When Sources Stand Together: Reporting on the Willows Inn
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?”
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