In recent news, a woman has been nominated for the first time to run for the presidency of the United States of America. This is huge, this is remarkable, this is historic. At first I shrugged it off when I heard the repetitive verbal metaphor of the glass ceiling being broken and paving the way for other women to follow in such footsteps. I thought it was redundant, and overly preachy since I have always thought that women could be whomever they wanted to be- even from a young age I never thought of my gender as a pre-requisite of what I was capable of doing. But then I realized, it wasn’t me that held that ceiling up- it was the individuals that looked at me as a female first and not a smart, determined, professional human being.
I don’t think I realized the presence of sexism in my industry until a few years ago- I was so focused on the food and learning as much as I could that I didn’t take note of some of the situations I found myself in or some of the things said to me by bosses, chefs, or co-workers. When I started working at a fine dining restaurant at 21 years old, I recall being called an “Ice Queen” from other co-workers- side note, male co-workers. Most of the male co-workers were my friends, we hung out after work, went to their house parties, had deep twenty-something conversations about blah, blah, blah. They would call me that in front of managers taunting me that I wasn’t friendly enough, that I needed to hug more, or smile more- it really really angered me. I was new to the city and was really trying to handle the pressure of working in such a fine dining establishment. I didn’t want to choke on my first real job. If I was a male co-worker, do you think I would have such a title? But, regardless, I moved up quickly to rounds-man in two months and started their chocolate program and got desserts on the menu in the first year- I tried to shut them out and focused on the techniques, the food, and what I wanted. However, that nickname and the feeling it gave me stuck with me. It made me feel as though I weren’t a nice person, that people wouldn’t like to work with me because I wasn’t bubbly at work or didn’t hug when I got in to the kitchen- instead, I went straight for the prep list. I started to feel that I was embodying the qualities associated with that nickname. Even if it weren’t true -I believed it was.
Fast forward a number of years – I moved up quickly in kitchens. I was obsessed with pastries and being the best- coming in early, researching on my days off, buying product and working on dishes at home or early at work. I spent my paychecks going out to dinner or on new cook books- I wanted to be one of the best pastry chefs in the country. I was determined, focused, impatient, and very, very guarded. I often found myself in mostly male kitchens and the fact that I was female was a constant topic of conversation- why didn’t I wear makeup; why did I shave half my head- was I gay? If I didn’t agree with someone on something- I was told “don’t be emotional about it”…..emotional? I wasn’t crying, or raising my voice. I just didn’t agree. Why would that be considered emotional? In the beginning, this type of behavior broke me down- I found myself overcompensating so no one thought I was rude. Always saying “I’m sorry, but” before asking for a question or asking for help. Even as a sous chef I found myself talked down to by executive chefs and I noticed how they treated the male chefs differently than the women chefs. I noticed that the male chefs always got raises but somehow the budget didn’t fit in pastry which was predominately female chefs. At one point when I left a job after two years my executive chef told me to “go out and get married and have kids. Since you’re quitting and all.” Me quitting had nothing to do with personal life- I quit because I got a Pastry Chef job and was moving on from being a Sous Chef. I’ve had a chef tell me that 40K was a “good salary for a single girl living in the city” when I told him that I needed a raise after opening up another restaurant for their group. I had a boss that was concerned for me to go on Top Chef because I was most likely to be portrayed as a bitch because he felt that I was rough around the edges. Partners have told me that they made me what I was and any ounce of success that I have experienced was solely because they had allowed me to be a pastry chef at their place of business. A chef sat me down to let me know after an intense pre-shift with staff that they thought I was well, you know…a bitch because I brought to their attention that it was ridiculous they didn’t know the allergies on one of the desserts that had been on the menu for over 15 months. But it was ok for the chef to test and grill and raise his voice about his menus- you think they ever said a word about that? Oh, I also had coffee thrown at me by an owner when I put my notice in and then told me to sign an NDA because the restaurant group wanted to protect me. Real crazy shit.
Now maybe, just maybe, this has nothing to do with me being a female. But, after being in this business for 16 years- I know better. Most of these stories have never and will never happen to a male chef. And I am by no means saying that all males in this industry are sexist- but I will say that there sure seems to be a great deal of sexism out there in the world. I find that female chefs have to work ten times harder to get the title, to get a fair salary, to get that promotion, to get the equal respect of their co-workers and even the press. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked how it feels to be a woman chef in the kitchen- my response:
I have come to the conclusion that I will re-adopt my original thought process when I was a kid. I didn’t seem to think that there was a problem wanting to be an astronaut at the age of nine so why would I start to think otherwise. I have plenty of women to look up to- who have given me the tools to know that anything is possible- you just have to work hard for it. Those who want to stereotype me or put me in some sort of box- go for it- it’s a shame that you can’t allow yourself to see past the gender and focus on the person.
I no longer feel the need to apologize when I ask a pastry cook to add something to their prep list, or show a cook how to improve their technique- I’m their chef- that’s my job. When I’m in meeting with executives, I am vocal with my ideas- I want to be a part of the properties and their successes- thats what they hired me for. When I hear that people find me to be cold or intense I now realize that it has more to do with them than it does with me. I shouldn’t have to mold myself into whatever ideal female chef they think I should be- I nurture my staff, respect my colleagues, and treat people with professionalism. With that, I expect a great deal from myself and those that work with me- there is a standard that is set in my kitchen and everyone that works within the kitchen walls fully understands what is expected of them and in return they get to work in a kitchen that teaches respect for everyone, product, technique, and guests, always. So when someone tells me to smile a little bit more ‘cause “I’m too pretty to frown” (that’s what my face looks like when I’m concentrating), or to not be so intense, or calls me that lovely nick name bestowed upon me so many years ago…
I’m not a bitch, I’m a boss.