This blog will be moving

May 27, 2013 § 2 Comments

I know it’s not updating anymore, and I said I wouldn’t be back. But this old place still gets a bit of traffic, and I refuse to let my words provide WordPress with anything.

WordPress has always been very bad about taking things down that plainly violate its own TOS. The blog Gender Trender, which out trans women — complete with pictures and any data they can publish on them — and advocates violence against them, was finally taken down some months ago.

Gender Trender’s transmisogynist fan base started a letter writing campaign aimed at people high up at WordPress. I have just learned that they caved and reinstated Gender Trender, a violent and dangerous blog.

I can in conscience no longer bring traffic to this site, so this and any other blog I have on WP will be moving, just as soon as I can find someplace to move them to. Get ready to update your bookmarks.

On What Happened

May 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

This blog is more than two years dead now. Sorry, folks. (Not that I have regular readers anymore, of course, but every so often, someone still links to this place.)

After the last time I posted, the restaurant lasted a few more months, but finally I simply had to admit the truth: I could not make it work. Making everything from scratch was too fucking expensive, the labor costs were too much, there was no possible way to break even, much less make a profit. I was deeply in debt (seriously I could have paid for medical school a couple of times over, I think), mostly to individuals rather than banks. There was nothing to do but close up. So we did.

Nothing has ever been more heartbreaking for me. Not losing a grandparent, not breaking up with someone I thought I was going to spend my life with, nothing. My therapist compared my loss to losing a child. I’ve never been a parent, so I couldn’t say, but I know that I was utterly crushed. Much too much so to talk here about what happened.

In the months leading up to the closure, I fell in love. My partner got me through that incredibly dark time. We registered a domestic partnership last year, and are planning a wedding for December.

I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, now that that dream is dead. I can’t possibly work for someone else in restaurants anymore, for all the reasons I talked about here, and there’s no point in even trying to start my own again. I’m trying to get a job at a nonprofit now, really change careers. It’s hard, though. I’m 35, and my last ten years of experience are completely irrelevant to anything I think I might want to do now. Nobody wants to hire you without experience, so there’s no way to get any.

But I’m managing. We’re managing, my partner and I. Life goes on, even after your dream dies.

I tried to keep this blog strictly pseudonymous because I was airing the dirty laundry of the restaurant industry, and I knew it could affect my career and my restaurant if I did so under my own name. Now that I’m out of it, I don’t have any reason to keep it a secret anymore. I was never very good at it.

My name is Rebecca Scott. I live in Seattle. My restaurant was called The Night Kitchen, after the Maurice Sendak book. I blog and comment in various places under the handle MadGastronomer, which is a unique signifier — if you spot a MadGastronomer, that’s me. Feel free to say hi.

Otherwise, though, it’s time and past time to put up the chairs, turn off the lights, and lock the doors on this place, officially. Thanks to anybody who’s read it and liked it. (Haters can go fuck themselves with a hot saute pan.) I’m not turning off comments, because that would erase the ones already here, but I won’t be approving any more, or indeed looking at them.

Good night.

Breasts in the Kitchen

March 16, 2011 § 5 Comments

I am, to put it politely, well-endowed. Busty. I have Huge Tracts of Land. I actually get the reaction, when I mention my cup size, “They make bras that big?” And let me tell you, they are a pain in the neck. And back. And shoulders. And themselves. Especially in the kitchen.

For one thing, they’re in the damn way. Even wearing a minimizing bra, reaching across my body is significantly more difficult than it is for a man or a smaller-breasted woman. The classic elbows-in default posture of the cook is essentially impossible for me. I have more than once burned myself because my tits were in my way, and have, many times, knocked things over with them.

I was once in the prep kitchen, steadily chopping away, standing next to a pair of (male, of course) sous chefs chatting about jock itch and how they dealt with it, whether or not to powder, what kinds of underwear helped most. (I’m unsure to this day whether to be bothered by the fact that they thought this was appropriate to discuss in front of me or pleased that they counted me as “one of the guys” enough to do so. The kitchen is pretty much the only place I’d take the second as a good thing.) I considered jumping in to tell them that I regularly had problems with bra itch, no matter how much powder I used, and despite my wicking-fabric sports bras. I didn’t. Too embarrassing.

Oh, and let me tell you, finding a bra that provides enough support, minimizes my profile, wicks away sweat, and isn’t actively painful or uncomfortable is . . . well, quite the challenge. I have to keep not just multiple bras but multiple models on hand to account for the day by day changes in size and sensitivity. And they are not fucking cheap.

