also here to take our place and show our faces and be role models for the next generations coming into the industry and everyone who is sharing our thoughts about it. We love our industry and we are pushing the development of an equal sustainable industry for everyone who loves this.
James: What events or campaigns did you put into action?
Sofia: I collected 65 big role models, female role models, of the Swedish restaurant business. And we had a very big article in one of the biggest newspapers, where we shared our stores with a name and a picture. So I was actually standing behind my own story, which was really, really hard in the beginning, but also very important to make it reliable and honest, in a way. And, at the same time, we shared nine points or demands, what we want to achieve. Also a lot of text about how we can see improvements in the industry. It had a really, really big impact and we've got a lot of attention and support.
James: What was the name of the campaign? It has a hashtag, it's Swedish. I won’t say it.
Sofia: It's called #hartardetslut. It basically means “hashtag, it ends now”. So it was just to make it more obvious what we were talking about.
James: Time's up, in other words.
Sofia: Time's up. First, we wrote that we do not accept the culture of silence that protects men in positions of power. Now we put the guilt shame where it belongs, with the perpetrators and those who watched silently. Because the silent culture was really a big problem. We want to see zero tolerance for sexism and racism in all restaurants. We want to see an equal investment in industry competitions. We want the industry to value and invest in leadership, all the way from the training period to the highest level. We demand a modern organisation in the leading layers of restaurants, where we build the entire organisation to create a safe and equal workplace. And we realised that this requires active work and collaboration with a lot of leading organisations — like, in Sweden, it’s the union and the employers’ organisation as well. We want to see more woman leaders, owners, and investors in the restaurant industry. And we want to recreate and maintain confidence in our industry too, in the younger generations. So, after the appeal, I think we were all really drained, to be honest. And now, almost one, one and a half years later, I was starting to form a plan of what the next step could be.
James: And that's where we are now. You've just had a conference, a seminar, a gathering in Gothenburg?
Sofia: Yeah. There were actually several parts to it. It started out with a seminar, but I just kept on adding things. On the first day, we just met in an informal way here at the Clarion Hotel Post. So that was the first part, we just ate dinner and chatted and had some wine and talked about everything. And then on Monday, we started with the seminar, as I said. I invited several experts, equality experts and other experts in developing organisations, and we had a lot of heavy people from the city, representing the city. And then, after lunch, we continued with a workshop, and we started working really, really in detail to get a clear way, a clear path to continue.
James: What are some of the concrete steps that you're now taking? What are some of the resolutions that have been made, and what happens next?
Sofia: Before this, we were 65 females who had done some together, but we didn't have any framework or organisation. So we decided to form a new association. That was one of the most important decisions. So I'm now the head of that organisation and we're going to have our first meeting in two weeks, setting the rest of the board and the kind of structure for the association. When that's ready, we're going to move on with communication. I think it will be one homepage and maybe a Facebook group. so everyone who wants to be a part of this development can join us. That's one of the most important things. Besides that, we agreed on three focus areas that we think should be most prioritised to achieve a quick development: Leadership. culture, and education. And it all comes together in a way. We think that's really, really important to kind of create value through leadership because what we are valuing now in leadership is hard tough leaders with strong muscles and a strong head, but we want to value a humble leader or a listening leader and a mature leader who can make everyone in the team feel included and valuable and help them develop. So that's something we're going to start with. Leadership, education, and culture. These are our three focus areas. I mean, there is so much research and so much development in the leadership area in the world, why shouldn't we use that in the restaurant industry? We still have very young, immature leaders who are recruited in a homosocial way, so we have a quite equal industry, so to speak, in how many females and how many males are working, but we have a lot more men in the power position, so to speak, and they tend to recruit other men who play the same sports or use the same language or have the same kind of culture. So that's what we need to break up and start recruiting new leaders and educate those leaders so they can become good leaders.
James: Have you had any pushback, any resistance, any voices on the side, saying there isn't really a problem, don’t be silly?
