Under the weather

October 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

Hi, folks. I hope to be back and writing in a few days, but right now I’m not feeling quite myself, and work is taking all the energy and attention I can muster. Normal service should resume shortly.

So, you’re in pastry, right?

September 29, 2010 § 22 Comments

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it.

“So, you’re in pastry, right?”

I’m a woman, so of course I’m in pastry. I heard it all through culinary school, I’ve heard it in restaurants, I’ve heard it from total strangers I meet out and about. It’s pretty tiresome.

I suppose every industry has its own version of it. A blue-haired friend of mine who’s a software engineer tells me that what she always gets is, “You’re in marketing, right?”

But in kitchens, it’s pastry.

Pastry is sweet and sugary and dainty and cute, so of course it’s women’s business.

Women in pastry don’t have to conform to the hypermasculine culture of the line cooks, but on the other hand, this makes the “dough bitches” easily dismissed by the rest of the kitchen. They don’t come in for the hazing and the harassment, but they don’t get taken seriously, either. What they do get, again and again, is having to listen to the same “jokes” and “banter” that women on the line do, plus a line of shit about how useless and girly their work is. They also have to put up with the line cooks stealing their prep and ingredients, because, hey, patisserie doesn’t matter, they can remake it, it’s no big deal.

Feminists and sociologists have long discussed how the marketing and consumption of food is highly gendered. And it is, very much so. What most people outside the industry don’t necessarily realize is that preparation and style of food is also highly gendered.

Haute cuisine is masculine. Comfort food is feminine. Molecular gastronomy is masculine. Pastry is feminine. BBQ is masculine, spicy food is masculine, anything with big, bold flavors and cutting edge styling is masculine. Soups and stews and pot roasts and, ahem, pies — homestyle food — are feminine.

Last year, the Astor Food and Wine Center in Manhattan hosted a panel on the differences between male and female chefs. The four panelists each tried five courses consisting of two paired dishes featuring the same main ingredient, one prepared by a woman and one by a man. The panelists then tried to determine which dish was which. Unsurprisingly, they found no significant differences, and got it wrong as often as they got it right.

But the panelists did list some of their preconceived notions and cliches, including:

  • Women chefs use spices more subtly than men
  • Male chefs love to make use of lots of toys in their cooking (look out, Grant Achatz)
  • Female chefs cook to nurture and feed people’s souls, while male chefs cook to compete and impress
  • Women chefs are more likely to cook soulful “grandmere-style” food than their male counterparts, who are much more likely to be into dazzling, technique-driven cooking
  • Male chefs like to cook red meat; women chefs are much more likely to cook pink food and use edible flowers
  • Women chefs are more precise. They follow instructions more carefully than men do
  • Women chefs’ food is more subtle and sophisticated, while their male counterparts cook gutsier, deep-flavored, testosterone-driven food
  • Women chefs cook with their hearts and souls, while male chefs cook with their head and their private parts

Men cook with their private parts? What, are they stirring the sauces with their dicks? Remind me never to eat in a restaurant with a male chef again. And what in the fuck is “testosterone-driven food”? Are we talking Rocky Mountain Oysters here, or are they infusing androgens into the steak, or what? What the fuck does any of this shit mean?

The one stereotype I’ll address is the notion that women chefs are “more precise” and “follow instructions more carefully.” You know why that one exists? Because women have to be more precise to survive in the male-dominated kitchen. We have to be twice as good as the men to get half the recognition — same old story, familiar to women in every field.

The piece on this event I linked above — a summary by one of the panelists, Ed Levine of SeriousEats — after admitting that no one on the panel could consistently identify any dishes as made by a man or a woman, after admitting that “it’s impossible to glean by looking and tasting whether a dish was created by a man or a woman,” after admitting that mentors matter more than gender, that all the chefs were “influenced and inspired by family members of both sexes,” still insists that cooking style is a function of gender as well as experience and personality, that gender “certainly affects how chefs cook,” even though “neither the chefs nor the panelists could articulate how and why exactly.”

Fucking gender essentialist bullshit. What the fuck? What from that panel led them to think that gender had anything to do with how chefs cooks? Nothing. Only stereotypes and preconceptions.

