A Kitchen . . . of One’s Own?
September 16, 2010 § 5 Comments
My namesake famously said when asked to speak about women and fiction that in order to write, a woman needs money of one’s own and a room of one’s own. Writing, while difficult and demanding, is often a solitary task, and one that requires little in the way of equipment: something to put the words in, something to put the words into it with, research materials perhaps, maybe style guides and dictionaries and thesauruses (all of which functions, in the modern world, can frequently be provided by one tool: the computer). There are, I’m sure, exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions.
Cooking takes a bit more. At an absolute minimum, it requires a knife and a source of heat (again, exceptions are exceptions). But cooking fine cuisine to sell to the public, that takes rather a lot more. It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, space, and licensing, usually, and it mostly takes a substantial staff of people to help you do it, to prep and cook and sell and serve and advertise and do paperwork. It’s not enough for a chef or a cook to have a room to herself, and time, and money. The quantities of money needed are more than most individuals have ready to hand, so generally one must find someone, or multiple someones, willing to make a loan or investment. One must find space. Usually, one does not actually own the space — a ridiculously huge investment — but rents it, so one must find someone willing to rent it to one, and then one must prepare it: decorate it, fill it with all the things diners require to enjoy their meal. One must find and purchase equipment. One must advertise for, interview, and hire the multitudes of people needed to start and continue to run a restaurant. One must get all of the appropriate licenses and permits, a process that can take months and often much more money. Then there’s menu planning an development, costing, training… Just to serve that first meal to that first person who comes in.
That description, of course, assumes a woman chef-owner opening a new restaurant. But even if the one woman we’re talking about isn’t opening a new restaurant, isn’t the owner, isn’t the chef, someone still had to do all of that, in order for her to cook one single meal or dish (and, of course, all the others that follow it). And then ongoing work required is no less daunting.
Professional cooks work long hours. My cooks work four 10-hour shifts per week. At least that’s what they’re scheduled for. If someone doesn’t come in, they may pick up an extra shift. If the prep work isn’t done, they can’t leave until it is. If there’s a rush just as their shift ends, they may have to stay longer to help the next shift. If the kitchen is filthy, they have to stay as long as it takes to get it clean. My kitchen manager is scheduled three to four 10-hour shifts on the line, plus she works 10-20 hours a week doing paperwork, inventory, ordering, having meetings, doing menu development, plus any shifts she picks up because someone’s out sick and there’s nobody else to take the shift, plus she’s working a second job because I can’t provide her with health insurance yet, and they can (we’re working on it).
So, a woman needs a kitchen in which she is allowed to cook, a support staff to keep the restaurant going, money to fund the whole thing, and the time to spend doing it.
Women, of course, are often expected to spend a lot of non-work time on things that men are expected to spend less or no time on: housework, child care, spouse care. This is changing, but the fact remains that the kind of time demands a chef or kitchen manager position puts on someone are often harder on women than on men. As long as women are de facto primary providers of childcare, are expected to do most of the house cleaning, are expected to take care of their partners, these kinds of hours will be harder on women-in-general than on men-in-general. Most women cooks don’t have kids, and most women who decide to have kids get out of the business (or, if they have the education or professional standing to do it, move to teaching at a culinary school). Hell, most women cooks I know aren’t married or partnered, either. Married or partnered men are not assumed to have as many other duties. Yes, many couples are now negotiating chores along non-traditional lines, and that’s fantastic and awesome, but many more are not. It’s hard for a woman to have the time to be a really good professional cook, much less chef, if she has or wants a partner (although lesbian relationships run on different assumptions) and/or kids. It is damn near impossible for a single mother to become a chef or achieve another kitchen management position. (It’s less impossible for a single father, but still plenty difficult.) Even if a woman has no interest in or intention of having children or getting married, many male chefs and restaurant owners are still likely to assume that women cooks are less reliable than men for these reasons.
(It doesn’t appear in her famous dictum, but my namesake did spend some time thinking and talking about demands on women’s time and how it conflicts with the kinds of careers men have.)
I actually don’t know if it’s harder for women to get together the money to start restaurants, but I sort of assume it is. I had certain advantages in that area that most do not have. It’s certainly harder to get restauranteurs to spend their money building restaurants around women chefs, because women are assumed to be less reliable because they’ll just go off and have kids, because it’s harder for women to build reputations with the public, hell, just because in the public mind chef=man.
Support staff can be hard for a woman chef-owner, because many people are more reluctant to work for women or have a hard time thinking of women as bosses or think women bosses are backstabbing bitches or whatever. Front of house and office staff are often easier, as there seem to be more women in dining room management than in kitchens, but owner or not, a woman chef will have a damned hard time putting together and keeping a good strong kitchen staff. She’ll be perceived either as weak or as bitchy, often with nothing in-between.
Finally, a woman needs a kitchen in which she is allowed to cook. It may not be her own in the literal sense, because not all women who want to cook professionally want to be restaurant owners or even chefs, but it needs to be a kitchen where a woman is treated as an equal, where her contributions are accepted as equal to those of men, where her ideas are given as much weight as those of men. She needs a space where she gets to actually cook, to develop her skills and use them creatively. And that can be damned hard to come by. This part, of course, is why my namesake talked about a room of one’s own, where no one could forbid one from writing if one wished, as opposed to the college she walked the grounds of, where she was forbidden from setting foot on the grass, in the library, and, she assumed, in the chapel. But it simply takes so much money and work and training and support to have a kitchen truly of one’s own that it is nearly impossible for the vast majority of women. So, the compromise: a kitchen, not of one’s own, but in which one is allowed to cook.
So, to cook professionally, at a high level, creatively, a woman needs: A kitchen to use, staff to help, and the time and money to make it work.
My namesake spoke of stacks of books by “the professors,” books about women by angry men, and how few women wrote about women, and how even fewer women wrote about men.
I am here to write about women, and about men, and about why and how it is hard for a woman to get those four things she needs.