Mixtape Champs‘ recommended musical pairing for this post is:
He looked at me with disdain.
“You? You’re my new kitchen hand?” Chef threw his head back and laughed. But it was more of a scoff. A disappointed grunt, “Huh!”
I straightened up, trying to look taller than my five feet two inches. If I had wings I would’ve spread them. But I felt like a flea on a dog. No matter how much I puffed and strutted, I’d still be small.
But hey? Fleas bite don’t they? And are agile. Can be a pest in fact. I shuffled. Looked down at my new clogs and rubbed one against the back of a leg.
He thumbed with one filthy claw at two bulbous bags of potatoes leaning, waiting, in a corner.
“Over there. Peeled and cut for chips, by 4….. Think you can handle that, squirt?” It was 2pm. Chef sneered, and a couple of miserable, yellow teeth pushed their way over his lips as he grabbed a cigarette from an ashtray, and puffed madly on it until it sparked back into life and he drew in, loud and long.
“Handle that? Squirt? Watch me,” I mumbled as I dragged one bag up to a sink, found a peeler amongst the debris, and began.
So was my introduction to my life in kitchens. How I survived is still a mystery even to me, but somehow I took the lessons I learned and managed to open ten restaurants eventually, as owner/chef.
Commercial kitchens are still a man’s world. And women in kitchens mostly end up in pastry, desserts…. The ‘softer option’. Why? Well, we’re still trying to figure that out. But we are growing, in number, and not frightened.
Cheffing is hard work. The traditions are old and long. Breaking through the barriers is a task I’ve set myself, and now, no longer in commercial kitchens, but writing about it, I hope I can help chefs, male and female everywhere be respected. Get a better deal.
Let’s make this a platform for discussion: about the industry, the people in the industry, and what needs to happen to make it – and us – sustainable.
No longer “the weaker sex”, women as well as men around the world are fighting for recognition, and better conditions. The word ‘chef’ itself has male connotations, and the French origin simply means ‘chief’ or ‘boss’. It had nothing to do with cooking, but as is so often the case the word has been seconded by the hospitality industry and is now inextricably linked to kitchens and cooking.
My entry into being a head chef of my own restaurant, was wildly different from the norm. Having worked (read: ‘slogged’) in kitchens and pubs while a student teacher, I eventually followed my heart and opened my first restaurant. Teaching wasn’t for me, but cooking? And the strategic minefield that commercial cooking entails? For me, was easy.
Apprenticeship? Nil. Formal cooking college training? Nil. But eight years into my world of owner-chefdom, and a thousand cookbooks in my brain, the council allowed me to train apprentices. This was after a fairly stringent practical examination process, where it became obvious that I knew more than my examiner. To give him his due, he was happy to ask questions and learn!
It was then I found out that being a female boss in the kitchen came with its own issues and dilemmas. How to handle that? My usually very young (14 or 15 years old) apprentices started out fine, and eager. But it soon became apparent that when a little discipline was called for, or direction, the hackles on the back of their young necks would bristle. And they’d begin to treat me as if I were their mother: obeying orders they had no problem with, and stubbornly refusing others they did.
Being a female boss is tough. As long as latent misogyny lurks within those small male chests, a woman at the top will face difficulties no man ever has to deal with.
While this may be true in all industries, it is particularly blatant in hospitality. How to get these young men to separate ‘mother’ from ‘boss’? We don’t have a playbook to help and support chefs of either sex in the industry. Perhaps that’s something I could look into, and produce.
So now I throw the issue back to you, our readers, male and female. What are the issues that you’ve faced, and how did you deal with them? Are there lessons you’ve learnt in other industries that we can translate into the kitchen? We need to be proactive, a jump ahead, if we are ever to sidestep so many issues that can derail a chef’s career and life in the business.
Have a think, make a comment and have your say. We value your input, your skills and experiences. Let’s begin a long discussion that’s focused on solutions, and creating new pathways for the women and men who, for whatever reason, feel that no matter how hard or painful this career is, there is no other. And when it all comes together, head and heart unite to create, at times, moments of pure bliss.
Let me finish on another small story from my bank of memories.
It was into my third business, a gourmet delicatessen and big catering arm that supplied weddings, parties and pretty much anything where food was needed. With a big retail side in the deli, we were besieged with food supply salesmen on a daily basis. My husband at the time was mostly in the shop, but unfortunately had no aptitude for business, and we had reached a strong agreement that I had to approve all stock orders.
One morning, it was busy, and I was in the deli, rushing to get things together for a big wedding we were catering. A new, and eager salesman approached me.
“Hi love, where’s the boss?” he asked, looking around the shop. Pete was near the cold room, so instead of giving this moron a piece of my mind, I pointed to Pete.
“Ah! Course! There he is,” and he marched up to Pete, holding a folder and pen in his hands, ready for orders.
I watched with interest as the salesman started his spiel, Pete let him go on for a bit, then pointed back at me, saying something like, “You may as well save your time and go straight to the boss,” and I watched the young gun turn, look at me, and face fallen, he sauntered back.
He stood in front of me, and before I could say anything, he looked me up and down and capped his visit with, “ Well, I guess it’s you. And I must say you’re small for a tiger…”
If you feel like adding to the discussion post a comment, and if you want more stories, Chrissie’s memoirs have just launched, and naturally, are called: “Theatre of War: The Art of Running a Restaurant”. Get Volume I under your belt, and Volume II – guaranteed to give you an even wilder ride, out soon.