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.

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.

Where are all the feminist cooks?

September 22, 2010 § 9 Comments

Women cooks have an uneasy relationship with feminism, by and large. I mentioned, in my post on Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, asking my kitchen manager if she was a feminist, and how her answer showed both a discomfort with and an ignorance of real feminism. A couple of days later, I asked my only woman line cook. Her response was something like, “Well, I guess on a spectrum, I’d be closer to feminist than not, but I’m not militant about it. Although, matriarchy would be fun!”

I despair.

A couple of days after that, we had some people in, quite late, who were in from out of town, a woman and two men, all young and queer. The woman and one of the men were thinking about moving to my city and starting a food truck, and they were asking my advice. They’d had a few, so the conversation kept wandering, and the woman started asking about feminist community in town. I had to admit that, as far as I knew, it was kind of fractured, so that I knew where to find sex-positive feminists and gender theory feminists and lesbian feminists and queer feminists (which are, locally, more distinct from lesbian feminists than from sex-positive and gender theory feminists) and Asian-American feminists, but other than the local chapter of NOW, I didn’t know where to find any sort of pan-feminist community or discussion space. But the question made me want to jump up and hug her.

She is not, to be clear, a professional cook herself, although she will be if she successfully starts this food truck. Her food service background is in concessions, which is quite different, so she’s less affected by kitchen culture than I am. Still, to find an avowed and active feminist in food service wowed me. I hope she does move to town, and that she does keep in touch, because that would be really awesome on multiple levels. She gave me some hope.

I haven’t asked the third woman cook I have on staff at the moment if she counts herself a feminist. I’m a little afraid to.

Feminism isn’t something that’s discussed in kitchens. We don’t talk about it. Many of the few articles that discuss the dearth of women cooks and chefs (which are already few and far between) don’t talk about feminism. And they’re often responded to with “What are you talking about? Everything’s FINE!” (Not that this is an unfamiliar response to any feminist.) Here’s an example. It’s over two years old, but I’m using it because it’s still the most recent one I can recall seeing, and the only one I still have the links for. Laura Shapiro wrote this piece for Gourmet Magazine about why there are so few high profile women chefs in NYC. Sarah Wolf wrote this incoherent and irrelevant response about how it’s ok that there aren’t women chefs, because there are lots of women with TV cooking shows, or something. And we shouldn’t denigrate their choices. Shapiro’s article does actually discuss the problem as a feminist, and this is awesome. What she doesn’t do is offer any answers, or even suggestions. Wolf’s response, on the other hand, misses the boat.

Here’s another article, this one nearly three years old, from New York Magazine. They interviewed seven prominent women chefs in NYC, and the responses are no surprise at all. He’s an excerpt from the intro:

It’s worth noting that almost to a woman, the chefs we spoke to were at first reluctant to cite sexism as the reason there aren’t more women among the city’s elite chefs. In part, it seemed, they didn’t want to play the victim or be labeled whiny; in part, they didn’t want to believe it—the better to not let it stop them. “There are also a lot of men who can’t hack it in the kitchen,” was a common sentiment. But the more the women talked, the more it became clear that gender bias is still an issue.

And from later in the piece:

Professional kitchens are traditionally shamelessly sexist. Is that still true?
AG: I worked in Paris for five years for Guy Savoy. And then one of the chefs was like, “You suck, you’re a girl, I hate you.” All the classic stereotypes. And Guy Savoy was like, “Will you just stop that crap and let her do her job? Let her cook the damn bass.” And then when I burned it, Guy was like, “Ahh!” But he still believed in me.
AB: I didn’t want the fact that I was a woman to be an issue, so I just put my head down and cooked and did the best that I could. I moved to wherever I was able to move. And one day, some guys came in and shook everyone’s hands, and I held out my hand and this guy just walked straight past me. It’s like, “Okay, fuck you. I’m gonna be better than you one day.”
RC: I mean, the delivery guy comes in the afternoon to deliver something and he looks over to my sous-chef and asks for his signature on the check. Am I just some dumb-ass holding a coat?
JW: My mail is always addressed to Mr. Jody Williams.
AL: That happens to me all the time. I get my mail addressed to Anito Lo—not an a but an o: Mr. Anito Lo. And customers ask me, “Can you tell us about the chef’s background? Is he from…”

But none of these chefs says the word “sexist,” much less the word “feminist.”

It isn’t just that women in professional kitchens aren’t exposed to much feminism, it’s that active feminism is actually thought of — although no one I know would phrase it this way — as weakness. Saying that something is sexist and wrong is whining, is complaining, and is therefor weak and bad and something you especially can’t do if you’re a woman, and so already have to prove that you aren’t weak. Feminism — active, educated, considered feminism, not just a vague sense that women should have the same legal rights as men — is a liability. And yet feminism is exactly what’s most likely to provide any kind of solution to the problems we face.

Right, I’m sick of these multiple-years-old articles. Let me find some fresh meat….

Oh thank god. Gastronomica comes to my rescue with a satisfying eight-page article from the first quarter of this year, called “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs,” on the vastly different adjectives, clothing, and narratives tacked on to male vs female chefs. (You can download a pdf of it here.) Referencing Linda Nochlin’s seminal 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” this piece by Charlotte Druckman discusses the disparity in awards and Michelin reviews (much less stars); how women are cooks while men are chefs; the difference between cooking shows starring men and those starring women; how articles on women chef up-play femininity, family and figure; how food cooked by men is described using a whole different lexicon than that cooked by women; and female exceptionalism. Holy shit, I love this article. And yet, the word “feminist” is used only once — to reference the people Nochlin “forced . . . to challenge their own practices.” And the only suggestion the article gives is, “The women who ought to question their culpability or power to effect change are those with agency and clout — the members of social institutions like the media and culinary organizations.” Which, ok, yeah, they should, but I’m sitting here trying to figure out what I can do, with all the clout of a tiny ten-table restaurant. Identifying problems is good, it’s useful, I like it, but now what am I supposed to do about them?