This shit is, of course, only one of the many reasons I’m not fond of my breasts. I’m not even going to discuss the social issues of having large breasts in the kitchen. I mostly avoid them through minimizing bras and having a lot of belly fat, which definitely decreases how obvious they are.

One of these days, I’m going to get around to having a breast reduction. When I have insurance, when I can afford it, when I can afford to take the time off, when I’m sure I’m not going to have any/any more babies. Until then, I have to cope.

Men of Anger

January 19, 2011 § 8 Comments

“We’re all the same, the Men of Anger and the Women of the Page.” -“Virginia Woolf” by Emily Saliers

I was listening to this song, over and over, when I decided to start this blog. This line, in particular, always sticks with me.

My namesake called them The Professors in A Room of One’s Own. The equivalent in kitchens are what one of my chefs in school used to call Certified Screamers. But I think Emily’s description is pretty accurate: The Men of Anger.

A while back, a blogger I read made a brief, inconsequential post about Gordon Ramsay and his show Hell’s Kitchen. He clearly enjoyed the program, and just wanted a bit of banter about the reactions of the contestants when they came up for dismissal. It could have been an interesting topic, I guess, if I were interested in talking about what makes for good TV. But all I could think to say was, “Fuck Ramsay.”

And of course, some goddamn male cook had to jump to his defense and say he’s a genius, and talk about how that behavior is perfectly normal, and what kind of kitchens had I been working in that I didn’t think so. I, relatively patiently, explained that it’s not a matter of whether or not it’s normal, but of whether or not it’s acceptable, and that I am pretty firmly in the NOT camp.

What it is, is abusive.

How many professions are left where that’s acceptable behavior?

A few, I’m told. But generally it’s unprofessional behavior. There are few offices in which that shit will fly.

Because here’s what we’re talking about. Ramsay yells and screams at them, insults them, and curses at them. He throws their food in the garbage. Marco Pierre White, Ramsay’s former mentor, once actually cut open the back of a cook’s jacket and trousers with a paring knife because the man complained of the heat. (White is also known for racist language, and for having made Ramsay cry. And for being an amazing chef, but if he wasn’t, what would be the point in bringing him up?)

Contestants on Ramsay’s show break down crying, scream back at him, threaten him with cutlery, and generally react badly. Some people attribute the depression that led one of his contestants, Rachel Brown, to kill herself to her time on his show. And, as that male cook said, this is not just on TV. This happens in real, professional kitchens.

Why the fuck is this considered OK in kitchens? Why the fuck do we put up with it? Why does anyone put up with it?

Yes, yes, I get where it comes from. It comes from the military manner in which professional kitchens have been run for a century or so now. It comes from the current trend of casting chefs as artists instead of managers, and from the notion of “artistic temperament” — a pretty, romantic euphemism for an ugly and unbridled temper — being something people should just put up with as the price of genius. It comes from a culture of adrenalin highs and extreme behaviors and bigotry. It comes from the idea that because professional cooking is a difficult, physically taxing and stressful job, you must be tough enough to endure anything.

It is complete and utter bullshit. Abuse does not make for a tighter, more efficient crew. It breeds resentment and hatred, drives out talented and skilled cooks before they can achieve their full potential, and creates fear, none of which is good for creativity or precision.

I have now fired two kitchen managers for (milder versions of) this kind of behavior. It made for a terrible work environment, not just for the kitchen staff, but for everyone. A chef who treats their cooks that way will also treat front of house staff, managers and owners that way.

I’m asking you not to support this behavior. Don’t watch the shows of celebrity chefs who behave this way. If you’re in the industry, refuse to work for or with abusive chefs. If you’re a restauranteur, refuse to employ them. All of you, refuse to patronize restaurants with abusive chefs. And all of you, tell people why. As long as we put up with and reinforce this behavior, it will continue to be accepted and even encouraged. Help me make it unacceptable. Please. If you don’t support abuse in your personal life, don’t support it in your professional life, and don’t support it as a consumer.

Abuse is never ok.

This post has taken me more than two months to complete. I simply could not focus on the topic. It’s too upsetting, and was too close to home as I dealt with a kitchen manager who felt free to vent her anger on everyone at my restaurant. The righteous fury I felt when I began this piece faded to pain and weariness and sorrow. What began with a backlash ended with a plea.

What I have asked you to do is the only thing I can think of to fight the pervasiveness of this behavior. The abuse continues because it is accepted, and even rewarded. Most people are not in a position to prevent it, but they are in a position to refuse to accept or reward it.

