Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Chick's Guide to Kitchen Life

    This is the article I wrote for Serendipity Magazine, a great online magazine that covers every and any creative subject, back in June. I wrote it in a way more toned down fashion than I normally would but I had to keep it magazine-reader friendly.  :-) Enjoy!

  “Women line cooks, however rare they might be in the testosterone-heavy, male-dominated world of restaurant kitchens, are a particular delight.  To have a tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, trash-talking female line cook on your team can be a true joy-and a civilizing factor in a unit where conversation tends to center around who’s got the bigger balls and who takes it in the ass.”

Anthony Bourdain, 

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly 

    For many years, the professional kitchen was considered to be a Boys-Only club, which is funny to me since women have always been stereotyped to “belong in the kitchen”. So why are the roles suddenly switched when the kitchen becomes a professional one?
    While I have a few theories on this, none of which I could elaborate in true “politically correct” fashion, the best answer I could find is this: "Because high cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid, old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world, but still I'm here."  There’s a lot of truth behind this quote and funnily enough, it comes from the character Colette from Disney Pixar’s Ratatouille, a fantastic animated film that showcases, among other things, the life in a kitchen. Staying close to reality, Colette was the only female in the said kitchen. On a brighter note, I am happy to report that the tides are turning and things are slowly yet surely shifting to a more gender balanced environment.
     My overall experience as a female in this sausage-fest of an industry has been a positive one.  My goal in this article is to give you a small and initial taste of the culinary world from a female standpoint. While writing this, I decided to also include thoughts and words of personal friends of mine, both men and women, who are in this field and who wanted to share their views concerning this subject.   
     My first ever kitchen job was at my father’s restaurant and this is where I received the first and most important crash course on kitchen life. My father was of the “tough-love” generation and the kitchen was no exception. There was no special treatment.  I learn fast and hard. I’m thankful for that because the days I worked with my father prepared and shaped me for what lay ahead. I grew a thick skin where no amount of yelling and pressure could break me down, my father did enough of that to last me a lifetime! Not that I’m unbreakable or anything. I most definitely have my days and moments.
   After finishing culinary school in Las Vegas, I went on to work in a variety of upscale steakhouses on the Strip. Higher-end cuisines requires a certain level of skill and excellence, the stakes are higher and so are the expectations. Some Chefs might test you just to see how much you can handle. They’ll push you to your limits and it’s important that you can show them you can indeed take the heat (ha!). A tough exterior is needed in order to survive this world. If it’s important for the men, it’s absolutely vital for the women.
    We tend to be more emotional beings than our male counterparts and that more often than not serves as a disadvantage for us in a kitchen. It’s a stressful, demanding and high pace environment. You might even get lucky enough to have a Chef who foams at the mouth and becomes a stark raving lunatic in the middle of the dinner rush where everything seems to be going wrong. This all comes with the territory and folding under pressure and breaking down into tears is the absolutely worst thing you can do (for yourself and for the situation you are in). Save it for when you get home.
With Liz and Regie at work. <3
      Sometimes, Chefs tend to be a little bit more lenient with women which I personally find counterproductive. Showing special treatment to the female population in a kitchen defeats the goal of an equal and fair kitchen regardless of sex. My last chef I worked for, Executive Chef Mark LoRusso at Botero Steak at the Encore Casino in Las Vegas admits just that, “I tend to be a little softer on the women which I shouldn’t " he says. I personally found his kitchen a very positive environment to work in, where he gave us the opportunity to grow and learn as long as we wanted to. When asked what his best advice would be to a female who’s starting out in the kitchen he states “There is always going to be some men in the kitchen who are jerks and don’t like to listen to women. You need to always hold your ground and develop a thick skin. Also, don’t sleep with any one in the restaurant. Respect is lost or favoritism happens”.

      Another obstacle women seem to face is the preconceived notion about which working stations are “most suitable” for women. Pastry (as well as garde manger/cold station) is usually number one on the list, something which Chef Mark also admits, “When a female applies I automatically think they are applying for a pastry position”. The notion that pastry is a somewhat easier station has always puzzled me. From my personal observation, it’s the most complex and unforgiving station in a kitchen. Pastry is a whole other universe compared to the savory kitchen. It demands careful calculations and most of all, patience and precise skills. Most desserts require preparation of a few days in advance which calls for careful planning and allows very little room for error. Sure, they don’t cater to every table that walks through the door on a given shift but they do have to wait till the very last table eats and decides if they want dessert or not before they can start closing up shop. It’s a guarantee that pastry is always the last station to leave a kitchen at the end of the night.
     As my very good friend Elizabeth Shed who works pastry at Botero steak shares with me, “The comments on how girls are usually in Pastry doesn't bother me, but I do feel some pressure to work harder and show more of my talent than probably some line cooks might because the chefs aren't usually in pastry to see what goes on. I get frustrated when our chefs don't understand how much patience and time pastry takes and the preciseness alone would make most people run away.” When I asked her what she believes the overall obstacles women might face in this environment are, she said “ I think the challenges for most women is the ability to overcome the stereotypes that women don't belong or that we can't work as hard. Some days i feel like women are behind before we even step foot into the kitchen. I do believe if you work in a kitchen, there is no room for tears. Some women just aren't made for the trials and tribulations of a kitchen and that is fine because than there is just more jobs for girls like me.”
     Maybe it was luck or just pure self confidence but I was personally never faced with this type of stereotyping regarding what stations I was placed in. I had started out in the cold station in only 2 past restaurants, one in which I was moved to sauté (which is considered to the most challenging station in a kitchen) within a month’s time. I’ve never had a Chef deny me the opportunity to venture out of my own station and learn another one. Most Chefs’ I’ve worked for encouraged that, regardless of gender. As long as I showed interest in advancing, I was given that opportunity. Just like with anything in life, you need to have the right attitude and mindset in order to succeed. Letting negativity get the best of you is a sure way to fail (which holds true for everything in life really.)