Women get shut out of restaurants with “male” cuisines, even more than other restaurants, and other women cooks norm the same stereotypes that the men do. From this interview with seven women chefs, which I’ve linked to before:

Do women and men cook differently?
SJ: I think women cook different food, and I think women cook better food. It’s more from the heart and more from the soul. I look at this whole molecular-gastronomy thing, and I’m like, “Boys with toys.” They’re just fascinated with technology and chemistry sets. I think we make better-tasting food. I’m sorry, I know that’s politically incorrect.
RC: I have to agree. Women’s food is, for the most part, more accessible, it’s easier to understand, it’s friendlier, it’s more comforting, and it doesn’t get bogged down in all these nutty freaking trends.
SJ: I find there’s a lot of technique in male food.
AB: I have a friend from England who’s a cook, and he said the food that’s most moved him has always been cooked by a woman. Maybe because it’s comfort food or it’s very nurturing.
JW: Or maybe he just liked the idea of a woman cooking for him.

When everyone is feeding you the same line of shit, it’s hard not to believe it. The few of us who disagree, who want to play with the “boys’ toys,” who’re into the techniques and the equipment and the cutting-edge shit, we’re often outsiders even within the much-othered group of women cooks and chefs. If you can’t fit in with anybody, the men or the women, kitchen life gets even harder.

And still the question echoes, from the mouths of men and women alike: So, you’re in pastry, right?

But I’m not, and I never have been, and I never will be. And I will cook any damned way I please.

Molecular Gastronomy and Me

September 28, 2010 § 17 Comments

A recent comment has prompted me to state my position on something.

I love Molecular Gastronomy.*

I know, I know, The Establishment insists that it’s Men’s Cooking. Only men have the Big Brainz necessary to understand all that haaaaard chemistry, only men cook flashy cutting-edge food. Us women-folk should content ourselves with making nourishing comfort food, because that’s what natural to us. It’s just what women do.

Fuck that noise.

I think it’s fascinating. It’s food as fine art rather than craft, food as abstract art, even. And Accepted Wisdom to the contrary, women can do that, too. And some of us even want to.

I keep hearing bullshit like, “Oh, I don’t like molecular gastronomy. I’m trying to get the chemicals out of my food!” Holy shit, the ignorance. Leaving aside the fact that food, like everything else, is made of chemicals, many of the chemicals the people who say this object to are extracts of other foods. Things like agar agar and sodium alginate are taken from seaweed, lecithin from soy beans, maltodextrin from tapioca. They aren’t any more “unnatural” than the papaya enzymes or essential fatty acids that these people (and I) take as supplements.

Then there’s this idea that MG is somehow not “nourishing,” as if food prepared with Xtra Science somehow has no calories or nutrients. I mean, we certainly have the technology to make food-like substances without calories and nutrients, but it’s not generally a focus of MG. This misapprehension seems to stem from the way MG food is usually served: in a tasting menu. Tasting menus involve a large number of very small courses, and are designed to circumvent palate fatigue, the tendency of the human tongue and brain to stop tasting food as acutely after a few bites. Food served in a tasting menu may leave some diners hungry between courses, but a 10 or 15 course menu is going to deliver roughly as many calories as a plate full of steak and potatoes, ultimately. The tasting menu isn’t for everyone, though. Fortunately, there’s nothing about MG that requires it to be served in a tasting menu format. It’s customary, and for some good reasons, but there’s no reason it can’t be served in larger portions.

Or I hear that MG is opposed to locavorism and sustainability, which is, again, bullshit. This time we’ll leave aside just how privileged you have to be, both geographically and economically, to eat a strict locavore diet, and in how many places that diet would cause severe malnutrition (including diseases like scurvy and pellagra), to point out that many MG restaurants and chefs source many of their ingredients locally and seasonally, as much as is possible in their various locales. They are two distinct, and reasonably compatible, philosophies of food. Sure, they’ll be bringing in some of the more unusual ingredients from outside that magic 100- or 50-mile radius, but most of them will be bringing in their olive oil and salt from outside that radius, too, just like nearly every other restaurant.

I’m very lucky, very privileged, to live in a place where I can get a balanced diet most of the year from food grown in my state. I make an effort to use seasonal, sustainably-farmed, locally-produced (for values of “local” that include “this state and its next-door neighbors”) meats, produce, and wines, but again, things like oils, salts, fresh fruit in winter, spices, and hot peppers can’t be sourced locally, and I don’t try. The restaurant would die if I tried. On the other hand, adding El Bulli’s fizzy crystals to my truffles is just fun.

So yeah, I love Molecular Gastronomy. You’re all welcome to your own opinions of it, love it or hate it, and you’re welcome to express those opinions. But ignorant and sexist comments about how it’s Menz Cooking will not be tolerated.

*OK, fine, we’re not supposed to call it molecular gastronomy. Achatz and Dufresne and Adria and all those chefs don’t like it. I don’t care. I think it’s an awesome name, and they won’t give us one they like better, so I’m using it.