Three and a Half Chefs

January 10, 2011 § 2 Comments

My little restaurant had its first anniversary just recently. So many regulars and friends came in. It was a beautiful thing. For six hours, we were packed to the rafters. The kitchen ran smoothly, the staff were enjoying themselves, the guests were delighted. A fine time was had by all. It was fantastic. One of those perfect moments of restauranting that reminds me of why the hell I got into this ridiculous project to begin with.

And then the next night was one of the worst nights at work I’d had in the entire first year. Easily in the top ten, probably in the top five.

New Year’s Eve. We knew it was going to get super busy as soon as the bars closed. There aren’t a whole lot of places in the city open that late, and most of the others are crap. So the kitchen was supposed to be well-stocked and prepped by the kitchen manager early on. She had dinner shift, along with one prep cook. Now, this prep cook is notoriously lazy, and will do scant and/or shoddy work if a close eye isn’t kept on him. We’ve only kept him this long because he shows up reliably, and there’s usually someone around who’s a bigger problem. The kitchen manager was the bigger problem just then. I’d promoted her to the position after the fiasco following the previous incumbent, because she asked for it, because she insisted she could do it, because she wanted it badly, because I was in a bad position, because I liked her. At first, she did pretty well. I was proud of her for stepping up, for getting a handle on her temper, for taking responsibility. We started her on just the basics of kitchen management, but as we slowly started adding her other responsibilities, she went to pieces. She didn’t sleep for days at a time, she’d start screaming at her staff, or at the general manager, she’d break down crying, she wouldn’t come in when she was supposed to, her ordering was a mess, she wouldn’t cover for her cooks. It was rapidly falling apart. So I sat her down and talked to her, and gave her one more chance, and she started to improve. Really. She was doing a lot better.

And then there was NYE.

The prep list was written on the chalk board, and all crossed off. Everyone knew she’d been on that evening, so apparently the incoming people hadn’t bothered to actually eyeball the prep and make sure it was solid. She went home around 12:30, telling her cooks that she was just five minutes away, and if they needed her, they should call.

An hour later, the cooks came to tell me and the GM that there wasn’t enough prep done. I wound up in the kitchen in a semi-formal gown (I hardly ever get all dressed up, but when I do, I do it right) cutting sweet potato fries and cursing. As I headed into the kitchen, I heard one of the cooks calling the kitchen manager and asking her to come in. He reported that she’d be there in 5. Twenty minutes later, she called to tell me that she couldn’t come in. I think she started to give me some explanation, but I cut her off, I was too busy and it was too noisy and I had to go.

We got slammed only minutes after I stepped up to the cutting board, and the kitchen crashed completely. Forty-five minute ticket times, running out of things left and right, drunk asshole customers (who, yes, my staff do not have to put up with, and they tossed out at least two that night), perfectly nice customers giving up on their orders and leaving, fucking everything. I had to tell the servers to stop taking orders to give the cooks time to clear the rail and get prepped up for breakfast. It was an absolute nightmare for me, and once there was no more I could physically do at the moment, I went back to my office and cried.

I had to fire the kitchen manager the next day. There just wasn’t any way around it. I hated to, because I like her, but she took it pretty well. She knew she’d fucked up.

I promoted another cook to the position promptly. This one is older than the last, although still young (cooking is a young person’s game), but she has management experience, she’s on good terms with but not too close to the rest of the staff, and she’s got good solid ideas and a good grasp of what the job is. I have high hopes for her.

But goddamnit, I had three and a half chefs/kitchen managers in my first year, and my fourth-and-a-halfth two days into my second. I know restaurant turnover is high, but this is ridiculous.

The first I’ve mentioned before. She thought that the correct way to run a kitchen was to terrorize her entire staff. She was a friend from culinary school, young for the job, but she’d been a sous before, and wow, could she cook. What she could not do was deal with people. She desperately wanted my little bitty all-night comfort food place to be a high-end, expensive, rarefied sort of place. She didn’t want to allow alterations or special orders, didn’t want to put condiments on her burgers, didn’t want to present her very tasty matzo ball soup in a way that kept it warm for more than two minutes, didn’t want to follow a budget, didn’t want to get her food costs below 30%. She thought it should all be her way. She didn’t understand that I was her boss. We had, I swear I timed this, and hour and a half argument about a fucking salad. The staff was always coming to me with complaints, the GM (to whom the chef had introduced me, and who was a close friend of hers) was always coming to me with complaints, the customers came to me with complaints. I think I finally fired her over the $150 worth of very very nice locally-grown organic potatoes she allowed to rot, and tried to tell me I shouldn’t be mad at her about.

We went without a kitchen manager for a bit after that. I did a bunch of it myself, and various cooks stepped up and did other bits. After a month and a half, it got to be too much, and I placed an ad. The candidates were pretty abysmal, but I hired the best of the lot and went with it.