      Another issue that only women could face in a kitchen simply because of the laws of nature is pregnancy. You’re working in a very fast paced environment and not very baby bump friendly. What then?
    This is the story of Rose Eames. Rose and I worked together at Michael Mina’s Stripsteak back in Vegas and I always reminisce our days of working together behind the line. We were a great team since we both were of the “same breed”. She eventually became pregnant and worked until her 6th month of pregnancy. I remember the working environment putting a strain on her as she went farther along. All the different smells and aromas made it hard for her to keep her lunch down almost on a daily basis. The 8 hour shifts constantly on foot and the small station we worked in made it a difficult, and some times even dangerous, environment for her to work in, “I used to go out and hide in the dry storage to just sit for five minutes. One of the sous chefs used to cover for me”.  
     Despite her uncomfortable physical condition, she never complained.  She knew her limits and would be careful not to lift or move something that would endanger her child but apart from that, she would come in and do her job and do it well (not to mention that her pregnancy was coupled with gallbladder disease). In the beginning, she was promised by management a day shift which consisted of prep work (a lighter load to carry compared to the intense food service night shift) but somehow, that plan never went into action. Instead, she was given the same night shift she always had except with a small change in the hours but that was as much accommodation as management had done for her. It was all swept under the rug as if that conversation had never existed. She figured it was more energy that she would like to waste to fight it and fact was she knew she could handle it. She never used her pregnancy as an excuse to shy away from responsibilities she knew she could do) and although the night shift was a tougher gig than a day shift would have been, she never missed a beat. It was amazing to watch her work in her physically condition (especially in the later months).
    As I mentioned earlier, her experience with management during her pregnancy was a rocky one, “every chef with the exception of one treated me like a disease inflicted on the kitchen” and added on to say " I found it amazing that when one cook got too fat to fit on a station they moved him to a bigger one, but when I got too pregnant, they told me to quit whining.”.  Luckily, the rest of the kitchen staff was very considerate "All and i mean all the line cooks were kind and generous with my feelings and ever growing belly. They helped me without question and lifted heavy objects for me. They never complained when they couldn’t squeeze around me anymore”.
    The culinary world is a tough one. It constant demands and pressure can take a toll on you physically, mentally and emotionally. Working in a professional kitchen is hard. Being a female and working in a professional kitchen is even harder. This, however, should never be something that discourages you. I’ve learned to use it as fuel to showcase what I know and can do.
    I’m no fool, I know this world is still very much a man’s world but if you go in there prepared for it, you can and will survive (and even conquer). It goes without saying that certain feminine sacrifices will be made. If you want in, you can forget about pretty hands and nails (your nails will break, not to mention it’s unsanitary to have them long and with nail polish on), don’t even think about showing up with a full face of make up (it’ll just melt right off with the first sign of perspiration and then,  you’ll just look like a clown) and Aunt Flo’s monthly visit is not an excuse for calling off (although it serves as a great conversation starter solely for the priceless reaction from your male co-workers!) Expect explicit language (at times sexual) being thrown around ever so generously. I won’t sugar coat it for you, if you’re the type that gets offended easily, this environment is not for you. As a female though, you always need to stand your ground. Sexual or any other kind of harassment should never be condoned. Unless you’re working with completely slime balls, the boys will never cross any line you have created and if they do, immediate action should most definitely be taken by you. There should always be a foundation of respect and communication underneath all the joking and talk, from both sides.
   I have many male co-workers whom I’ve developed great friendships with over the years and who think women have added a special touch to this world. As my good friend Reginald Nebab puts it, “I believe that for years now, women have definitely been showing their impact and gaining respect in the culinary world. I've worked and learned a lot from some really talented female chefs and it just proves that women can do just as great if not better than men in a professional kitchen.”
      In the end, if there’s anyone holding women back from advancing in the culinary world, its women themselves. We need to break free from whatever stereotypes still linger. Sure there are still some men of the old school mentality who might never accept women in this field but the overall winds are changing and have already changed. If the passion is there, we shouldn’t let a damn thing stop us. After all, the same rules apply for anyone and in any profession: Continue to learn, love your craft, respect it and do it well.

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