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.

Drottningholm Palace

Another weekend after another four-day, fifty-plus hour work week. Praise be. Blessed be the fruit, etc. etc.

Last week two of my dearest college friends were in town, so I got to show off the city I've come to know and love, make good use of my employee discount with the restaurant group's wine and cocktail bars, and cross some things off my Stockholm bucket list. 

Drottningholm Palace, about 45 minutes away from the city by public transportation, is the main private residence of the Swedish royal family. Situated on the island Lovön, it's similar to Fontainebleau in size and scale. Geometric, Last Year at Marienbad-esque hedges and manicured gardens (including a random off-leash dog park) surround the mansion. And, on the mid-morning weekday that we visited, it was gloriously empty.

Visitors are allowed to wander some of the palace's oldest and grandest rooms, as well as the Chinese Pavilion (a birthday gift to a previous monarch from her husband), with the purchase of a ticket, but the vast gardens operate as a public park. The 18 kilometer Antiquities Trail runs along the border of the entire property; my friends expressed interest but I was secretly glad that we opted not to do that.

Photos below. Click to enlarge.

Rear view of the palace.

Visitor's entrance.

Reverse shot from visitor's entrance.

Grand staircase.

Library goals.

Chandelier detail.

Theater, separate from main palace.

Front view.

Chinese Pavilion exterior.

Chinese Pavilion interior.


The gardens are dotted with statues like this one.

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




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.