The new guy never did fit in. His food was a mess, his menus looked awful, his “jokes” made people wildly uncomfortable, he wouldn’t put in overtime (which is why you get a salary in a restaurant, to avoid having to pay overtime), he wouldn’t help his staff. He resigned about forty-eight hours before I was planning to fire him.

Just before he gave notice, I got a text from a friend I hadn’t heard from in months. He was the only friend I’d made at my last job, he’d been a chef, he was a really great guy, and he wanted to know if I had a job open. Oh boy, did I.

Right around then, the kitchen manager I started out this post talking about told me she wanted the job. I told her I needed to at least try to get someone in with management experience, and I had a candidate, but if that didn’t work, she could give it a shot.

(Yeesh, this gets complicated without names. Next time, pseudonyms.)

My friend came in and we talked terms, came to an agreement, and he gave notice at the place he’d been working and gave me a start date. He met the staff (who liked him) and gave me a sample menu. And then, a week from his start date, he vanished. (This is why he’s the half: I hired him, but he never started.) Didn’t respond to phone or email, never got back in touch. As far as we can tell, he decided to stay at his old job and couldn’t face telling me. Six months later, I still have not heard from him.

So I gave that last young lady her chance, bringing me back to the beginning of my tale.

Of the five people I’ve hired to run my goddamn kitchen, there have been three women and two men. Two women and one man did terrible jobs, one man failed to show up, and one woman has yet to prove herself. Restaurants have high turnover, sure, but this is ridiculous.

I keep wondering how much of it is my fault.

What starts as a brief update ends up being a rant about transphobia and bathrooms….

December 12, 2010 § 5 Comments

Oh, hi. My health problems finally started to improve, and then I had to fly across the country (for a very good reason: to meet my new nephew and spend some quality time with the fam), and meanwhile there’s been a whole stack of work craziness and drama that’s been eating up my energy.

But I have not forgotten my little blog, and I hope to get some time to finish the long post on angry chefs over the holidays.

Meanwhile, the last few days have seen me spitting nails in various internet arguments (because I cannot resist telling people they are Wrong On the Internet). First I ripped a few rape apologists new orifices over the Julian Assange charges. If you’re not familiar, WikiLeaks founder Assange is being held for rape charges entered against him in Sweden. Charges were filed back in August, and have been dismissed once already, and are pretty blatantly being used as a political tool against Assange in retaliation for his leaking US diplomatic cables. But that doesn’t mean that the women who filed the rape charges are lying, that they’re bad people, or even that it wasn’t rape. The details are being held pretty closely, but from what’s known, a conviction is almost certainly out of the question (which is why the charges were dropped once). But we simply can’t know whether or not the charges are true.

And then I got embroiled in Round 3000 of the Great Washroom Debate. You know, the one where somebody tries to come up with a reason that doesn’t sound completely bigoted for why trans people using the appropriate bathrooms or changing rooms is somehow a problem. And I maybe lost it a little bit.

I have several close friends who are trans, and I try hard to be an ally. It’s important to me, on levels both personal and principled. Transphobia hurts people I care about deeply, but it’s also one more (and one nastier) iteration of the enforced gender roles and deep sexism I work against. Trans rights are very much a feminist issue (despite any bullshit you might hear from transphobic feminists).

Let me state my position plainly: For many reasons, including for the safety of trans people, the safety and comfort of parents with children of a different sex, accessibility for physically disabled people, the safety of more androgynous people, the safety of intersex people, and just plain the comfort of everyone, I am in favor of getting rid of stall altogether and going with completely enclosed cubicles usable by anyone, with sinks in the cubicles or on a wall outside them. I’m also in favor of changing spaces with private cubicles that can be used by anyone. It seems to me the best solution for nearly everyone.

My restaurant has two restrooms, each a separate room with one toilet, one sink, and a locking door. One of them also has a urinal. It also has a pretty sparkly little chandelier, just for fun. Both of them are labeled simply “Restroom.” I live to tell people who ask about this that we refuse to bow to the tyranny of binary-gendered bathrooms, usually in a portentious, revolutionary-zeal-infused voice. It’s fun. I’m also serious about it, but being serious about something doesn’t preclude having fun with it.

Y’know, I was going to explain why un-gendered bathrooms are important, but it’s a miserable night here. Our ceiling is leaking water into our prep room, and dripping on a (sealed) electrical conduit, and, despite having been trying for about five hours now, I’m completely unable to get anyone in to fix it. I’m exhausted, physically and mentally and emotionally, and while I can muster enough sentiment to go on about it for quite some time, I can’t actually muster the brain power to string the words together intelligibly. Sorry.

