For decades, chef Charlie Hallowell was a culinary star around Oakland, Calif., as beloved for his restaurants' hip vibe, as he was for his passion for all the right social causes. Even the national critics raved about his creative modern California cuisine and his "cult following." Bon Appetit fawned, "Hallowell should run for mayor already."
But in December 2017, as the #MeToo movement was boiling over, the man celebrated for his cool cocktails and organic, locally-sourced farm-to-table ingredients was suddenly splayed across the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle as a serial sexual harasser. Dozens of women accused him of everything from constant lewd comments to uninvited kissing on the mouth, long, handsy hugs – and more.
Catalina del Canto, who worked for Hallowell as a cook and hostess, says he would come up behind her when she was stocking shelves in the walk-in cooler and press against her. And the crass sexual banter, she says, was constant.
"He asked if I had a boyfriend multiple times, and then would tell me that he would be able to please me better — using more explicit language," she says. "Or he'd say that dress looks great on you, but it would look better on my floor."
Katie Cotterell, who worked as a server, says as a survivor of a prior sexual assault, she was especially rattled by one incident.
"He just came up behind me and put his hand on the back of my neck and I just kind of froze," she recalls. "And then he [says] 'it's always interesting to me how it's always the feminists who like to be choked during sex.'"
Hallowell has denied intentionally pressing against del Canto but doesn't dispute the rest. Right after the scandal broke, he issued a statement apologizing, saying he was "deeply ashamed" for having "participated in and allowed an uncomfortable workplace for women," and he put himself on an unpaid leave of absence. But it did little to quell the outrage.
"I had people walk into the restaurant nightly that would ask me how I could continue to work for such a man," recalls Gina Seghi, who was then general manager of Hallowell's flagship restaurant, Pizzaiolo. "I was getting people threatening me, threatening my staff, threatening to burn down the restaurant and threatening to go to his house and hurt him."
Eventually, Hallowell relented to pressure, he sold two of his three restaurants. But about 10 months after the scandal broke, he announced he was coming back, and opening a new place.
"It was slap in face," says former barista Celeste Cooper. "It was so insulting to all of us." Cooper says she, too, was subject to Hallowell's crude cracks, like his suggestion that she'd have fewer problems with her then-husband, if she would just engage more often in a certain sex act.
"He caused a lot of damage, and a lot of trauma to a lot of people who will never be the same," she says. "So why does he get to carry on?"
Hallowell contends, because he's changed. But he's struggling to figure out how exactly to make his case, and how to chart a road back. Two years into the #MeToo movement, there's no consensus on what it takes to earn a second chance, or what the road to redemption should look like — or if there even should be a road back.
When he announced his return, even Hallowell's apology had evolved. He offered a much more explicit mea culpa for "stealing power from the women around [him]," and "mindlessly upholding the patriarchy." And to show he meant business, he also published a 12-point plan, that included bringing on a new female managing partner with the power to set his pay and fire him, installing a mostly-female management team, and hiring an outside HR firm to field complaints. But even then, he seemed to be tripping over his own feet, catching flak for offering to sit atop a dunk tank and inviting anyone to "come give it a shot." He scrambled to issue yet another apology, insisting he didn't mean to "make light of the situation."
Hallowell readily concedes he's still learning, as he says he has been since the day the scandal broke and he landed on his hands and knees, sobbing, at his therapist's office.
"It was like a mule kick. Like I had my head pretty far up my ass, and I didn't even realize until I got hit over the head with it," says Hallowell, now 45. He sips tea at his kitchen table as he recounts the searing, soul-searching work he's been doing, with the help of his therapist, a social worker, an array of women advisers and a men's group. Gradually, he says, he's been dismantling his "toxic masculinity" and what he calls his "outrageous persona," — a debilitating brew of ego and insecurity that he says blinded him to how he was impacting others.
But his public shaming, he says, was like a crash course in empathy, especially the first time he ventured out of the house after the scandal, terrified someone would accost him for what he'd done.
"Like my heart was racing and I felt unsafe," he recalls, fighting back tears. "And I remember thinking this is probably a lot like how a lot of women feel all the time. And it was so heartbreaking to think that I was making people feel that way. You know, I thought of myself as this radical feminist. It just cracked me open."
Hoping to make amends, Hallowell also began a process called restorative justice, offering to sit down with anyone he'd hurt, to hear about the damage his misconduct had caused.
"I mean it made me feel small," explained Katie Cotterell, one of those who opted to take him up on the offer. For four hours, she held nothing back, pouring out the pain he caused with all his sexual antics — from the choking comment, to his constant touching. "When you're doing that in front of people that I work with, it takes away my power because then when you leave I become a joke."
Sitting together recalling it even now, Hallowell listens, sober-faced one moment, and breaking down the next.
"It really hit my heart that I had caused you this pain," he says, his voice cracking. "I'm still filled with shame about it."
It was enough to persuade Cotterell that Hallowell deserved a second chance. She's since taken a new job, working for Hallowell as a manager. But she's quick to add, her openness to his redemption is not just for his sake.
"I just think if you have someone who believes what they did, and is sorry and wants to change, that's not the person you cast aside," she says. "That's the person that you [say] 'OK, well then let's get to it and do the work and see if [they are] capable.' And I think letting that person back into society is actually what helps create change."
Hallowell craves the chance. "I'm a cook," he says. "The proof is in the pudding."
Pulling a squid pizza from the oven at the new restaurant, Western Pacific, sous chef Porter Lewis, says the new place has a whole new flavor, having 86'd the harassment as well as Hallowell's "outrageous persona."
