Celebrated Vegan Chef Allegedly Objectified Women for Years, Used N-Word

Credit to Author: Manisha Krishnan| Date: Thu, 19 Nov 2020 16:55:53 GMT

When Kailey Gilchrist first started working closely with renowned vegan chef Doug McNish, she chalked his lewd comments up to “gross bro kitchen culture.”

“I’d go into the kitchen and he would say ‘come touch my stubby,’” she said, which she believed was a reference to his penis. “In my mind I made it OK because I was like… he doesn’t mean it.” 

Gilchrist, 32, worked on and off with McNish at his Toronto restaurant Doug McNish’s Public Kitchen from 2014 to 2017 and currently runs Nona Vegan Foods. She is speaking out now about what she describes as McNish’s inappropriate workplace conduct in the hopes that the culinary vegan world will become more inclusive. 

VICE World News has spoken to seven of McNish’s former colleagues and employees who said the chef engaged in a variety of inappropriate behaviours, including regularly making crude jokes about women who worked at and frequented his restaurants, and allegedly making racist and transphobic remarks by using the N-word and saying he didn’t believe trans men are real men.

The allegations stem from McNish’s time as executive chef and operator at Toronto vegan restaurants Mythology and Doug McNish’s Public Kitchen, both of which are now closed. Public Kitchen closed while McNish was running Mythology; Mythology closed a little under a year ago and its parent company, The 5700 Inc., didn’t cite a reason. 

McNish’s alleged behaviours are being criticized for failing to live up to veganism’s broader appeals to social justice, which often advocate against animal abuse and environmental degradation as well as racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia. 

After reports about McNish’s behaviour surfaced on social media, McNish, 37, posted an apology on his Instagram account on October 17. 

“The kitchen environment I entered into at the young age of 15 was, admittedly, one of misogyny, sexism, homophobia, racism and crude behaviour. I engaged in that culture and made harmful remarks that I thought were funny. They weren’t,” he wrote. 

McNish echoed those remarks in a statement to VICE World News, responding to a detailed list of allegations. After VICE World News reached out to him, he appeared to have blocked both reporters working on the story from viewing his Instagram account.

Does your workplace have an issue with systemic racism, sexism, or a toxic culture? You can contact reporters Manisha Krishnan
and Anya Zoledziowski by email at 
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McNish was the face of Mythology, which touted itself as an elevated vegan dining experience. It was part of a string of vegan businesses called Vegandale that began cropping up in the west Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale in 2016, all run by the same company. 

Doug McNish Mythology

Doug McNish was executive chef at Mythology, part of a chain of Vegandale businesses. Photo by Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Parkdale has long been home to Little Tibet and a sizable immigrant population, but much of its affordable housing has dwindled in recent years as rents and home prices have gone up. The “Vegandale” branding, including Vegandale Brewery slogans that proffered “morality on tap,” irked many Parkdale residents, who felt the businesses were representative of the area’s gentrification. (In response to the backlash, The 5700 Inc., the company that owned Mythology, committed to donating $100,000 to community programs. The company refused to answer if it followed through on its donation promise, stating “all donations to local communities should always be kept private as anything else plays into the saviour mentality that is prevalent in low-income neighbourhoods.”)

McNish is a household name in the vegan scene. In 2018, he earned a “Compassionate Business” award from PETA, the animal rights advocacy group, for his leadership at Mythology diner and elsewhere. His vegan egg yolk is one of his claims to fame. Photos from his Instagram account, which has upwards of 40,000 followers, show him standing alongside actors Tobey Maguire and Rachel McAdams at Public Kitchen. 

He released his latest cookbook, The Classics Veganized, in September and launched a podcast on vegan leadership around the same time. In October he joined Modern Meat, a publicly traded Canadian plant-based food manufacturer, as a product development advisor. 

McNish told VICE World News he “(embraces) diversity in every way, including among my colleagues, family, and friends” and is committed to being “part of the solution” by introducing mandatory sensitivity training in his future kitchens. 

But the former employees who spoke to VICE World News said McNish actively contributed to the opposite culture and that his behaviour is from the recent past. 

“He would really objectify female customers,” said Gilchrist. “A woman would come in wearing a revealing top and he would say, ‘Kailey, did you see the titties on that one?’” 

“I have fully and publicly acknowledged that there were times in the past that… were insensitive and careless, and for that I am deeply sorry.”

Another former colleague of McNish’s, who did not want herself named out of fear of reprisal, said McNish was “always looking at my butt or my breasts.” She said one day in the summer of 2009, while she was wearing a tank top, he asked if she was wearing a bra “and made his grunting, disgusting lewd noise.” 

“He was always driving everything towards some dirty sexual talk,” she said. 

Rob Storm, one of McNish’s former business associates, said while he was picking up food from Public Kitchen one day, McNish told two female staff members he’d like to see them make out. 

Storm said he felt “incredibly uncomfortable,” and now regrets not calling McNish out.

Evan, a former line cook at Mythology who did not want to use their real name due to concerns about their future job prospects, said McNish took a video of one of the restaurant’s servers making a cocktail for Instagram. But he saved it to his phone, they alleged, “and then would just show it to people,” because the woman’s breasts were “jiggling” in the clip. 

“I guess I made the assumption that because he’s vegan he’s going to be compassionate towards me and others.” 

McNish did not respond to specific accusations of sexism in his statement to VICE World News, but said, “I have fully and publicly acknowledged that there were times in the past that, upon reflection over the years and now, were insensitive and careless, and for that I am deeply sorry.” 

He also noted that the male-dominated environments he worked in “needed to change then, and where they still exist, need to change now.” 

Evan, 29, who is trans and non-binary, said McNish would frequently misgender them and other trans and nonbinary staff at Mythology. 