One positive note, in the midst of all this craziness: I’m not having mood swings or panic attacks. The Lamictal is working wonders.


November 4, 2010 § 18 Comments

I’m sorry, folks, I’m still having health issues. It’s looking like this is going to be a long-haul kind of thing, and I just don’t have a lot of bandwidth for writing at the moment. I’ll post when I can, though. Maybe I can get that Mostly Martha/No Reservations comparison together, to keep you entertained while I’m out of commission.

There’s a big post on Gordon Ramsay and his ilk in the works, as there has been for weeks, but since I can’t manage to get more than a sentence or two done at a time, there’s no telling when it will be ready.

Some of you might be wondering if my current health issues are related to my disability. They’re not, but there is other news on that front.

For ten years now, I’ve been managing my bipolar without mood levelers or antidepressants (not that people with bipolar should take antidepressants without mood levelers). I’ve used a variety of things, including counseling, supplements, and birth control, and they’ve been working reasonably well for me for about five years now. Well enough that I could go to culinary school, work in the industry, and open a restaurant, anyway.

Tomorrow, for the first time in ten years, I will pick up a prescription for mood levelers.

It’s a big decision for me. I’m not doing it because my bipolar has gotten worse — it hasn’t — but because the medications have gotten better. I stopped taking them a decade ago because they were detrimental to my health, because I didn’t like the side effects, and because everything available was teratogenic (caused birth defects).

Eleven years ago, my bipolar was so severe that I had to be on meds. I was suicidal without them. And then I got pregnant.

No doctor would let me stay on my meds while pregnant. By the time I knew I was pregnant, there was already a high likelihood of damage to the fetus. And I could not go off them. So I had an abortion.

I don’t regret that, and never have. I have always been pro-choice, and had no qualms about the procedure. These days I am, if anything, more strongly pro-choice than I was then. But I wanted, and still want, kids.

At the time, there was no pregnancy-safe medication for bipolar, really, and my reaction to that pregnancy was terrible. Mood swings all over the place. Over the year that followed my abortion, I contemplated the possibility that if I relied on meds, I might never be able to bear children safely. Sure, I could take other options — adopt, find a surrogate, settle down with a woman partner who would bear children — and those were all viable and good options. But I didn’t want to lose the option to bear a child myself.

It wasn’t the only reason. The particular combination of meds I was on at that time gave me terrible rages. I would start screaming at people for no reason at all. My friends were frightened of me. The previous meds I’d been on had made me more depressed, left me weak and dizzy and lightheaded and with severe social anxiety. Oh, and I couldn’t add. And pretty much everything available caused steady weight gain. I was already “obese” (and one of these days, I will get into the idiocy of that — these days I’m a Fat Acceptance activist, thanks), and I didn’t want to think about gaining 5-10 lbs a year for the rest of my life.

And the literature I was reading was not encouraging. I’d devoured Touched With Fire and An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. Dr. Jamison is a psychologist and lives with bipolar, on which she has become an expert. While it was comforting to read about how I was not alone, and to see how much worse it could be, things like her Rules for the Gracious Acceptance of Lithium Into Your Life (which I still cannot read without wanted to cry; “humorous but poignant” my ass) left me terrified of meds. The doctors assured me that the side effects I was experiencing would go away in time. Kay told me they wouldn’t.

What with one thing and another, I stopped taking meds, and refused to start again. Instead, I found a GP who worked with my psychologist, one who kept up with studies on things like flax seed oil and bipolar disorder, and slowly, with many false starts and setbacks, I got my life together — without mood levelers.

I still get mood swings, though. All bipolar people do, no matter how well our meds or management work. And if I can improve that, I will.

The meds for bipolar now are a lot less scary, with a lot fewer nasty side effects. With this one, I’m supposed to watch for signs it’s interfering with my birth control (in which case we’ll up my dose of hormones) and for skin rashes (because there’s a very, very small chance that all my skin will fall off and I’ll die; fortunately stopping the meds at the first sign of that specific rash is pretty effective in preventing, you know, dying). But if I got pregnant, I could stay on it if I needed to, if I chose to continue my pregnancy. And it doesn’t generally cause the mood swings it’s supposed to prevent.

As for kids, well, eleven years after my abortion, I still don’t have any. Before I can, I need to be reasonably stable emotionally (check), financially stable (um, mostly check), and have at least one committed and stable child-rearing partner (nope).* I’m in my thirties now, and have a birthday coming up this month. I’ve accepted, mostly, that I may or may not actually be able to get all of those requirements lined up while still fertile. If I don’t, I don’t, and I’ll deal with that when the time comes.

