By: Joe Keohane
IT STARTED WITH ONE CHEF. An accomplished veteran who regaled us a month or so ago with a load of stories about what it's like to be a woman working in some of New York's best restaurant kitchens. The takeaway: it sucks. And sometimes it really sucks. Then she suggested we get in touch with someone else, and we did, and on and on.
Pretty soon, we'd spoken to nearly two dozen women about their experiences toiling in the business -- good, bad, funny, horrifying tales that go well beyond the usual debate about whether women can endure the high heat and heavy pots of professional kitchens. The older chefs got the worst of it, the younger ones have grappled with the changing sexual dynamics of modern kitchens, and pretty much everyone has had to deal with a lot of penis-shaped food items strewn about with great abandon. The good news: it's better than it was, but there's a long way to go. Want proof? Read on.
*Special thanks to Les Dames d'Escoffier New York, an organization that has been providing support to women in the culinary business since 1973, for helping us set up several of the interviews.
Part 1: Respect? You Will Get None of That.
Amanda Cohen, chef-owner, Dirt Candy: I've never experienced any kind of sexism in a kitchen. I've sometimes been treated like garbage in kitchens, but everyone gets treated like garbage in kitchens. But the place where I'm constantly reminded that I'm a woman is when it comes to recognition. The first few years of Dirt Candy, people would come to the kitchen to pay their compliments to the chef and they would stand next to my station and I could tell they were looking for a man. They'd dismiss me because I'm not a man. They'd dismiss my line cook because she was usually not a man. Finally, they'd settle on my dishwasher. I can't tell you how many Dirt Candy customers in those first few years sincerely and graciously thanked my very confused dishwasher for their meal. The few times when I'd have a guy on my line, I'd see these same customers' eyes light up. They would ignore the 38-year-old chef standing next to them, running the kitchen, and give manly handshakes to a 22-year-old kid working the line, telling him about what a great staff he has.
Barbara Sibley, chef-owner, La Palapa: I've had lots of people come in and say, "Honey, where's the boss? Is he in here today?" It happens all the time.
Anita Lo, chef-owner, Annisa: That happens here, too. People are like, "Oh, do you know the chef? Is he in the kitchen?" Constantly. It's amazing.
Maristella Innocenti, co-chef-co-owner, I Coppi di Matilda: I worked as a consultant opening a new Italian place in the East Village almost two years ago. I actually had this guy who ended up installing the AC who was a nightmare. I kept calling him to come finish the job, we were dying from the heat, it was insane. When he finally came he was really nasty to me: who do you think you are, the Madonna? And I was like, "How dare you? You've offended me!" He told me in his country -- Senegal -- women don't talk like that to a man. I was like, "I'm not your woman. I'm the person who's gonna pay you for a job." And he didn't expect that, so he jumped in the truck and closed all the windows and started to leave, because I had insulted him. So I went in the middle of Fifth Street and I stood there with my arms crossed, and I was screaming at him: "I won't let you go until you apologize!" The other guy with him had to come down and apologize to get me to let them go.
Alina Martell, executive pastry chef: When you work in a kitchen, you get a nickname pretty quickly. I used to joke with my friends who worked in restaurants that we'd name our memoir Sugar Baby Honey Mama.
Part 2: Banished to the Pink Dungeon
Jacqueline Lombard, executive chef: The chefs who trained us in culinary school were all French, and when we graduated they all said, "Good luck: if you're lucky you'll get a job in pastry. I wouldn't hire you. But hopefully someone will!" When I got my first job they did make me do pastry one day a week, because that was a girl's job. They thought that I would be more comfortable there. They said, "Are you sure you don't want to do pastry all the time?"
Anonymous, executive sous chef: When I started at my first restaurant, the only spot that was available was pastry, and I was like, I love to bake, but I want to prove myself and work on the line. They said, "Okay, no problem, no problem. Just work pastry for a little bit and we'll put you on the line." I worked pastry for a year and a half, and I was like, "Am I ever going to move off?"
Martell: They call it the pink dungeon. [Laughs] The pastry kitchen. It's where the women are.
Marianne Bondad, chef de cuisine: Usually the pastry department is dominated by females. It's a different craziness. I've lived through both worlds because I was a savory cook, then I went to pastry, and I went back to savory because I couldn't do it, I couldn't live in that world. Not to put women down, but they're very competitive with each other, and they would sabotage each other. They'd exchange sugar for salt, they would crank someone's oven up when she needed it at a perfect 220 degrees. If someone was making a meringue that needed perfect egg whites, they would throw an egg yolk in there. Just to f*ck with each other. While in a savory environment there are very few of you, so you tend to stick together and help each other.
