Male Privilege in the Kitchen

I'll be the first to say up front that, going on four years spent in professional kitchens, I'm still relatively green in the restaurant industry. That said, based on personal experience and anecdotes from friends and co-workers, I feel comfortable making a few generalizations about the biz:

1. Bakeries tend to be female-dominated.

2. Restaurant pastry teams are more evenly split along gender lines.

3. The head chefs in both scenarios are typically male.

4. Savory programs are predominantly male.  

5. The more men you have together in a room, the more drastically the collective maturity level drops. To my knowledge and experience there is no correlative phenomenon amongst groups of women. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


If all restaurants had competent HR departments, the cook shortage would be exponentially worse than it already is. Kitchens across the globe would be zombie apocalypse-level empty, albeit probably with less blood smeared on the walls.


It's not easy being in a male-dominated field that attracts narcissists and breeds [borderline] misogyny, chauvinism, and the sort of "locker room talk" that Donald Trump famously attempted to normalize. I hear a lot of things at work that I wish I didn't. Sometimes I keep my head down and ignore it. Other times I play along and muster up some fake laughter. More rarely I call the guys out on it. As a feminist I should really do it more often but, when you have two X chromosomes, you need only speak your mind once or twice before being labeled and written off as a bitch.* 

The comments are never directed at me** but, as far as I'm concerned, if you offend a sister, you're offending me. We do not exist simply for your viewing pleasure or for you to judge us; we do not owe you anything.

I've been told to my face that I'm 'territorial' and 'prickly.' Who knows what gets said behind my back?

But also: who cares?


Multiple times in the past week I've heard the guys use #metoo as the butt of a joke.

I've been sexually assaulted. There is and never will be anything remotely funny or entertaining about those experiences.

Obviously, I didn't laugh. But I also kept my mouth shut, because I assume that people who make rape jokes are not very sympathetic toward those who have, you know, been raped.

Sorry, is the reality of what it's like being female too awkward for you?


Savory cooks only come to the pastry section when:

1. They want to borrow equipment (that will undoubtedly return dirty, broken, and/or smelling like onions; that is if they come back at all).

2. They want to use the oven.

3. They're hungry.

4. They're 'voluntelling'*** us to do something because obviously it's our job to make up for the incompetence of other departments.

Example: A hotel guest's room not being ready in time for check-in translates to 'let's send them some complimentary chocolates.'


In the kitchen we use the French term mise en place (MEP) to refer to everything needed to prepare a dish or recipe (e.g. portioned and scaled ingredients, rinsed and chopped fruit, ground spices, garnishes, etc.). 

On multiple occasions, savory cooks - and chefs, even, have come up to my station and started eating my MEP. Despite my protestations and telling them to stop, it happened again. And again. And again.

Imagine you have a desk job and are in the middle of emailing a client, when your co worker or manager comes over and starts messing with your keyboard; adding words, deleting words, inserting a poorly timed dick joke, hitting send, etc.

Even if I have the extra to make up for it (which I usually do because I trust no one, and also shit happens), it is the principle behind the action more so than the action itself that is the problem. Because taking without asking is a classic behavior rooted in male entitlement and privilege.

As a character in Top of the Lake China Girl mansplains to Elisabeth Moss' badass detective Robin, "There's a 'yes' no, and a 'no' no." In other words, men tend to assume that they're charming and irresistible - so much so that us asking them to stop is somehow, in their minds, flirtatious and not, like, us actually saying 'no.' (Side note: the perpetrators in question here are almost always in allegedly serious, committed relationships, but that's a thinkpiece for another day). Shall we take it a step further and tie it to #metoo? No means no. As in the opposite of yes.

The apology, if and when it comes, is perfunctory at best - sheepish and tinged with that 'this is me throwing my hands up in the air because you're a woman overreacting' that all ladies ever who have dealt with men will understand.


At a previous job I was actively sabotaged by a male colleague.

But I was told that I was the one who had to try and salvage some kind of professional relationship with him, which I did. I initiated multiple conversations with him outside of work, in which I asked questions like, 'what can I do so that we can work better together?' Everyone else had accepted that he was incapable of change, I guess, so I was the one who had to adapt instead.

Womanhood: doing 100% of the emotional legwork for 70% of the profit.