If I never bear a child, though, it will not invalidate my decision a decade ago to go off meds. My decision to go on meds now does not invalidate that decision, either.

It’s my choice, and I’ve made it as best I can. If it doesn’t work well for me, I can change my mind. That’s my choice, too. They’re all my choices.

You know, this post was supposed to be a quick check-in, just to say I was still alive, but having problems. All of this came pouring out. I feel better for it.

Thanks for reading. Sorry there’s no food or kitchen stuff in this post. Wait! I know! I can tell you that we’re adding pancakes to the menu! Mmmmm, pancakes. There, food.

*Please note: All three of these prerequisites for having kids are specific to me and my situation and abilities, especially this last one. None of them are intended as criticism of others’ choices, which are theirs. I simply acknowledge that I cannot be a decent parent without some pre-established stability and a partner, especially during the first few years of childhood. I have enough experience with other people’s babies to know that. If I tried, I would wreck my own life, and probably my child’s as well. These are the accommodations I make for my disabilities, that’s all.

Not so much like the law

October 17, 2010 § 3 Comments

So, I’ve been watching The West Wing, and the saying keeps coming up: “Those who love sausage and the law should not see them made.”*

I don’t know about laws, but this sausage thing is crap. I love sausage, and I love to see it made and to make it (as long as it’s made with quality ingredients). It’s a fascinating process, and generally people are grossed out by it primarily because of the disconnect that industrial farming has inserted between us and our food. (OK, yeah, and the fact that factory-made sausage often has some very questionable ingredients.)

*Which, no, was not said by Otto von Bismarck originally.

On not putting up with it

October 11, 2010 § 4 Comments

I have two rules at my restaurant that I tell every new staff member when they start. The second one is “Don’t be an idiot,” which covers things like intoxication on the clock, bringing illegal substances to work, and other inappropriate actions. The first one, though, is really what I want to talk about.

I tell my people, “You don’t have to put up with assholes.”

We throw customers out for being egregious jerks. And when there’s an interpersonal problem among members of my staff, I make them sit down and talk about it and, sometimes, apologize.

I’m considered soft for the latter part of that. I know I am. I’ve been told so. Particularly by the cooks, and yes, big surprise, that includes the women.

I don’t mind that too much. It’s not especially important to me that my staff like me as a person, or even respect me in the way that that word is used in kitchens (which is to say, fear, or something close to it). It’s important to me that the job get done and the restaurant function, and generally speaking that happens better when people aren’t at one another’s throats. And restaurants, especially ones that employ lots of young people, are a hothouse for resentments, feuds, affairs, and drama. Just to make it plain, the mean age of people working at my place is about 25. If you don’t count me, it’s more like 23. My restaurant is like high school all over again.

So yeah, I will be Mommy, and I do make people apologize.

The Geek Feminism Blog recently discussed new research showing that group intelligence is not dependent solely on the intelligence of the members of the group, but is influenced by the presence or absence of people with lots of social sensitivity. They first noticed the phenomenon when they observed that the presence of women in a group was a good predictor of high collective intelligence.

So yeah, if it’s going to make my restaurant run better, if it’s going to raise our group intelligence, if it’s going to keep good people from walking out because they don’t get along with other good people, if it’s going to mean we get more awesome ideas for dishes, then yes, I will fucking well be Mommy on this, and make the kiddies play nice.

But I hadn’t read that research when I opened my restaurant a year ago, and that’s not why I started practicing social hacking on my employees.

No, I did it because I cannot fucking stand the hostility. I find the absolute shittiness of cooks and other restaurant people to one another. Behavior goes on that simply appalls me, even setting aside the sexism, racism, homophobia, et cetera. We had one chef who truly thought that the correct way to run a kitchen was to terrorize her entire staff (yeah, I gotta write about her sometime) and then to be rude to the general manager and to me, and another who thought that it was hilarious to tell some of my most reliable people that they were fired. I had a line cook who thought it was appropriate to hurl abuse and threats at me when I had to write him up, and who then couldn’t understand why I fired him. Words very nearly fail me.

And I do not want to work in that kind of environment. And I don’t think most people, especially most women, want to work in that kind of environment. I’m not sure I want to work with people who do want to work in that kind of environment. Not putting up with assholes is part of my effort to make my restaurant not just more women-friendly, but more people-friendly.

I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, as a feminist, as a restauranteur, as a boss. But it’s the best decision I know how to make.

