Chef Francesca Hong Is Proving that Food Is Political | Civil Eats

Chef Francesca Hong Is Proving that Food Is Political

Francesca Hong stands in front of the Wisconsin state capitol building as part of efforts to protest political gerrymandering.

In Wisconsin and many other states, tipped workers, who are mostly women, start at $2.33 per hour and are more likely to face sexual harassment. But at Morris Ramen in Madison, co-founder Francesca Hong pays her tipped employees $15 per hour and fosters an environment in which workers can report any abuse they’ve experienced—there or at other restaurants.

In addition to being a chef and community organizer, Hong was elected to the Wisconsin legislature last November and became the voice of one of the pandemic’s most impacted industries. Now, she’s fighting to raise the wages of all tipped workers in the state.

“I want to repeal [the tip credit] and replace it with the current abysmal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour,” Hong says. “It’s just scratching the surface. We want people to know that this is the floor and not the ceiling.”

As a progressive, Hong has made it clear that she is seeking equity for all Wisconsin residents, including the many communities of color that have been historically underrepresented. She and her colleagues recently introduced an Economic Justice Bill of Rights, which includes the rights to a living income, collective bargaining, affordable healthcare, accessible public education and childcare, and clean water. After witnessing how little support the hospitality industry received from the government during the pandemic, Hong has begun advocating for rights to basic infrastructure for everyone—not only restaurant workers.

“The defunding of public services has led to so much harm, and Republicans are solely responsible for that,” says Hong. “And I think for a long time, Democrats have struggled with making clear what they’re fighting for. We want to be able to message effectively to people that we are fighting for them. And this is our guide, our network, our pathway, and our commitment to how we’re going to do that.”

However, achieving these goals in the Assembly won’t be easy. Hong won her election handily with 88 percent of votes in the 76th District, but as a woman of color in the minority party, she doesn’t always see eye to eye with the overwhelmingly male state legislature, which is two-thirds Republican and 88 percent white. For context, last February, Wisconsin Republicans rejected a resolution honoring Black History Month because they didn’t approve of all the people named in the resolution—and decided to honor conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh instead.

Activity in the State Assembly also ground to a halt during the pandemic, leading political pundits to call the Wisconsin Legislature one of the laziest in the country.

People of color in Wisconsin have faced overwhelming challenges to becoming a viable political force, but Hong is trying to increase their strength by working with diverse coalitions. Hong, who is Korean American, is the first and only Asian-American representative in Wisconsin history and was elected alongside Samba Baldeh, the state’s first Muslim representative, in 2020. The state has the nation’s third-largest Hmong population; and while Hmong voters were courted by both candidates in the last presidential election, no one of Hmong descent has ever been elected to office in Wisconsin’s state legislature. (In comparison, the legislature next door in Minnesota has had at least three Hmong representatives.)

To make headway in her agenda, Hong has built coalitions with grassroots organizations, including the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition of Wisconsin, the Hmong Institute, the University of Wisconsin BIPOC Coalition, and Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce. In early May, the Assembly passed a resolution to mark May as Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month—a decision based on a bill Hong first introduced in April. She also sponsored a bill that designates May 14th as Hmong-Lao Veteran’s Day, and Democratic Governor Tony Evers signed it into law on the same day. Hong and fellow legislators have also introduced a bill to require that Hmong and other APIDA culture and history be taught in the schools so that students can learn about the state’s largest Asian ethnic group and their compatriots.

Hong and her fellow Democrats are fighting an ongoing effort to gerrymander the state’s districts, which many believe are drawn to ensure that the Republican party retains power. “For them, democracy is not the people choosing their electeds but the electeds choosing who votes for them,” says Hong. Again, she’s working with coalitions and expects to see the issue end up on court. “We also have an organization called Law Forward that is fighting to keep gerrymandering out of Wisconsin. We may see new maps for 2022,” she says.