Ah, here’s a piece by Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy, a Michelin-recommended vegetarian restaurant in NYC (and, dear god, now that I have discovered its existence, I must eat there; that menu looks AMAZING), all about how Girls Can’t Cook. Well, we must not be able to, right? Out of 24 winners of the James Beard award last year, only three were women. In four years, 93 Beard Awards have been given out, and only 15 of them have gone to women. Oh, women can write about food. Look at Ruth Reichel, Gael Greene, Julia Child, and M.F.K. Fisher. But we must not be able to cook, and clearly don’t belong in the kitchen. Hey, I like this lady! But still, the word “feminism” is nowhere to be seen. It’s a great, snarky rant, fun to read, but still, it gives me no solutions, nothing to try.

Oh, hey, here’s a piece by Paula Forbes at EatMeDaily about why she quit cooking professionally. She doesn’t want to think it was the sexism, but it probably was. Oh, joy! Oh, rapture! She uses “feminism” or “feminist” four whole times. In one paragraph! About whether or not feminist principles require women to keep working in misogynist professions in order to improve them. Well, it’s an interesting question, and an important one, but she apparently decided that, whether feminist principles demand it or not, she’s not staying. Which, of course, is entirely her choice, and I don’t fault her for it a bit. But then where are the feminist cooks? And what can I do to help to fix the problems she’s encountered?

Where are the feminist cooks, dammit? Where are the feminists in the profession talking about what feminism can do to improve our lives? Where are the feminists outside the profession talking about it, for that matter? Why are feminist principles not being brought to bear on this problem? Why is feminism an even dirtier word inside the kitchen than outside it?

I’m a feminist, and I’m staying. Now, what the fuck do I do about this mess? And who’s going to help me?

Disability and Restaurant Life

September 18, 2010 § 12 Comments

I hadn’t planned about talking about this so soon, you know. I was going to lay more of a foundation first, give a better picture of what it’s like in a professional kitchen, before I talked about something this personal.

In my post about what it takes for a woman to have a kitchen of her “own,” all I talked about were the externalities. I didn’t talk about another thing anyone wanting to work in a professional kitchen must have: an able body.

Professional kitchens are never designed to accommodate physical disabilities. The equipment built for pro kitchens isn’t designed for it, either. And it probably never will be until and unless some celebrity chef at the top of his game and with access to huge amounts of money to remodel with becomes disabled. In the mean time, to work in a kitchen, one must be able to spend long periods on her feet, get things down from (sometimes far) over her head, carry and handle heavy things (sometimes one-handed), and perform a variety of other physically demanding tasks.

That’s not the personal bit. That bit is something I stare at and poke and at wish I could do something, anything, about. I can’t. I don’t have the money or the time or the clout.

No, the personal bit of disability and the kitchen I know about first-hand is invisible disabilities and mental illness.

I have bipolar disorder, with social anxiety and more general anxiety attacks. (And ADHD, but that’s rarely a problem in a kitchen.) And as I write this, I am having a particular problem with that.

And if I were still cooking, a day like today could mean losing my job.

I woke up an hour before I was supposed to be at work, and it took me five hours to get out the door. During that time, I had suicidal ideations and paralyzing anxiety attacks. Since one of the foci of my anxiety is phones, I couldn’t even touch mine to find out what was going on at work or let them know what was keeping me. Once I was finally able to put my feet on the floor and start my morning activities, I’d do one step, and have to go back to bed. I took a shower, and crawled back into bed for half an hour. Brushed my teeth and hair, put on deodorant and moisturizer, and back to bed for forty-five minutes. Got dressed and downstairs, and was curled up on the couch for another half-hour. Tried to think of something to eat and was absolutely paralyzed by the problem. I had to leave without eating, knowing that at least I could get food at work.

I finally did make it to work, and things got easier. It’s so much easier to pretend that everything’s ok when there are people around, when there are distractions to keep my mind off the anxiety and the awful thoughts. So it got better. But I wasn’t very effective. I was off my game, wasn’t as effective at handling problems, couldn’t touch the paperwork that was waiting for me (it’s another of the foci for my anxiety).

Now, I can get away with that at my restaurant, because I’m the boss, and as long as it all gets done to deadline, I’ll be fine. No one can fire me. I can not come in and not call, and while people might worry about me, I’m not going to lose my job for that. If I were working for someone else, cooking, I would. I’d lose my job — have lost jobs — by being off my game during a depressive episode.

And let me tell you, even the best-medicated bipolar people still have those episodes.

Kitchens don’t really make accommodations. Oh, if they don’t cost too much and they don’t interfere too much, they’ll do little things like buy nitrile gloves because you’re allergic to latex. But if they decide you can’t do the job, without help, without them going out of their way, you’re out. I’ve worked through migraines, having to run off and puke every so often; I’ve worked through anxiety and paranoia that insisted that everyone else on the staff was talking about me, laughing at me, behind my back; I’ve worked while so depressed that I had to clean all of the sharps out of my home. I worked because they needed me and I needed the money. I couldn’t so much as tell anyone what was going on for some of that, for fear they’d fire me for my disability.

I can try to do better for those who work for me, and I can arrange my business to provide accommodations for myself, but this is not an industry that is kind to the disabled.

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.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the A Kitchen of My Own category at A Kitchen of One's Own.