You Cannot Be Mommy

October 8, 2010 § 9 Comments

Since I’m still sick, and I’ve got all these great folks coming over from Shakesville, where Melissa McEwan was kind enough to link to my little baby blog, I thought I’d find an easier thing to blog than my usual research-intensive entry. I do actually keep a list of topics I plan to talk about at some point, so I pulled it out and scanned down it. Oh, goody. I get to watch a nice, fun movie. A cartoon, even.

Pixar’s Ratatouille is a masterpiece, a beautiful, fun, well-made movie all on its own. But it also touches the heart of gastronomy, the love and study of deliciousness. For a cook, for someone who has devoted her life to food, it’s deeply moving.

And, of course, it has Colette Tatou.

You waste energy and time! You think cooking is a cute job, eh? Like Mommy in the kitchen? Well, Mommy never had to face the dinner rush while the orders come flooding in, and every dish is different and none are simple, and all different cooking time, but must arrive at the customer’s table at exactly the same time, hot and perfect! Every second counts and you CANNOT be MOMMY!

Colette, of course, is the one woman cook in the kitchen at Gusteau’s.

How many women do you see in this kitchen? . . . Only me. Why do you think that is? Because high cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid, old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world. But still I’m here. How did this happen? . . . Because I am the toughest cook in this kitchen! I have worked too hard for too long to get here, and I am not going to jeopardize it for some garbage boy who got lucky! Got it?

She is, too. The crew at Gusteau’s is pretty (stereo)typical, a bunch of guys most people wouldn’t, at first blush, want to meet in dark alleys, some of whom have spent time in prison for unknown reasons, or are serious gamblers, or gun runners, or just slimy little guys about whom you have to wonder how they made it to the station they have. They left out the drinking and drugs — it is a Disney picture — but none of these things are uncommon. Gusteau’s may have a higher concentration of, ahem, colorful characters than most real kitchens, but we are a motley bunch of misfits. Just think how tough must Colette be to be tougher than these guys.

I’m going to ignore all the artifacts of the Disneyness of this movie — ok, most of them, there’s one I want to hit later — like the clean language, the obligatory minimum level of femininity, the romance. Generally, though, she’s really a very accurate portrayal.

Notice that, while her position is never specified, she’s low enough on the totem pole that she’s given the job of training the despised plongeur (“garbage boy” in the film, actually dishwasher), a job only given to the person occupying the station the new person is moving into, so she’s pretty damn low. Notice how she doesn’t want to train him: she’s worked damn hard to get as far as she has, and she knows that training a male for the same job could mean she’s going to watch him be promoted above her in short order (which, in fact, happens). Notice how she trains him anyway . . . and then actually thanks him for listening, almost pathetically grateful for him giving her even that minimum of respect. Notice how she is then hurt and angry when he ignores her advice and blows past her anyway.

Notice also how Colette wants to follow the recipe precisely, while the male Linguini shines when rat Remy nudges him into improvising. There’s that precision vs. bold risk-taking stereotype I was talking about.

Did you catch the nasty little remark the Sous Chef, Horst, tosses at her as he leaves after Linguini and Remy impress people? “The plongeur won’t be coming to you for advice anymore, eh, Colette? He’s got all he needs.” He takes the opportunity to remind her of her place.

And yet, Colette soldiers on, despite everything, because she loves the food and the cooking. Oh, yeah, that’s a woman cook all over.

Understand me here: I am not criticizing Pixar for putting these things in. I am applauding them. The writers and animators spent serious amounts of time in the several professional kitchens they based Gusteau’s on, learning to understand the relationships and dynamics found in those kitchens. They did a remarkable job, and when I watched that movie the first time, I identified with Colette completely. There aren’t many movies about women cooks that are accurate. It feels really good to see that portrayed on screen in a major film. It’s freaking awesome.

That said, I still want to touch on one of those Disney-mandated unrealistic things. The romance.

It’s a bad plan in any profession for a competent, capable woman to date a male superior. Any promotion she earns will be dismissed as favoritism from her boyfriend and any skill she has will be ignored. She cannot possibly be any good, or anything other than a slut, trying to get ahead by sleeping her way there.

Linguini announced his and Colette’s relationship to the press, “Inspiration has many names. Mine is named Colette.” That moment in the movie is supposed to be about how he’s betraying Remy by not being honest, but he’s betraying Colette nearly as much just by these two sentences. In eight words, he demotes her from competent cook on the way up to artist’s muse. As the former, she could keep working her way up. As the latter, she might never get another job in a really good kitchen again, if she and Linguini break up. That gets ignored, of course, shellacked over with Remy’s story, some sharp remarks, and that trademarked Disney happy-ever-after. You can still see it there, embedded in the story, even if you can’t touch it, buried under that clear medium.