Hong, however, has made it a regular practice to challenge the status quo. In a Bon Appétit op-ed, published before the general election, she drew a comparison between the hospitality industry and politics: “Our industry as a whole is in desperate need of restructuring, but guess what? So is our government.”

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Building a Better Restaurant Culture

In Madison, like many places in the country, chefs and restaurant owners have been called out for sexist, racist, and abusive behavior. And just like elsewhere, victims of this harassment have often faced repercussions for speaking up.

Most recently, Madison restaurateur Patrick Sweeney was accused of verbally and physically assaulting employees and arrested on domestic abuse charges. His volatility was said to be the “worst-kept secret” of the local restaurant industry, and he has been removed from the restaurants he co-owns in a rare case of workplace accountability.

Sasha Debevec-McKenney, a former employee of Morris Ramen and veteran of the Madison restaurant industry, said she would like to see other chefs face similar consequences for their actions. She added that a number of the city’s food service workers share information about the working conditions of various restaurants in an effort to safeguard their own well-being. “It sucks, but we all have to look out for each other. It’s very [much like a] whisper network,” she said.

Recently, another veteran Madison restaurant worker, Alejandra Perez, published an op-ed about what she sees as the complicity of those in charge of these hostile environments.

Hong’s established history in prioritizing workers in the restaurant industry may offer a parallel for how she intends to revolutionize the state government. Beyond paying employees a fair wage, she has also promoted transparency in her restaurants. Past and present Morris Ramen employees say Hong has an open communication policy with her workers. “Francesca communicated with our staff and said, ‘Not only can you tell me if you have experienced [abuse] here, you can tell me if anyone you know is experiencing that at any restaurant,’” Debevec-McKenney recalls.

Hong began taking a more proactive approach to improving the restaurant industry in 2016 after the election of Donald Trump. She helped establish the Culinary Ladies Collective, an organization centered around mentorship, education, and advocacy for women in hospitality; she currently serves as president. The group’s first and only festival—Femmestival—took place just before the pandemic lockdowns, and spotlighted dishes prepared by women cooks. To cope with the pandemic fallout, Hong also launched Cook It Forward with other restaurateurs to employ workers by providing meals to food-insecure residents in Madison.

Hong also uses her social media feed as a platform to speak out about injustice, especially when restaurant workers are adversely affected. When the alcoholic beverage retailer trade group Tavern League of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit in October against Democrat Governor Tony Evers’ order to shut down eating and drinking establishments as COVID-19 cases soared, Hong criticized the group on Twitter. (Her word choice made local headlines, rather than the substantive issue of worker health.) Her stance puts her at odds with others in the restaurant community, Debevec-McKenney says.

“She’s up against [other people who] own restaurants near her. They might think, ‘We’re good people. We wrote ‘Black Lives Matter’ on our sign or ‘Stop Asian Hate,’ but we’re also going to pay workers $2[.33] an hour right now,” says Debevec-McKenney.

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Many restaurants are facing staffing shortages as the pandemic winds down and businesses reopen. One factor is a lack of childcare, but some Wisconsin Republicans blame “laziness” enabled by increased unemployment benefits. The Republican-controlled legislature, which hasn’t passed a bill during the pandemic, worked to cut the $300 federal boost in unemployment benefits—from $670 to $370 per week. Democratic Governor Tony Evers, however, vetoed the move in late June.

With its higher hourly wage, Morris Ramen is having a relatively smooth transition as they bring their employees back to work. But Hong knows that ensuring that all her constituents can earn a living wage and work in a respectful environment will take more than mere business strategy. “You don’t think it’s problematic that [workers are] making more on unemployment than for their hourly wage?” she says. “Why are we not having that conversation?”

Photos courtesy of Francesca Hong.

Esther Tseng is a Los Angeles-based food, drinks and culture writer available for reported and editorial assignments as well as ghost-written, branded content. She has contributed to the LA Times, Food & Wine, Eater, LAist, VICE, Time Out, Los Angeleno, Discover LA and more. Read more >

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