Some days it feels like an all-around lose-lose situation, and that women in the kitchen essentially must fall into one of three categories:

1. A pushover.

2. The Cool Girl.

3. A bitch.


I get a lot of comments about my face, e.g. 'what's wrong?' 'why are you mad?' Or, in the wake of The Dark Knight, 'why so serious?'

I never hear my male colleagues quizzed about the deeper meanings behind their facial expressions. (Or is that because there are none?)

Having a vagina and some ovaries doesn't mean that I owe the world a smile every second of the day. (Again, as a woman, I owe nothing to anyone).

If my face contains traces of distaste, disgust, disdain or distrust, it's probably somehow connected to the daily onslaught of microaggressions that I have to deal with, including men asking me about my fa-- oh, wait. Consider this: maybe I look the way I do because you, sir, are the problem.


*Fact: bitches get shit done.

**I made peace long ago with the fact that I'm not conventionally attractive and, at best, considered "cute." It saves me from the unwanted attention that I see foisted upon my "hot" friends, makes solo travel so much easier, and makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside knowing that the people who want me around do so because of my skill, intellect and sass. Cue Rebecca Solnit: There are things men do that are the fault of women who are too sexy, and other things men do that are the fault of women who are not sexy enough, but women only come in those two flavors: not enough, too much, and it is the fate of heterosexual men to endure this affliction. Let me play you a song on the world's tiniest violin.

***Voluntell (verb) To pretend that someone has a choice in doing something when they actually don't.

Kitchen Life

This is the most 'traditional' kitchen I've ever worked with, in the sense that it conforms to many of the stereotypes people have about fine dining restaurants. 

For the past week we started at 10 am, working until the last table was finished. For reference, the tasting menu plus pre-dinner canapés and post-dinner petit fours comprise an approximately 3-4 hour experience for the guest, and the last seating is at 9 pm. On weekdays that translates to us missing the last subway trains and taking taxis home.

When I first told my father how much we work he asked me if it was legal. I laughed.

The sous chefs make an effort to send the stages home 'early,' after we've been there for about fourteen hours; this is relative to the chefs de partie (full-time employees). But, hey, at least they get paid.

We break once during the shift at 3:30 pm to eat staff meal all together. Those precious minutes are the only time we get to sit down.* A friend once asked me if, as employees, we eat the same food that the restaurant serves the guests. I laughed. No lobster or reserve caviar for us! I'd like to think that at a Michelin starred restaurant the food they feed us is a step up from staff meal at the Cheesecake Factory or PF Chang's, but I really can't say for sure.

My last job was much more corporate, being a part of a luxury hotel franchise, so even though it was still fine dining I rarely worked more than 55 hours per week. There was an HR department, and rules like taking a full thirty minute break before the sixth hour of work were enforced. 

This is my second time working in Europe, the first being when I staged at a well-known bakery in Paris. And, once again, I can't help but notice the differences between here and home. Generally speaking, European chefs are more aggressive-aggressive, while Americans tend toward passive-aggressive. This is not to say that I haven't seen an American chef throw a tantrum (because, oh boy, have I), but those episodes are rarer in my experience. Europeans are also more chivalrous; as one of only two women here in the back-of-house team, the guys are really good about helping me with things that are heavy or up on a high shelf. American guys, not so much.

No matter where in the world you are, though, the real backbone in the kitchen is camaraderie. It's stronger here than in any other kitchen I've been a part of. The team is a family. We push ourselves and each other, laugh, cry, and scream together, because the only way to go is up.

*A former chef of mine used to work at a 3-star Michelin restaurant, where staff meal was hurriedly scarfed down while standing. As a result she drank tons of water because sitting on the toilet was the only time she could rest her legs.

 

Tales From the Bottom Rung

stage

noun

/sta.ʒjɛ:ʁ/

1. Professional term in the restaurant industry for voluntary* indentured servitude.

"Periods of my life when I've consumed the most wine: taking care of my dying grandmother, my first stage right after cooking school." - author's personal experience

2. Abbreviation for a person engaging in said activity.

"We go outside and watch videos of cute animals when the stages are being annoying motherfuckers." - a sous chef

*A stage is a graduation requirement for many culinary school students, in which case I guess it's not so voluntary.


