03/06/2012 10:30 am ET Updated May 06, 2012

A Chef -- Neither Man Nor Woman

"Don't you think you'll have a harder time getting the staff to cooperate with you because you're a woman?" I always hesitate when I'm asked this question during an interview. I'm out of air and enthusiasm. I know nothing else I say matters, and I'm not getting this job.

Not many people outside of the business of food know the meaninglessness of gender that food industry workers experience. And if you've been in the front of the house and not the back -- the back being the kitchen and tiny row of lockers where we all get undressed -- you might not be aware that we are immediately neutered in the kitchen staff locker room. Bras and panties, boxer shorts and wife beaters don't matter -- just get your uniform on and grab your knives. There's work to be done.

Plus it gets awfully close behind that line of equipment. Reaching for plates, hurrying to get entrees and appetizers in the window as fast as you can often requires kitchen staff sliding and slipping around each other. I've had more genital contact in my 18 years cooking than I've had in over 27 years of committed relationships.

As a line cook I learned to pull my weight -- we all carried the pots teaming with hot stock and bones. I swallowed my fear of fish to look the slick trout in the face while I cut them open or grabbed the wild salmon by the gills. I taught hundreds of rookies how to sharpen knives and turn potatoes. The idea was to be someone the rest of the team could depend on. I stepped in to help when the guy on the grill was being hit hard and his side of spinach was burning. Others have done the same for me when I was "in the weeds." Gender is insignificant when tickets are piling up and you wish you had another arm or two just to get through the night. I'm measured by the burn scars on my arms, and by how many finished plates come from my station as I take a calm glance to read orders off of a constant stream of tickets. Sure, I may have come in to that kitchen a few hours ago to whistles and hoots, but a couple of hours of keeping my cool in the 110-degree heat and working better and faster than some of the boys and I'm not a girl anymore.

So the question about me being a woman and a leader all at the same time always confounds me. I was a young cook in awe of the senior staff that showed me the shortcuts to the sauté station or the most efficient way to poach a case of eggs. When I became a senior staff member I was the one with the secrets and inspiring the young cooks male and female to seek perfection. When I left my sous chef job, Rob was left to lead the two-person team that worked Sunday brunch. He moved his things to my locker. I was having a drink at the bar a year later proud to see that he was now practically running the kitchen. The plate of duck he sent to me was so perfect I sobbed into my napkin.

I've worked for male and female chefs and to each I've asked, "How high?" Line cooks know that character makes a leader not what's in the boxer shorts. A successful chef has the power to build a team of cooks that become an extension of the chef, a team that is able to duplicate the chef's cooking flawlessly. Charisma, not masculinity, builds that kind of respect and devotion. It made Joan of Arc lead armies to victory and Oprah the most powerful television personality in the world.

Another meeting ends with me being told I "am a lovely lady" -- I've actually never been called that before; never in a kitchen.