Part 3: The French Nightmare
Lombard: When I went to the French Culinary Institute, André Soltner and Jacques Pépin were two of the heads of the school. I graduated at the top of my class, and I remember Jacques Pépin went up to my husband after graduation and said, "Congratulations! You have a beautiful wife who can stay home and make you dinner all the time now." My husband said, "Excuse me, my wife's a chef. She's going to work." And everyone just looked at him like, Such a nice thought! I didn't even get upset because Jacques Pépin just paid me a compliment. I just took the win. But my husband noticed.
Sunny Lee, sous chef: When I was in France, the chef used to grab the girls by the buns on the backs of their heads and yank their heads back. Mine would attach a carrot to a string and hang it over my station. He'd call me "The Little Donkey." "Donkey américaine." He was a great chef. But he was a monster.
Martell: I started out at Jean-Georges, and there were days you were so scared you'd go into the kitchen shaking. Some days you'd have things thrown at you, pots, whatever, it happens. But then there were always those moments where you're like, Okay, you're human. One of those happened on my first day on a brand-new station. And I was so nervous, making sure everything is perfect, everything is cleaned down. I'm immaculate, there's nothing on my apron, and I'm rigidly standing there, waiting. Jean-Georges comes over, and I'm sweating because I'm so terrified. And there's this girl, she was a cook at the time, Grayson Schmitz, she comes bouncing over and Jean-Georges looks at her and goes, "Why is your hair down?" She had a ponytail, it wasn't all tied up. And she had the balls -- she throws her arm around him, and she goes, "J-Gizzle, how am I gonna get a man if they can't see my hair down? I'm working in a kitchen." And I'm like, Who is this girl? Did she just call Jean-Georges J-Gizzle?
Grayson Schmitz, chef: [Laughs] And you know what he said? He said, "Uh, okay, okay," and he let me keep my hair down. I was the only one who got to wear my hair in a ponytail, and it was probably 12 inches long. I worked with JG for a long time, so I knew I could be a little sassy to him without it coming off as disrespectful. I also cooked at every station and I could do everything. I proved myself by doing everything the guys could do, but better, and nobody f*cked with me, like ever. Beyond the normal harassment that we all get.
Part 4: The Baby Bomb
Anonymous, executive chef: I was interviewing for a job once, and the manager said, "You're married. Is that going to be a problem?" I said no. Fully dedicated to the job. He said, "All right, are you gonna get pregnant?" I stopped and I said, "Excuse me, is that a legal question?" And he just put his hand on a big stack of resumes and said, "This is how many people want this position. So I need yes or no." I just wanted the job, so I was like, "Of course not. Of course not. I have no interest in having kids. I just want to work here and have the job and that's it." He said, "I'm willing to take a risk on you, but I'm not going to have a woman f*ck up the line."
Ashley James, line cook: It's a concern. They see women as a flight risk, because you never really know who is that committed and who isn't. Men can impregnate somebody and go back to work, but even if I'm really committed, and I can afford nannies, and still put my head down, there's still that nine-month period where they don't want me on the line because of liability or whatever the case might be. It sucks that all of us have to endure that sort of thinking, that all of us are that risk.
Lombard: I have the ultimate sympathy for the women I hire, and I do as much as I can to accommodate any restrictions they may have. If I have a pregnant lady, I have a stool at her station, and I'm making sure she's taking her breaks and resting. But because I do that, everyone else in the kitchen is pissed off and resentful. I've had cooks with cancer, cooks with emphysema. I've had cooks with gallstones. I accommodated them and no one objected to that. But is a pregnant woman any more liable to cut herself, or hurt herself than that drunk guy, or your coked-up ass? If anything she's being twice as careful. But no, they say it'll mess up the line. It'll make the guys nervous.
Innocenti: You can do it. I was pregnant when I was the chef at I Coppi in the East Village, and I worked the whole nine months. Nine months with gestational diabetes. Huge belly. I worked and I worked and I ran like crazy. Nine months. I remember the day before I was scheduled to deliver the baby, my sister, who owned the restaurant, wasn't feeling good, and asked me if I could work for her on the floor seating people. It was crazy-busy. So all day, I was running down to the garden out back, back to the door, down to the garden. This guy stopped me and said, "I'm sorry, when are you due?" And I said, "Tomorrow!" He said, "What are you doing?!" I said, "I heard that it helps labor! The adrenaline!" The next day, I was about to go to the hospital, and I took a reservation on the phone before I jumped in the cab. A month and a half later I was back, expediting in front of the kitchen with the baby sleeping in the BabyBjörn. That's what you do. As a woman you can do it. We're multitaskers. That's a gift we have. And thank goodness, because otherwise we would die.
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