Interns seem to be a marginalized group of the workforce across all industries, but particularly so in the restaurant world. As a stage you are a freshly dug latrine getting shat on by everyone else, every day, all the time. It's easier if you've had some work experience before, but each kitchen differs slightly in its rules and etiquette, and if you don't adapt quickly the mountain of shit only presses in on you more tightly, covering your eyes, ears, nose and mouth and making you scared to breathe in case it somehow pisses somebody off. (One rule that's consistent everywhere: always cut the tape, don't tear it. And make sure it's fucking straight). Often these details are not intuitive. Sometimes they might not even make sense, but you keep your head down and do it anyways. 

You are expected to fail and make mistakes, but each time you do you have to work three times as hard to gain back even the tiniest amount of respect because, after all, you should have done it correctly the first time. After that you can bet your superiors will keep an even closer eye on you, interrupting you at every step of the recipe in a slightly resentful manner because doing so takes valuable time away from working on their own projects. It makes you nervous, and even more prone to making mistakes. If you don't show improvement quickly people will start to treat you like you're mentally handicapped. And once you've reached that level of disappointment it's almost impossible to redeem yourself.

Depending on the size of the kitchen, you will probably interact with people from various levels of the hierarchy. They will give you conflicting instructions on how to do the same task, and then get upset with you when it proves impossible to follow all said conflicting instructions. This leads to a small group discussion in which no one will ever concede that they were wrong, but everyone (at least on the surface) eventually agrees on a new, "right" way. Write that down. Got it? Good.

The recipe will probably change again the next time you make it anyways because chef's mind switches faster than the direction of the wind. He will react to your inability to keep up with all the modifications (which, by the way, exist solely in his brain because he's said none of them out loud) with mild surprise, as if to say, "But why aren't you a mindreader?"

It is better to ask questions, even stupid ones - especially stupid ones, than to end up wasting product.

You can never stand still. Your hands must always be doing something. When in doubt, clean.

Being on time is late. Being early pisses off some sous chefs who need their alone time before the whole crew arrives.

Unless the restaurant is part of a hotel, you can expect to work more than 40 hours a week, and not get paid. In exchange for your labor you receive instruction, mentorship, connections and, of course, the recipes. If that doesn't sit will with you, there's the door. Your friends and family will probably not understand why you are subjecting yourself to this. It's easiest just to tell them that you have an internship and let them draw their own conclusions, which undoubtedly involve circumstances much more humane than they actually are.

Some days you will want to cry; if not you aren't being pushed enough. Other days and sleepless nights, you will question your life choices. You may even want to quit, but deep down you know that no matter how hard the work is, you will be so much better when you come out the other side. In fact, you already have gotten better.

Eventually, hopefully, you start to thrive. You live for those moments when chef or a sous tells you that you did a good job; when your coworkers appreciate rather than tolerate your presence. And for all the random, spontaneous times, like excavating the garbage room at 2am in your service whites and watching your sous karate kick a mannequin down the hall, that probably would never sound funny when describing it to someone who wasn't there, but you were, and you remember. Those are all the things that make the stage worth it.

 

In Pursuit of the Stars

On October 21st, Michelin released its list of restaurants that had earned the coveted star rating for 2016. Despite having maintained one star for the past several years, the restaurant where I work was nowhere to be found. Confusion amongst us cooks was rampant, especially since - just a few days earlier - the executive chef had brandished the unmarked black envelope containing the red invitation to the gala celebration and lifted a toast to all our hard work. But, alas, we found out the hard way that the letter is not proof of making the cut; the only way to know for certain that your restaurant has earned the distinction of the Michelin star (or stars) is to see its name in the official press release.

Just a day after the new Michelin guide dropped, the John Wells' film Burnt, starring Bradley Cooper, made its debut in New York City. Despite a strong cast and autumn release date, indicators of an attempted awards season run, the dramedy centered on a recovering drug addict and world-class chef making one last stand to prove that he's still got what it takes has been almost universally panned. Sure, the writing is noticeably weak at times, but this pales in comparison to everything that the film gets right.

The elegant cinematography is on par with that on which the acclaimed Netflix series Chef's Table is built - closeups of the deft work of skilled hands, and ingredients whose freshness practically drips through the screen. A lot of screen time focuses on presentation and plating, which, while paramount in distinguishing fine dining from other restaurants, probably bores casual viewers removed from the industry. And while Jon Favreau's Chef did a decent job portraying the camaraderie that exists in the kitchen (and not to mention scored well with critics), Burnt takes it a step further, offering full immersion into the sweat, adrenaline and pressure that pervades work on a hot line. Such is the attention to detail that the co-worker whom I watched the film with exclaimed, "They even showed a cook labeling something! You never see that in food movies."