“I don’t remember Doug ever once correctly gendering me,” they said. “I guess I made the assumption that because he’s vegan he’s going to be compassionate towards me and others.” 

In response to McNish’s behaviour, the Mythology team held a meeting in the summer of 2018 pertaining to using people’s pronouns correctly, Evan said, but “Doug just sat there shaking his head and rolling his eyes the entire time and making scoffing noises.”

Evan said his reaction made them feel “worthless.” 

While at Mythology, Evan said they overheard McNish stating that trans men aren’t real men while discussing a trans employee who needed time off for gender-affirming surgery.

In an email statement, The 5700 Inc. said it “never received a formal complaint against Doug McNish,” adding that the company “fosters a culture of workplace inclusivity and diversity.” 

Another trans man who worked at Public Kitchen in 2017 for two months told VICE World News McNish misgendered him after firing him. 

Grey South, 43, who was hired as a chef de partie, said the pressure he felt at the restaurant, combined with a lack of training and support, triggered his complex PTSD, and he began calling in sick. 

After circling back to McNish to discuss future opportunities with the restaurant, McNish fired him, South said. 

“I applied for my (employment insurance) and that's when the problems started with my pronouns,” South said. 

In a subsequent email, South said McNish used his deadname (the name a trans person used before they transitioned). 

“I was hurt and disgusted,” South said. He later posted about the incident in an anti-oppression vegan Facebook group; his message made its way back to McNish, who sent South an email asking him to take it down. (VICE World News has viewed the Facebook post and email.) 

“It was a mistake plain and simple and I apologize if it offended you. If it does hurt you (so) much, I suggested changing it legally so this doesn’t happen again. I have staff (and friends) of all types and love each and everyone the same, regardless of race or gender or sexual orientation, it’s simply not me to be purposely hateful. 

“I don’t appreciate the slander of character in a public setting and am politely asking you taking (sic) the post down,” McNish wrote in the email.

McNish told VICE World News he apologized for using a former employee’s deadname. 

“I recognize this was a learning curve for me, and the slip-ups were not intentional,” he said. 

South said he felt ostracized within the vegan community after his fallout with McNish and his career has since spiralled. He’s currently unemployed due to COVID-19. 

“That actually caused infighting. It put a huge mark on me,” South said, adding many vegans are still defending McNish and have questioned whether or not South was overreacting. 

McNish has also been accused of using the N-word multiple times, despite being asked to stop. 

Gilchrist, South, and another former colleague said McNish would use the N-word while singing along to rap songs. He nicknamed one of his egg-free brunch dishes called N’egg McNish the “negger,” a word he would regularly shout when customers ordered it. 

“He would call it on the path as ‘negger’ within earshot of customers,” Gilchrist said. “I just remember being like, “This is horrific.’” 

McNish told VICE World News he is “embarrassed to say” he didn’t make the connection between the sandwich’s nickname and the N-word. He added he understands “how that name could have been received and why it was a bad choice.”

Stephanie Gorchynski, a Toronto chef who formerly shared a kitchen with McNish, said she brought up her concerns over the breakfast sandwich name, but McNish didn’t seem to care.

“I asked about the name of the item, something to the effect of, ‘Was he sure he wanted to go with that name?’” Gorchynksi told VICE World News. “He said he didn’t see an issue with it with a smirk and then left.”

McNish told VICE World News he “has no recollection” of the exchange with Gorchynski.

“I tried to educate and it didn’t do anything. He just dug his heels in more.” 

In a separate incident at a staff party a few years ago, Gilchrist said she walked in on McNish defending his right to use the N-word because his Black friends had said it was OK. 

“I tried to educate and it didn’t do anything. He just dug his heels in more,” she said. 

Gilchrist said for a long time, she kept her experiences with McNish quiet. But the increased awareness around anti-Black racism—and seeing some vegans tout the All Lives Matter mantra earlier this year—spurred her to come forward. 

“People don’t like call-out culture and cancel culture and honestly I am a fan of (the idea that) people can grow and learn and change and make better choices,” she said. “But he was just so applauded for everything he did and got every opportunity, ahead of women, ahead of people of colour, ahead of trans chefs. He just seemed to get it all, so I think that was really frustrating for a lot of people.” 

Gilchrist said she wants to see members of her community speak up about overlapping social justice issues like feminism, anti-racism, as well as animal rights. 

“Single-issue veganism is such a problem. I’m all for intersectional everything,” said Gilchrist. 

But right now, “veganism has this stigma from people who are giving it a bad name,” she said. 

Vegan food chain Copper Branch, which recently announced that it will offer McNish’s reuben sandwich in all of its 65 Canadian locations, is considering cancelling the reuben sandwich rollout, or donating all of the money earned from the sandwich to charity and removing McNish as the figurehead, Copper Branch CEO Trish Paterson told VICE World News.

Paterson said she is aware of some of the allegations against McNish. 

“To even be associated with allegations like misogyny and racism is devastating for us,” Paterson said in an interview. 

Penguin Randomhouse Canada did not respond to several VICE World News requests for comment. PETA did not respond to allegations about McNish specifically, but said there is no room in the vegan world for prejudice. 

A spokesperson for Modern Meat, Tanya Todd, said the company did not receive any formal complaints about McNish from its staff. 

“We do not condone or tolerate any discriminatory behaviour or harassment in the workplace at Modern Meat,” Todd said. She did not comment on whether McNish would remain an advisor.

A previous version of the story incorrectly said Doug McNish deleted his Instagram account after VICE World News reached out to him. In fact, McNish appeared to have blocked both VICE World News reporters working on the story from viewing his account.

Follow Manisha Krishnan and Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.

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