Sofia: No, I don't think so. It's more that a lot of people are quiet, you know? Especially men. So they don't say anything to me at all. But my position right now is that you can either choose to take a part of this or you can choose not to take a part of this. Either way, you’re going to have to. And if you don't act now, you're going to regret it in a couple of years because you’re not going to have any people working for you or any guests coming. I mean, that's what's happening right now, you know? If we see with the cancel culture and everything that's happening in the younger generation, for them it’s like a hygiene factor that shouldn't be homophobia or sexual harassment and stuff like that. So how are we going to make our industry grow? And how are we going to get the new guests coming to us because all the older ones, the older chefs and the older guests are going to go away, one day or another, and the new generations are coming and I think it's really necessary to think about it.
James: In a way, you've perhaps answered what was going to be my last question, which is what gives you a reason to be hopeful? What gives you a reason to be optimistic? Is it simply that there is a younger generation now that just will not stand for what has previously been, you know, excused or ignored or otherwise in the past?
Sofia: Exactly. And we need to show them role models. We need to show them a way, a future, in the industry. And we need to just work together to make everything better. That's basically… for me, it's not controversial. I mean, it's a basic human right that everyone who loves this industry, who loves to work with service, who loves to give something to the guests, should have that right, to do that work without being harassed. It's a basic human right. And I can't understand how it can be controversial in any way. Everyone should just be allowed to work with what they love and do that as well as they can. So I have all the hope in the world and I really have the feeling right now that we are doing something that's going to change for real. It’s not just talk. We are walking the walk and talking the talk, and it's important work that needs to be done.
That was Sofia Bodovic Olsson, chef and operations manager at restaurant Vrå in Gothenburg and the initiator of the ##härtardetslut campaign.
I think she’s absolutely right. This topic shouldn’t be controversial. What she and other women want is to be seen as full human beings rather than as sexual objects.
For their safety and movement through the world to be accepted in the way that men’s is.
And of course, Sofia is right to keep the conversation to keep going.
Women are being harassed, abused, and assaulted in restaurants every single day.
And we should never stop raising awareness of that.
She’s right, too, to refuse to accept the culture of silence that protects men in power.
What makes it especially galling, of course, is that it’s happening in restaurants that go on about being sustainable and ethical, and that won’t shut about their respect for nature or their reverence for ingredients.
The hypocrisy is bad enough, but what this shows is how normalised certain standards of behaviour is and how acceptable the culture of sexism seems to be.
Which is exactly why women like Sofia are so focused on trying to shift cultural norms.
And yet the onus shouldn’t just be on women. Men have work to do too.
Work that’s going to require more than making statements or reposting support for a hashtag.
At the end of the day, you see, this is about understanding who has power and how it’s used.
Right now, of course, most of the power lies in the hands of the men who own restaurants and run their kitchens.
So for cultural norms to change, those men are going to have to cede some of their power.
In part, that means promoting more women into leadership roles and making restaurants more democratic and more accountable.
And remember what Sofia said about the atmosphere in the kitchen when she and another woman ran it — how liberating the culture was and how many young female chefs subsequently applied to work with her?
Well, in short, investors need to back more women-owned restaurants and women-run kitchens.
But, in any case, as Sofia says, Time’s Up.
For one thing, hundreds of thousands of people have left the hospitality industry in the past couple of years, many never to return, and the scarcity of staff means it’s an employees’ market now.
The power is already starting to shift. And, as Sofia explains so clearly, cultural norms outside the restaurant industry are changing.
The younger generations of chefs, waiters and diners no longer tolerate racism, sexism and discrimination of any kind.
So if restaurants don’t start doing the hard work and change, but instead put their fingers in their ears and pretend that nothing’s happening, well then they risk being left behind and having neither staff nor customers. And there’s nothing sustainable about that.
This episode was written, produced and hosted by me, James Clasper, for Superb, and I sincerely hoped you’ve enjoyed it.
If so, feel free to share it with your friends, family, and colleagues.
We’ll be back with another episode of The Recipe in a couple of weeks.
Until then, take care, and thanks again for listening.