Why is the kitchen so sexist?

September 26, 2010 § 10 Comments

So Ginny, just why is the professional kitchen so sexist?

Once upon a time, professional kitchens were the demesne of men merely because they were professional, and only men were professionals. King Louis XV of France had vehemently opposed the idea that women could cook fine cuisine, and the world had generally agreed. The hierarchy of the kitchen — the brigade de cuisine or kitchen brigade — was based on the command structure of Army cooks, modified and first set in place in the Savoy Hotel kitchens by Georges Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier based his brigade on the structures he experienced while in the Army during the Franco-Prussian War.

The hours were long, the work was messy and physically demanding, the cooks were working-class, and the discipline was harsh. It was not unlike being in the infantry. Except, of course, that the work they were doing, if done in a home, was women’s work.

And that does seem to be the crux of it. Other professions where men have traditionally dominated have improved far more than mine. The sciences, technology, math, engineering: these are all still difficult fields for women, but are no longer places where a woman’s workspace is likely to be covered in porn, or where blatant sexual harassment — grab-assing and open slut shaming — are tolerated (usually). Percents of women in leading positions (professors in the sciences and maths, chefs in cooking) are comparable, running roughly 9-10% women in both (cite 1, cite 2), but STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields have actively and collectively been working on the problem for longer, and so the improvements have been greater. But other male-dominated professions aren’t “women’s work” in another context, and I, like many cooks and chefs of both genders, can’t help but think that it’s related.

Oh, there are lots of other contributing factors. It doesn’t help that kitchen work (especially at the lower levels) is a popular choice for recent immigrants from countries with cultures even stricter sex segregation and greater misogyny than the US has. It doesn’t help that cooking is still generally considered to be vocational work rather than professional (although chefs are starting to be an exception), and so different standards of behavior apply. It doesn’t help that the popular media continues to focus on male chefs, or depict women as home cooks (think about how Rachael Ray is presented as opposed to Gordon Ramsey). It doesn’t help that the stereotype is that men are bolder, more experimental, more exacting with food, while women prefer to cook nourishing or comforting food.

But the general consensus is that male cooks have to be ultra-masculine because they’re cooks, and cooking is women’s work. Which means that women cooks do, too.

Is the general consensus true? Fuck if I know, but it comes up in pretty much every conversation on the topic, and is frequently asserted boldly by those who have no kitchen experience and who think it’s an original idea as well as by those who have been in the industry for years. Even bastions of the Old Boys Club subscribe to this hypothesis. But it’s not like we can know for sure.

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?

Couple of Quick Things

September 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Those points I made about it being more difficult for married women and women with kids? Echidne of the Snakes brings up a study on pay rates that I think relates.

Also, it seems I am spreading my bizarro kitchen work ethics to my front of house people, or at least my office people. I get occasional migraines, and if I’m already at work when I get them, or there’s something only I can take care of to do on a day when I have one, I often work anyway, albeit in the dark. My assistant-manager-in-charge-of-receiving-and-filing messaged me the other evening saying she had a migraine and so might be in late the next day, but was apparently planning to come in even if the migraine continued. I checked to make sure we weren’t expecting any deliveries (because if we were, I’d have to be there on my day off to receive them myself), and then told her to just stay home and recover. I feel weird about this. I do sometimes have to work with a migraine, but having had chefs who made me come in to work for them, I don’t want to do that to anyone else, and I don’t like that my example makes my staff think I want them to work with migraines.

Also, welcome to any Zuskateers who wandered over after Zuska so kindly linked to me.


September 20, 2010 § 19 Comments

While I was considering starting this blog, I asked my kitchen manager (a woman in her mid-twenties) if she considered herself a feminist. She thought for a second, and then said, “Well, I guess so. I mean, I certainly believe a woman can do anything a man can, aside from the physical limits some women have. And we should absolutely have all the same legal rights.” (Ok, she rambled a little more than that, and talked about women bodybuilders, but she was just off a long shift and had maybe had a couple of glasses of wine.) Then she pulled out the copy of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential she was reading and showed me a couple of paragraphs. This is the one she had me start with:

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really studly women line cooks — no weak reeds these. One woman, Sharon, managed to hold down a busy saute station while seven months pregnant — and still find time to provide advice and comfort to a romantically unhappy broiler man. A long-time associate, Beth, who likes to refer to herself as the “Grill Bitch,” excelled at putting loudmouths and fools in their proper place. She refused to behave any differently than her male coworkers:she’d change in the same locker area, dropping her pants right alongside them. She was as sexually aggressive, and as vocal about it, as her fellow cooks, but unlikely to to suffer behavior she found demeaning. One sorry Moroccan cook who pinched her ass found himself suddenly bent over a cutting board with Beth dry-humping him from behind, saying, “How do you like it, bitch?” The guy almost died of shame — and never repeated that mistake again.

