Coming out of the closet
I’m a chef and yes, a real girl
by Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2004)
It took me 10 years to consolidate the two. In an interview recently, I realized this, that I had been in denial, repressing my female self the whole time I was focused on my career as a chef.
Not that I was ever a girly girl by any means. In fact, I preferred water guns to dolls as a child, and always liked rough and tumble play. Playing tough, swearing profusely, flexing my muscles, and competition have always been up my alley. So, I took to the restaurant world quite well, and naturally set out to be one of the boys.
I unconsciously decided that this would be the best way to deal with this macho world. I would avoid bringing attention to the fact that I was a girl, while proving myself and earning their respect. I instinctively knew that I would have to work harder, not slip up or get emotional, not give them anything to hold against me, no fodder for tasteless jokes. I learnt that the safest, surest way to survive as a woman was to ignore the nonsense, the derrogatory, crude remarks, and be the bigger man. I would do longer hours, be as tough or tougher than them, take on extra tasks, take iniative, and lead the way. I read, read, read so as to know more than them, to have some kind of leverage, to gently and firmly take my place. I would bring in new ideas and ways of doing things, but always presented in such a way that shortly after, they might even think it was their own idea. I had to be strong, without threatening their masculinity. I would lug that sack of potatoes down a flight of stairs, fling pans across the room, and swear like a trucker. It was fun for a while, but happily, I slowly grew up, became comfortable and mellowed.
Now, I have the confidence and knowledge to freely be myself, a woman with all my particular strengths and weaknesses. And I also clearly see what qualities and positive dynamic women bring to the professional kitchen.
I know more than anyone that one cannot generalize too much along gender lines, that it is the individual that counts. However, I feel comfortable in saying that these qualities that are typically seen as feminine qualities, are indeed particularly suited to a professional kitchen.... Meticulousness, Organization, Cleanliness, A natural inclination for care-giving, the desire to please, Communication skills, Good common sense, Patience, Creativity, Aesthetic sense, Resilience...
All these attributes aside, the thing is... women are generally complex, even complicated, and this is how they can wreak havoc in a kitchen. I would have resented hearing a male chef say this years back, but my experience has backed up what the boys had been saying all along. Even Anne told me that she was looking for a male when she hired me, mostly to please her male sous-chefs who had had it up to there with whiney chicks. Thankfully, she didn’t follow through, as I know I never would either. Because we all secretly know that when the right woman is in her element, she rules... When it doesn’t work, it goes like this...
For women, often, their personal and emotional lives are of prime importance and take up a lot of space, so they have a harder time not bringing their baggage to work. They ask for more time off, call in sick more often. They are often more sensitive, take things more personally, and demand more fairness and logic in the way things work. Unfortunately, as it is in professional kitchens, fairness and logic are not always a priority, at least not in the moment. Girls often find the high pressure and brutal atmosphere hard on the morale, and always want to talk things out. Sometimes, that’s a necessary thing for the social health of the kitchen dynamic if it’s done at the end of the shift. Sometimes things need to be sorted out if you’re going to go through it all over again the next day. But sometimes, it’s just a pain in the ass. I kind of like the sport-like spirit of whatever happens in the rush stays in the rush, you have a drink together at the end of the night, and wash away all the troubles, without having to hash everything out. Afterall, at the end of the night, everyone is exhausted and its over, no hard feelings, ok?
I remember a couple of very complicated women in my brigade who never fit in, and wore me out with their constant haggling and need to talk every detail out every night. I put in so much energy to make it work to no avail; it never ended. I then went through a phase when I half joked about not hiring any more women (or anglos for that matter). Its true that some women are not cut out for the work; I don’t see anything wrong with saying that. It’s because they don’t really want it, which is fine, and many actually do opt out after a few years. But when the right woman does come along who is passionate, tough and talented, she is dynamite. Oh ya, I already said that.
The main reason there aren’t more women in high ranking chef positions is that they choose not to, not from a lack of skill or character, but because it doesn’t correspond to their life goals. The nature of the work with the long hours, working weekends and holidays, just doesn’t jive with an active social life. The hard physical work, the macho atmosphere, the hot, sticky, dirty environment, the hierarchial structure, are all things that don’t appeal to alot of women. Forget about what the heat and grease and water do to your skin and nails, what always wearing a hat does to your hair. And you don’t get to dress up every day in the latest fashions. My girlfriends always look at me in pity for those reasons. They wouldn’t be caught dead with hands that look like mine.
All the superficial stuff aside; most of all, women in the industry find it difficult to coordinate a chef’s job with kids and family. By the time a woman works her way up the ladder, gathering enough experience to get that executive chef job, her biological clock is ticking, and she chooses to shift to a morning pastry position, or catering or teaching, forgoing the crazy, workaholic life of a chef in exchange for a balanced family life.
That’s why there aren’t more top women chefs. They don’t want the job. Many have what it takes no doubt. The doors are open for those who want it, they just have to really want it.
The climate is changing though. I’ve seen huge change in my 10 years. And as more and more women enter professional kitchens, the less macho the atmosphere will be, the more fair and civil operations will be, and the less threatening it will be for other women who don’t necessarily want to play the boy.
All in all, I believe there are only good things ahead for girls and boys and the professional kitchen. Girly boys, and boyish girls, together, allowed to be the individuals they are, and the dedicated chefs they are, are already forging a new dynamic, as modern cuisine is rising to new heights.