The overall effectiveness of the film is slightly muted by its reliance on archetypal characters (addict seeking redemption, ex-convict, femme fatale, etc.), but it still has plenty to say about the current state of the industry. Chef Adam's (Cooper) initial skepticism of, and later reliance on, sous vide (a method so ubiquitous it’s invading amateur cooks' homes) is a running joke. While cross-cutting between Adam's kitchen and that of his rival Reece’s (Matthew Rhys) exposes an even more contentious divide between "old-school" cooking and molecular gastronomy. (I've never even been close to setting foot in El Bulli, but I'd guess that Reece's laboratory-like kitchen was inspired by it). The front-of-house's obsession with identifying potential Michelin inspectors may be laughable to some, but I can confirm that, at establishments frequented by such clients, we take it quite seriously.

Losing a star, or failing to get one when you think you deserve it, is not sad or unfortunate; it's tragic - devastating even. I’ll never forget the look on one sous chef’s face after the executive chef confirmed the news. (Granted, it was bound to be more poignant for him since the press release also stated that his previous place of employment had earned their second star). Particularly at the fine dining level, cooks are driven almost entirely by passion. Why else would we work ridiculous hours that most people deem impossible in environments rife with verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse for such little pay? It's not a job; it's a a livelihood.

Some critics thought that vying for a three-star rating was a weak premise. Certainly, many cooks and chefs would not openly admit that they strive for the accolades and the prestige of a Michelin rating, but the titles do carry a lot of weight that inspires them to work harder, longer and better. Others took issue that there was only one female cook, meaning that the film utterly fails the Bechdel test. But unfortunately, as a female in the restaurant industry, had there been more than one female cook it would have seemed grossly unrealistic. In this way, perhaps Burnt is merely an instance in which critics are unable to extrapolate beyond the limits of their own personal experience; fine dining or no, anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen would give the film more merit than what it has received.

Or, the film might be better interpreted as allegory. In food and in cinema, no one ever sets out to create a bad product; rather the creatives in both industries keep plugging away and hoping that people will notice, because success is so tightly coupled with public opinion and critical reception. Yet what of the tastemakers who critique the restaurants and the movies? As a writer specializing in film, I’m constantly aware of the homogeneity of opinion - particularly at festivals, where journalists seemingly compete with each other to get their iteration of the collective consensus online first. We parade around as independent thinkers, with our badges bearing the name of our respective media outlets, but come press time no one wants to be the lone dissenter. Perhaps the culinary world is not so different.  

Today marks the last day that we can call ourselves a one-star Michelin restaurant; once January rolls around, the rankings proclaimed back in October go into effect and the Michelin inspectors start doing the rounds again, gathering evidence for the 2017 guide. 

“What does it mean?” asked a younger cook, as part of a confused flurry of texts in the aftermath of the press release.

It’s dangerous to define oneself by a title like the chefs in Burnt, whose ambition threatens to swallow them whole. And even though the film is a dramatization of the industry, the truth remains that adversity draws the distinction between those who are driven and those who merely want to ride on others’ apron strings. Some cooks have already left or are planning to leave our kitchen, not because of the loss of the star, per se, but simply that turnover in restaurants is inevitable. I plan to stick around, however, so that in ten months’ time when the 2017 guide comes out, my co-workers and I will be celebrating.

Just a Job?

In a similar vein to how techies squirm watching the satirical Silicon Valley (or just avoid it altogether), there are times when I find its HBO sibling, Girls, difficult to stomach. Now that I'm navigating post-grad life, many of the characters' predicaments feel a touch too relatable so, for a comedy, I don't find myself laughing that much. Perhaps when I've achieved more distance from my early twenties self, I'll be able to replay events (both the show's and my own) and see the humor in them. But for now, many scenes are #toosoon and #tooreal.

Case in point: season three, when protagonist and aspiring writer Hannah lands a full-time job with GQ's "advertorial" department. The plum office, free snacks and sizable paycheck are all sparkly distractions from the fact that her team exists to produce revenue-generating fodder thinly disguised as passable content. Hannah initially considers herself above her colleagues; she being a "true" writer who knows that the magazine stint is just a means to financially support her real artistic endeavors. Then one day, break time chit chat shatters the illusion she has of her co-workers.

Rather than the schmucks she took them for, they all turn out to have MFAs and/or prestigious literary prizes. They, too, took the position with the men's glossy thinking that it was only temporary, and yet years later they're still there and haven't published anything that they're proud of.