I found myself torn between fuckyeahwomancooks! and tears. Glancing up, the previous, introductory, paragraph describes a “tough-as-nails, foul-mouther, trash-talking female line cook” as “a true joy” and “a civilizing factor” in kitchens, “where conversation tends to center around who’s got the bigger balls and who takes it in the ass.”

Oh, god. Ogodogodogod. Right. There was a reason why I never read this book, even though I enjoy Bourdain’s TV shows. I may puke.

Oh, goody, the next paragraph has even more sexual harassment!

Another female line cook I had the pleasure of working with arrived at work one morning to find that an Ecuadorian pasta cook had decorated her station with some particularly ugly hard-core pornography of pimply assed women getting penetrated in every orifice by potbellied guys with prison tattoos and back hair. She didn’t react at all, but a little later, while passing through the pasta man’s station, casually remarked, “Jose, I see you brought in some photos of the family. Mom looks good for her age.”

This is what my kitchen manager thinks feminism is. Oh, hell. Oh, spite. This is what she thinks of when I ask her if she’s a feminist. I despair. How the fuck am I ever supposed to make even a small change in kitchen culture if this is how the women here think. Oh, god.

Right. Well, this is why Shakesville talks about teaspoons against the sea. The point of this blog is to be one more teaspoonful taken out with every post. Time to break it down.

First, and most obviously, women have to act just as tough, gross, sexist, racist, homophobic, and generally bigoted and awful as the men in the kitchen do, to prove that they are good enough to work in the manly environment of the kitchen. If you don’t act like that, you won’t last long. Oh, nobody will tell you that’s the problem . . . but you’ll either be harassed into quitting, or some excuse found to fire you (or, in a “right to work” state, no excuse at all, just a dismissal).

And yet, women are still expected to be nurturing, caring, soothing, “civilizing.” They have to be as nasty as the men — but still be kind and caring and behave in traditionally feminine ways, ways that generally require them to take care of men. Wow, that looks like a familiar Catch 22.

Women are expected, required even, to ignore really horrifying sexual harassment of kinds that in most professional settings in the US would result in an instant lawsuit or the firing of the harasser. Instead, in the kitchen industry, the woman would at least be told to toughen up, that everybody puts up with that kind of shit, it’s just a joke; very possibly she’d be fired for not “fitting in” with the kitchen crew. Yeah, I know, reporting and suing (well, successfully) for most sexual harassment in most professions is pretty tough — but in most professions, harassers have gotten more subtle and sneaky about it. Hard-core porn all over someone else’s desk is a firing offense in most office settings. I’m not trying to belittle the harassment women have to tolerate in office settings — I’ve been there, and it can be just as awful, hell, more so, depending on the person and the circumstance, and it is just as wrong. What I am saying is that things which are generally Unacceptable in most professional settings are still accepted in kitchens.

Women are also expected to take part in active misogyny: to refer to men and other women, and even themselves, as bitches; to deal yo mama insults; to deplore weakness, weeping, and other “girl” faults; to make and laugh at rag jokes, rape jokes, and a host of other jokes relying on the revilement of women. Not just tolerate it from the men, but actively take part in it.

Women gain extra points for being as sexually aggressive as male cooks, and as vocal about it. Not just as aggressive, but aggressive in the same way. There’s a lot of debate in the feminist blogosphere as to whether and what kind of sexual assertiveness is empowering or positive for women and feminists — I come down firmly on the Proud Slut side of the argument, myself — but again, it’s an example of women having to act just like the men around them in order to be accepted. And just imagine, for one moment, being a sexually aggressive lesbian cook in this kind of environment (yeah, most of the homophobia is directed at gay men). . . . It’s just one more component of how working in a professional kitchen requires women to act like the men around them, and doesn’t allow for women who can’t or won’t act that way.

Oh, and of course, these “studly” women are “no weak reeds” — imply that any and all women who don’t act just like the men around them are weak. Fuck you, Anthony Bourdain.

I’m scooting right past the racism (notice how Bourdain makes a point of mentioning the origins of the cooks who harassed the women he’s talking about?) and most of the homophobia here. I’m definitely planning posts on both of these, and on other isms and bigotries, and on intersectionality, but I just don’t have the heart to delve into them in this post. Not ignoring, them, though.