"Slowly, but surely, it's all changing," Lewis says. "You see him starting to talk, and then he'll hold himself back. Before, he would stand on a table and give his grand, almost ridiculous speeches, and that has completely dissipated. I feel like he's slowly getting more and more into the background."
"This has been my favorite job so far," says server Maci Miller. She says she feels "more heard and more respected" here than in any other kitchen she's worked in.
Donna Insalaco, Hallowell's new chief operating officer, says she had "mixed feelings about whether this was possible" when she came on as Hallowell's managing partner and minder. "There's no roadmap for this," she says. "It felt like walking into a landmine."
She's keeping a close eye on Hallowell, and everyone else. "I fired three people pretty quickly after I started," she says.
Miller says she, too, took the job with some qualms. She says colleagues warned her not to work for Hallowell, but she did anyway, believing it's better to let people who were part of the problem, become part of the solution, rather than just boot them.
"We're not going to get better that way," she says. "We're not going to learn. So what was the point of the #MeToo movement in the first place? We all have to understand that we're all learning... and we need to help build each other up."
To others however, the "point" of the #MeToo movement is to finally impose real consequences for misconduct that went ignored for far too long. That includes Soleil Ho, a San Francisco Chronicle food critic, who wrote a column refusing to review Hallowell's new place because, she wrote, that would be "enabling [him] to keep doing things the same – and potentially endangering other people in the process."
After it was published, Hallowell says his business dropped by almost half.
"Sorry, not sorry. That's the price you pay," says Celeste Cooper, the former barista. She says Hallowell could do something else, or go somewhere else, but a return to glory in the restaurant scene, should be off the table.
"I feel like he lost that privilege. Like [he] blew it," she says. "Why do we need to give [him] another chance or three?"
As Cooper speaks, it's hard miss the irony of the two-inch tall letters tattooed just below her neck, that spell out "Forgiveness."
She laughs. "But forgiveness doesn't mean to forget," she says. "And I don't believe he can change that part of him."
Former employee Catalina del Canto, doesn't buy it either.
"He's a salesman," she says. "He'll convince you of anything. I feel like he's still selling: 'Look, I'm reformed! Come to my restaurant, it's owned by women!'"
Del Canto concedes there's little Hallowell could do to ever change her mind. And then, she sighs. Maybe, she says, society should not be taking their cue from victims like her about their own perpetrator's redemption.
"It's different when it's personal," she says. "I'd like to be a person who believes everybody [can earn] forgiveness, and that everybody can change. But maybe you're never going to get an 'everything's fine' from me. Does that mean he doesn't get to have a restaurant because I don't forgive him? Sometimes, I don't want it to be my responsibility to be the thumbs up or thumbs down. Like, I'm not Caesar!"
Ultimately, it may be the market that decides. Hallowell's new restaurant continues to take in just about half what it needs to survive. But things are slowly picking up.
Roxy Cruz, a 31-year-old grad student, she says she and her friends wouldn't eat here when the restaurant first opened. Now, she's packed into a booth near the bar with a party of about 10 people.
"I guess it's just time," she sighs. "You just get used to the idea that there's enough bad behavior all around you just can't avoid it."
And besides, Cruz quips, "he made a good call with the $1 oysters."
But while she's here, enjoying dinner, Cruz says, she's glad that others have made a different choice.
Their "protesting and picketing is probably why he's acting good now," she says. "So like good on them for saying like 'No I'm not going to support this business.' If women hadn't said anything, would he be out here trying to do this? I mean maybe, but maybe not."
For his part, Hallowell says he wants people to continue to hold his feet to the fire, painful as it is.
"I can't avoid this thing that I did," he sighs. "Even if I feel horrible and vulnerable. Like that discomfort is part of like the work. All I can do is keep moving towards it."
He wonders, though, how people would ever know when he's gone the distance.
"One thing that I wish is that there was some way to audit the change that has happened in me," he says. "I can commit to a lifetime of this kind of soul-level transformative work and there will always be a sense from some people that it's not enough, or I could never change."
Indeed, outside the restaurant, may passers-by know all about Hallowell's misconduct from when the scandal first made headlines.
"I'm definitely not going to eat there," says 28-year-old Maggie Osburn, who says it's important to her to make informed decisions about her spending. But as she's told what Hallowell's been doing in the nearly two years since the accusations surfaced, she realizes her decision is less informed than she thought.
"I didn't know any of that," she says. "I guess that's the danger of living in a cancel culture."
It all leaves her musing about the possibility of some kind of Good Housekeeping-like seal of approval, that could be posted in a business' window. "That would be cool." But unlikely, she concedes.
Which leaves guys like Hallowell deciding for themselves when it's OK to try to launch a comeback. With no roadmap, no rules, no sense of where the end may be, or when it's OK to hit the gas, Hallowell says he still feels more like he's clambering off-road, than cruising on it. He still second-guesses whether he set out too soon.
"That was so tricky," he says, "It still is tricky. Even this interview is tricky."
But he is choosing to speak out, Hallowell says, hoping his journey serves as both a cautionary tale, and a roadmap for others.
"I can say 'Look at the ways I misstepped. Look at the ways I hurt people that I loved,'" Hallowell says. "And the only way I can start to deal with it is by acknowledging it and trying to find a softer, humbler, kinder way to navigate the world. That's the path."
So many guys "are shuffling around their apartments in their pajamas taking antidepressants, and they're really not bad human beings," he says. "They made mistakes, they lacked awareness, and they're flawed humans just like me. But they could actually be functioning as real members of society, if they're willing and able to do the work. And I'm trying to [help] them find the right path."
Permanent exile is "not a functional way to fix the problem," he sighs. A road to redemption must be a possibility, if for no other reason than to keep guys like him trying to get there.
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