I know, I know, they had to have the romance. It’s the way these stories work, isn’t it, and realism will have to take a backseat to that. And I accept that, even if it makes me a little sad. But Colette is still a good character, well and accurately written. I love and identify with her. I love the voice Janeane Garofalo gives her, and the expressions and movements the animators give her. She’s fantastic. I just . . . worry about her. I can’t help but write the rest of her story in my head. They open the cafe Le Ratatouille where Linguini waits tables while Colette helps Remy in the kitchen. But rats have a short life span, and three or four years later, Remy’s dead. Colette takes over, but though she’s tried to learn the kind of creative thinking Remy excelled at, she’s still limited by her early training, and she just can’t manage his flights of fancy. The restaurant starts a slow decline. She and Linguini, married now, are fighting more and more. Eventually, he hires a young, creative, male cook to “help her out” in the kitchen — without really consulting her, because he knows she won’t be happy — and the hotshot tries, more and more, to take over the kitchen. It’s making Colette crazy, and Linguini won’t back her up — he’s really a very weak man, and their major investor (Ego) is pressuring him to get Le Ratatouille back up to snuff. Times get worse and worse, and eventually she walks out on him and starts divorce proceedings. She still owns a share in the cafe, though, and keeps working there, because she knows how hard it will be for her to find another job. There’s just been too much press about how she’s Linguini’s inspiration, his muse. Eventually, though, she has to go, and sure enough, chefs make excuses. No one laughs in her face, but she hears the sniggers of the commis (what’s the plural of commis, anyway?) behind her back as she leaves the interview. Oh, eventually she might find a job at a good place, but it will be a lower position than she deserves, potager or entremetier, nothing on the entree line, not yet. She’ll have to work her way up all over again, earn all that respect again. And there will always be whispers, there will always be guys thinking she’s easy and coming on to her, when she just wants to get her prep done. Oh, eventually she’ll make a solid sous chef somewhere, but with that early training to always adhere to recipes, she may never make chef again. Depressing.

I can’t write an entry on Ratatouille without talking about the Big Scene, where Remy sends out a dressed-up peasant dish to critic Anton Ego, the titular ratatouille. The dish instantly transports Ego back to his childhood, to a day when he fell off his bike and skinned his knees, and his mother kissed him and gave him a big bowl of ratatouille.

The dish presented is actually French Laundry chef-owner Thomas Keller’s byaldi recipe (found in his French Laundry Cookbook), his variant on confit byaldi, created by French chef Michel Guerard as a play on traditional Provencal ratatouille and a Turkish dish called imam bayildi. Keller was a consultant on the film, and created the specific presentation depicted when the Pixar crew asked him how he would serve ratatouille to the most prominent food critic in the world.

All of that is just background, though. What’s most interesting about this dish to me is that it represents a fascinating blend of two strongly gendered aspects of cooking: the focus on technique and stylized presentation attributed to men, and the “soulful grandmere-style” nourishing comfort food attributed to women. In the narrative of the movie, Remy manages to unite the two gendered styles in the same scene that reunites the lovers who quarreled over him. Interesting, and probably not intentional on the part of the writers.

If you’re interested in reading about a real life Colette, Amy Glaze Wittman of Ms. Glaze’s Pommes d’Amour spent time working in one of Guy Savoy’s three star* Paris restaurants, one of those the Pixar crew observed while doing research for Ratatouille. To read about some of Amy’s adventures in a French kitchen, check to the Chef Stories category. You’ll have to go back three or four pages, because since 2008 when she left France, she’s worked in several restaurants in NYC and San Francisco, and had her own kitchen, too. She’s an eloquent writer and really captures what it’s like to work in a really high-end kitchen as a woman. One of my favorite posts of hers is How to Talk Like a French Chef, a lesson in truly foul cursing. The Chocolate Chip Caper talks about how hard the job is sometimes, and oh boy can I identify.

This has been fun to write, although more intensive than I meant it to be. I love the character of Colette. Depictions of women in professional kitchens are so rare in popular media, I want to treasure each good one. Maybe sometime I’ll talk about Mostly Martha and the American version, No Reservations, or about Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (who isn’t a professional cook, but whose ambition is to be a restauranteur).

*Three stars from the Michelin Guide is a far higher accolade than five stars in any American guide. In Europe, “three star” is understood mean these restaurants, and they are the finest in the world. In the movie, Gusteau’s is called a five star restaurant to make it easier for American audiences to recognize it as a really fine restaurant.