"You guys write, right?" says Hannah, slowly realizing that the job she thought was the express ticket to a stable lifestyle is also a creative death sentence.

***

Sometimes when I take stock of the things that make the F&B industry simultaneously exhilarating and torturous (by normal people's standards) - the hours, the physicality, the fringe personality types that the work attracts (e.g. felons), the medieval hierarchy imbued with tacit rules like cursing as much as possible in a given sentence, I feel far removed from where I started out as a kid who liked baking treats from scratch and sharing them with people.

People ask me if I still bake at home, and the short answer is no, not really. It's well-documented that chefs hate cooking in their off-hours (when you do something for 9+ hours straight it's hard to muster the motivation to continue in your free time). But also in a professional kitchen we are spoiled by nice equipment, storage rooms bursting with quality ingredients and produce and, most importantly, stewards who wash the tools as we use them. Most home kitchens feel like a downgrade after being spoiled in comparison.

I love what I do (most of the time) and can't really imagine doing anything else, but I do wonder if I've become numbed, both literally and figuratively. 

"Want to taste this?" asked a line cook, handing me a skewer of succulent grilled chicken during a lull at the beginning of service.

"I think it's too salty but I'm not sure. My palate is totally fucked."

My own tolerance for sugar and sweet things has noticeably declined since I started working in the industry. As cooks we are encouraged and expected to constantly taste our products, but quite often these days I'm no longer quite sure what I'm looking for when I do.

***

I occasionally fantasize about what might happen if I tried writing full-time. Would I still show up to film festivals and round table interviews with the same wide-eyed anticipation that I currently have? Or would I be bored and jaded like a majority of the professionals I encounter at these events? 

They say that if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life. But as far as my experience goes, it's not that simple.

To Bisous or Not to Bisous

In one of our first cultural lessons in French class we learned that the customary greeting is to give bisous - kisses on both cheeks (although its really more like brushing cheeks while making a kissing noise). The textbook also stated that it's perfectly normal for guys to give each other bisous but in reality I've witnessed this occur very few times; guys generally shake hands with each other while bisous are reserved for guys greeting girls or girls greeting other girls.

For the longest time I was in the habit of only giving bisous when the other person initiated it. On the one hand it is a very French thing to do and seeing as I am not French, I would personally feel like a huge tool if I made it everyday practice. Furthermore my impression of non-French people who do this is that it's a cheap trick in an attempt to come off as being sophisticated. (I don't care how many times you've been to Paris Fashion Week, Rachel Zoe, but the fact remains that you are très Américaine). But more importantly I don't particularly like being touched. Think about it. Someone else's face brushing right up against yours, especially if it's a person you just met seconds ago for the first time? For me it's way too intimate. Handshakes, hugs or fist bumps seem more proper, but maybe that's just me.

It used to be that when I recognized someone going in for the bisous I would sort of stiffen, like bracing myself for contact. Thanks to my internship, though, I've learned to adapt.

Whenever anyone entered the kitchen the first thing they did was systematically say, "Bonjour," to each and every person. For 99% of people this also involved bisous, with the one exception being the founder of the pastry shop; he shook your hand, or your wrist if you were in the middle of something and your hands were dirty. And this is perhaps what I found most surprising: that people - even those whom you hadn't officially been introduced to - would stand next to you and wait until you paused, turned, and said hello. This could be uncomfortable at times because certain individuals at work went a little heavy on the cologne/after-shave/whatever scents guys use.

My etiquette was terrible, apparently, because I should have been making this a habit since day one. It's not that I considered myself exempt from exchanging pleasantries, but as a lowly intern I figured no one would really notice or care if I didn't. But one morning after pecking one of my friendlier co-workers on both cheeks, she told me I ought to go around and personally greet everyone. Naturally I was only told this about halfway through my time there. No wonder no one talked to me at lunch; they all probably thought I was antisocial.

Personal issues aside, this custom seemed quite counterintuitive in an environment that placed such great emphasis on speed and productivity but, well, French people. In America I'm pretty sure making eye contact and uttering a simple, "Hey," even from across the room, would suffice in most situations.

The one positive of bisous as far as I've experienced is that some people full on kiss you on the cheek. So if it's say, a hot guy, you can pretend that the gesture isn't completely platonic. Trivial, I know, but a girl can dream, right?