I live and work in a very different city than Bourdain writes about (his career has mostly been in NYC), and the kitchen culture out here is not this vile. I could never work in a kitchen in New York, nor most of the Northeast, nor most of the Eastern Seaboard. The kitchen culture out here may not be as bad, but all of these elements are here, they’re just not as extreme. I’ve never worked in a kitchen where someone who left hard core porn all over another cook’s station wasn’t likely to get fired. I never would. But it doesn’t mean that we aren’t expected to put up with a lot more than women working in offices around here are. It’s hard. It’s hard for me to see and tolerate even the more mild echoes of this kind of misogyny that we experience here. But to get to where I am, I had to work in other people’s kitchens, and that meant having to put up with it. And now that I have my own kitchen, I still have to put up with some of it, because I have to employ at least some cooks with experience in other kitchens, and they’re all acclimated to it and want to perpetuate it. I can forbid the worst of it, but not everything. Since none of my cooks see any problem with the way things are, why would they want anybody to act any differently?

Teaspoons against the sea. *sigh*

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.

Definition of Chef and Other Terms

September 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Definition of Chef and Other Terms

For the record, I’m not planning on doing Feminism 101 here. If people start asking questions, I’ll probably provide a few links, but this is at least an intermediate-level feminism space.

However, it occurs to me that some people could probably use a little Restaurant 101. There’s a lot of confusion out there about certain terms, especially the term chef, and it’s moderately important that people understand exactly what I’m talking about here.

So. A chef is:

1) Someone who manages the day-to-day operations of a professional kitchen of a certain size and quality. The specific size and quality is up for a lot of debate, but generally a chef has several cooks working under her direction, and generally the restaurant is casual-to-fine dining, a sit down restaurant with multiple courses on the menu.

2) Someone who directs and manages multiple chefs for multiple restaurants (sometimes called an executive or corporate chef, depending on various factors; an executive chef can also be the head chef of a very large brigade-style kitchen that has multiple chefs de partie or section chefs).

3) A Certified Master Chef, Certified Executive Chef, or person with another title granted by a professional organization such as the American Culinary Federation. Such certifications standardly involve actually working as a chef in one or both of the first two capacities.

4) A Chef-Instructor at a culinary school.

5) A personal chef employed by a private individual to cook for them on a professional basis.

6) Someone who has done one of the above jobs for a really really long time and continues to be addressed by the title out of respect after retirement.

A chef is NOT:

1) Any professional cook at all.

2) Any graduate of a culinary school at all.

3) Any home cook.

The word chef is a loan from French, and just means “boss.” It’s a cognate of chief. You can’t be a chef if you’re not and have not been in charge of something. Chef is a professional title, like Professor or (civilian) Captain. You get the title Chef because you’re doing the job of a Chef.

Other terms of importance:

Kitchen manager: Essentially the same job as a chef, only in a smaller and/or less fancy place. (The woman who runs my kitchen has the title of Kitchen Manager.)

Sous chef: Literally “under boss,” the sous chef, or just sous, is the chef’s lieutenant, her second-in-command, her assistant manager.

Cook: In this context, a professional, someone who cooks as their job and plans to continue to do so.

Chef de partie: The boss of a part or department of a very large kitchen, such as the chief saucier, the head pastry chef, etc.

Brigade kitchen: *sigh* OK, minor history lesson. The profession of cooking as it exists today in the Western world was greatly influenced by Georges Auguste Escoffier, a French chef (both in nationality and style) who popularized and updated French fine dining cooking methods in the early part of the 20th century. He also organized his kitchen along a plan now known as the Brigade, which broke down a large hotel kitchen into departments based on the type of food and methodology it focused on. This system includes an Executive Chef or Chef de Cuisine who oversees all departments, a Sous-chef de cuisine who assists him, a number of chefs de partie, cuisiniers (cooks) who work under the chefs de partie, and several other lesser designations. Only the largest kitchens actually use this system today, but it has given us a number of terms still in use in smaller kitchens. (Most of which I can still recite. This shit was on our exams in culinary school, despite the fact that few if any of us were ever going to work in a brigade kitchen.)

Now, when I’m talking about the jobs it’s difficult for woman to get, I’m talking about chef, executive chef, senior cook in a good restaurant (as opposed to, say, fast food or pizza or something), hell, even sometimes a very junior position can be hard to get.

I am not, in fact, a chef. I am a restaurant owner, a restauranteur. But I don’t run the kitchen myself (although I make decisions about how it’s run), and rarely cook.

Hope that clears up some things.