When Sources Stand Together: Reporting on the Willows Inn
A Times food journalist who revealed accusations of misconduct at the restaurant in Washington State discusses how employees came to tell their story.,
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More than three years after sexual harassment allegations were publicly leveled against the film producer Harvey Weinstein, workers across various industries continue to share accounts of abuse. Julia Moskin, a food reporter for The New York Times, was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for coverage of workplace sexual harassment issues, which included restaurant kitchens. She recently reported on the Willows Inn, a restaurant that attracts globe-trotting diners to an idyllic island north of Seattle.
Employees said they were sexually harassed by kitchen staff members and were subjected to abusive working conditions. They also asserted that the chef and co-owner, Blaine Wetzel, misled diners about the provenance of ingredients — a key selling point of the business. Mr. Wetzel denies the allegations. Ms. Moskin, who interviewed 35 former staff members at the Willows for the article, discussed her reporting. Her answers have been lightly edited.
What is your beat at The Times?
I’ve never been a food critic, but I would cover restaurant trends, or the origins of dishes, or why everyone loves flourless chocolate cake so much. I was really a specialist in food when I came to The Times; I didn’t have formal training in journalism.
For people outside of the food world, what does the Willows represent?
The Willows is part of this very aspirational dining trend that has really taken over in the last 10 or 15 years. It is connected with lists and awards that have become increasingly important. There are these high-end global destinations that people travel to just for one dinner, which didn’t really used to be the case. The stakes are high and the restaurants have to perform at a very, very high level to get on these lists or to win these awards. The Willows was very much a part of that. So they put a lot of pressure on their employees. This is labor-intensive work, carefully plated — not like bistros where you’re making delicious stews and home-style food.
In the last several years, you have taken on these investigations into sexual and workplace harassment in the food world. Can you talk about that work?
I never thought that would be what I do, but that’s pretty much all I do now. In 2017, as the Weinstein story was building, I think everyone at The Times looked around and said: “Who’s the Harvey Weinstein on my beat?” In food, there were a lot of people to choose from because there were so many poorly kept secrets. But it was very hard, at the time, to get people to go on the record. I teamed up with Kim Severson, who was a more experienced journalist, and is also a food staff writer. We had never done that kind of work, but we learned as we went from reporters like Jodi Kantor and Emily Steel. Everyone was just banding together, and then that was how the whole group won that Pulitzer, because we’d all been able to do this in different parts of the paper.
Since then, it has really changed. The alumni of the Willows, for example, found one another, and when they came to me, there were already 20 of them who wanted to talk. Ultimately, there were almost 40 sources.
What is the process of getting people to talk to you and confirming these conversations?
We let people talk off the record at first. You have to build that relationship in a situation where people feel safe, and so they often don’t know if they’re going to go on the record, because nobody wants to go on the record alone, and we don’t let anyone go on the record alone. Once there are clear patterns, I’m able to circle back and say, “It looks like 11 other people had this experience — is that something that you would be willing to talk about?”
At that point, do you have another conversation where you say, “OK, I’m recording now, let’s talk about it all again, on the record”?
Yes, of course.
How do you approach a story like this where there are allegations against an individual who might have a lot to lose when the article appears?
That’s certainly something that we take into account all along the way. This was a situation in which it was so important to have so many sources, because that many people over many years, having such similar experiences, helped corroborate the accusations. To establish a negative pattern like that against one person, it’s really important to hear that story over and over again.
What was the impact of the story?
There were a lot of cancellations, obviously. They’ve had wine collaborations, they’ve had coffee collaborations, they’ve had photo collaborations, many of those things have been stripped — people have withdrawn their support. But they’re still open, and the chef put out a statement continuing to deny the veracity of the reporting, but without specifically saying how it is wrong. So, in this case, it is a little different. Usually the person says, “I’m stepping away from the business.” Blaine Wetzel owns half of the business, and he hasn’t resigned. It seems there are enough people who are able to look at the story and say, “Well, that’s what restaurants are like.” But we got thousands of comments on the story, a lot of them from restaurant workers, saying this kind of behavior by chefs has to end, and the only way it will end is if consumers stop spending hundreds and thousands of dollars to support them.