The event on 30 July at the Drapers Arms had an audience of 60 and the panel was made up of Andy Oliver (Som Saa owner/chef), Mandy Yin (Sambal Shiok owner), Elizabeth Haigh (Kaizen House chef/owner), Ben Chapman (Smoking Goat and Kiln chef/owner), and chaired by regular CODE Quarterly writer Anna Sulan Masing.
Addressing the situation
Chef Shaun Beagley was found to have posted a series of deeply racist Instagram posts and YouTube videos under the moniker “Boring Thai”, which he had been using to promote a series of pop-ups. The videos were highly bigoted, but most of the content focused on Thai people. The backlash against Beagley and Som Saa, where he worked, was absolute in its condemnation, with the predominant voices being those of Asian heritage within the restaurant industry. Beagley had been posting this content for two years; many in the industry (including those on the panel) had been following him. Therefore, a key question surfaced – how was this missed?
The panel discussion began with a summary of the incident. Oliver explained Som Saa’s relationship with Beagley and how and why they approached the situation as they did. Haigh and Yin then stated how they came across the content, and how that made them feel as professionals in the industry with Asian heritage. Both Oliver and Smoking Goat – which Chapman owns – had promoted the offending content on social media, failing to recognise the racist nature of the material. Chapman acknowledged that in promoting it, he also encouraged others to follow Beagley.
The discourse that showed that, as an industry, we are not used to addressing and dealing with racism. A lot of the social media fallout highlighted problematic language and included conversations around what racism felt and looked like.
Oliver explained that Som Saa management hadn’t looked at the material in-depth, viewing it as separate to the business and therefore not their responsibility (which they now view as not the way to handle such incidents). To their knowledge, this language and viewpoint was not expressed in the restaurant, which is where they drew their line.
Those that followed Beagley gave him the benefit of the doubt, passing it off as edgy humour, partly because they saw other trusted people following him. Some Instagram content was entirely missed, due to the scrolling nature of the medium, where captions often aren’t read.
But ultimately, Shaun Beagley felt safe – encouraged, even – to create racist content. There isn’t a straightforward answer to the question of how it was missed, but what it highlights is the need to create safe spaces for people to question and call things out – because no matter how great management is, people may be afraid of being labelled a ‘snitch’ (as Haigh put it) or fear for their jobs.
A frank discussion about racism
Some responses understood this incident as linear – someone was fired, an apology was written, and the issue was, in their eyes, laid to rest. However as the response from London’s Asian community demonstrated, this wasn’t a situation that could be resolved through a linear approach. Rather, years of frustration, anger, and what many felt to be acceptable bigotry towards a minority seen as a ‘soft’ target meant that the entire episode is an opportunity for frank dialogue, and a long-overdue discussion on matters that affect marginalised groups.
Language is one of the obstacles when discussing racism. At times, people are uncertain of what language to use, and therefore shy away. But approaching the topic with a caveat of someone learning, who might get it wrong, is OK. It should not be up to those that are marginalised to do all the ‘teaching’, but equally, if they do speak up, then listening is key – people are generally fine with explaining why something isn’t appropriate.
For example, an audience member remarked that Beagley had not taken responsibility for his actions – and as the face of the ensuing fallout, Oliver was asked whether he felt he had been ‘lynched’. Here, the use of the word ‘lynched’ is very loaded; at worst, it references US Jim Crow lynch (hanging) mobs; at best, it denotes a hysteria, which undermines the feelings of those hurt. (Oliver responding by saying he didn’t feel attacked and that he understood the reactions, and felt that as a business owner who employed Beagley, he was responsible.)
Another key issue to address is the matter of privilege. As a straight, middle class white man cooking the food of a marginalised culture, Oliver has benefited considerably from his privilege. Masing identified that Oliver is afforded the space and ability to experiment and draw attention from the media and industry, whereas for many Thai-owned establishments, simply making a living is a greater concern – something that Oliver acknowledged.
There is a difference between being outwardly racist and participating in a racist system that disadvantages minorities. The issues that arose here are symptomatic of a wider problem, of structural racism that exists in every workplace and social setting. And as individuals, wider societal injustice is too much to tackle, but it should be a moral obligation for each person to address systemic inequality within their own backyard. So how do we make sure that this doesn’t happen again?
Creating safe spaces and the implications of social media
There is no one way to solve this problem, but practical ways of beginning to address this were brought up - including HR management, social media policies, and training senior (and often young) staff how to be managers. With small businesses, it is financially difficult to have HR teams, which produce codes of conduct and the means to enforce guidelines. Chapman explained that he had implemented an anonymous staff survey, and it was suggested that this idea could be expanded, offering a consistent way for staff to report abuse.
And while clear guidelines are fundamental, how can you guarantee that a team member will read the staff handbook? Panellists believed that it was down to the employee to read it, but ultimately management’s responsibility to enforce it.
As with any industry, not reprimanding racism as an employer is a form of complicity, allowing a space in which such views are tolerated and able to exist. While staff may not always feel comfortable highlighting racist or sexist behaviour, Yin pointed out that, as a boss, it was your responsibility to be vigilant and show zero tolerance. Haigh recounted an incident in which, as a head chef, she fired a kitchen porter on the spot for a sexist comment, stepping into his place for the remainder of the night.
Understanding staff’s use of social media is also a key consideration, since this incident unfolded across multiple platforms. The panel agreed that, while an employee represents themselves, they also represent the company they work for. When rhetoric spills into openly abusive behaviour – as it did here – then an employer has to put themselves in the position of a customer or staff member, and ask whether they themselves would feel comfortable dining or working at a place with someone in the back preparing their meal who held racist opinions and views. Furthermore, it’s also important to note that a ‘follow’ on social media could be construed as an endorsement.
The meeting finished with panel members talking individually to some who had observed the event – and although it was clear that there is a wide understanding of and enthusiasm for better working practices, there’s still a very long way to go.
This article is written by writer David Paw – one of the first voices to call out Beagley’s content and an audience member at the event – and panel chair Anna Sulan Masing, to begin to unpick the panel discussion and the wider topic. As with the discussion itself, this is a beginning of the conversation and is from the perspective of two individuals.
CODE is planning a series of smaller workshop events to further discuss abuse in hospitality with the aim of drawing up a list of resources for those who want guidance and advice, and to create a code of conduct template that employers can adapt and utilise. For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org