Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Caroline Jann Dunbar is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Le Cordon Bleu. She currently works as a chef in Austin, Texas.
Let's just pretend for a second that you haven't grown an inch since seventh grade, can French-braid your hair while driving and have a higher pitched voice than some small children. The guy standing next to you? Well, he’s your age, graduated high school around the same time and has been cooking nearly as long. On paper, a fair opponent for the “Mystery Basket Test” which will determine who will earn the new line cook position. Oh, did I mention he’s about 6’5’’, probably twice your weight and his face is the only area of skin without a koi fish motif?
The Executive Chef lifts an eyebrow signaling that you and the other applicant can start. You and Bigfoot grab your knives and begin furiously preparing your mise en place. Moments later, you are speeding between all the stations trying to justify your technique and experience to the observing kitchen staff. Time’s up! Chef tastes, nods, tilts his head and declares that you did a “pretty good job.” Your competitor’s chicken, on the other hand, may technically be cooked, but squishes down too much at a light touch for anyone to risk a sample.
The line position has to be yours. Easy choice. Your dish was well executed and won’t give anyone stomach cramps later. Unfortunately, your food is not the only thing being judged.
I think it’s a fair observation to say more females cook at home than males. Many women love to get culinary creative in the privacy of their own abode and many men who don’t cook professionally can’t figure out scrambled eggs. Why is it that our culture accepts women as the Executive of the home kitchen, but much less often in the professional kitchen?
Professional kitchens are hot, crowded places with the opportunity for physical harm around every corner and on every surface. We all signed up for it, though.
As a friend and fellow female cook said lovingly, “our line is a pirate ship.” She was talking about the less-than-pristine language and jokes that accompany many restaurant kitchens, but I think this statement is also applicable to other aspects of the kitchen culture. There is the captain and the crew - no room or time for a princess.
“Stop being a girl about it.” My mother still tells me when I flake, take the easy way out or don’t speak up for myself. Not to say that professional cooks should lack femininity (I love me some pink lipstick), but if we want the same opportunities as men in the kitchen, we can’t be girls about it. No, we must be women.
In hindsight, I have contributed to the stereotype that women are not tough enough to survive the grueling conditions of the kitchen. In culinary school, I gladly stepped aside when a male classmate offered to lift the 25-pound box of canola oil off the shelf. I took a moment to relax while the men were put in charge of cleaning out the fryers.
Instead, I should have been looking for opportunities to prove my physical ability. My culinary ideas were respected and my dishes given high marks, but I know that my chef instructors put me and my female colleagues aside when thinking of how physically demanding a busy restaurant gets.
One young man in my final segment of culinary school was obviously a favorite of our chef instructor. His untried pride came off as arrogance to me - to my teacher, a strength. My peer’s goal of working at wd~50 enthralled the instructor and he gave his unreserved support to the goal.
When I asked the same instructor for a recommendation for a local Italian restaurant, he smiled, patted my shoulder and suggested a different place with less volume and notoriety. “You wouldn’t like it,” he explained, “It’s old school, darling.” He told me to try the smaller place because it would be a good learning environment. The instructor turned around and continued to congratulate my male counterpart on his ambition to go to New York.
Luckily, I had found a mentor in my protein-fabrication instructor who was himself a seasoned New York chef with the smarts not to disqualify my vision. He recommended me to the Italian restaurant.
While I practiced my pizza toss, I realized I was the only woman working the dinner shift. I began contemplating kitchen statistics while kneading the dough: Why aren’t there as many women cooking professionally as there are men? Is it because women don’t want to work the irregular hours? Give up their evening, weekends and holidays? Are women afraid of collecting scars on their hands instead of manicures? Maybe it’s the minimal pay and lack of health care benefits at most restaurants?
Obviously unable to relate fully with the women who won’t even try the profession, I’d like to address the females who’ve accepted culinary world - small paycheck, sharp knives, late nights and all. We’re out there. Why is it so shocking to see a lady in chef whites?
Ladies, you could try overcompensating for your femininity. You could try to distract the rest of the crew from the fact you have boobs. In my experience, it just doesn’t work. Don’t be a girl, but also don’t waste energy trying to be just like the rest of the men.
I tried to blend in with the all-male line team of a Spanish restaurant I worked at for a while - everything from regurgitating football trivia to showcasing my unusually grand knowledge of '80s metal bands. Despite my vigorous efforts to downplay my femininity, they were still stuck on my sex.
Poaching eggs seems like a straightforward task. Poaching 200 in an hour? A bit more complicated. The “big poach” at the Spanish place was a glamorous duty left for the garde manger to do before Sunday brunch. Two of us shared the prep duties for the weekend, which included handling more eggs in a day than most people will eat in their whole lifetime.
We found a rhythm to accomplishing our prep list, and, just as sliding the eggs in the poaching water became routine, the two of us became very efficient. After a few weeks of the groove, I took a weekend off to visit one of my brothers in California.
Upon my return to the restaurant, the weekend’s top joke floated down the line to my spot by the salads. “I dare you to guess who poached this?!” one of the cooks snickered. Another replied without looking up from his cutting board “Is it perfect? Caroline.”
Sweet! They finally accept me and appreciate my attention to detail, I thought to myself. I’d been trying to be one of the guys since I started, but no matter how many times I reassured them that I know plenty of ball jokes, there was an obvious lack of camaraderie.
I’m used to handling my two brothers and their teasing. Some kitchens I’ve been in are very much like a family ... or a fraternity. Break in the new kid and eventually he can drink beers in the parking lot with the other guys. Even as a seasoned younger sister, I couldn't find a method to break in this club of line cooks. After trying to fit in with no avail, I gave up. I decided to just get there early, work hard, learn their recipes and cook to the best of my ability.
The day I came back from vacation, I thought the guys had finally forgotten that I was a female and saw me just as a solid cook and member of the line team.
“We have to be on our best behavior when you’re around, Caroline,” the grill-cook admitted to me while I helped him skewer pork for his station. “We try not to swear too much or corrupt your innocent ears...” So, instead of seeing my skills as an asset, they saw me as someone stifling their usual banter.
Maybe I broke them in for the next lady who steps up to their line and they’ll take her more seriously. I’d like to think they appreciate me more in hindsight now that I’m not around to poach their eggs like a beast.
I believe that the ratio of males to females in the kitchen will someday even out, but perhaps we can accelerate this evolution by remembering how women sustain these gender roles. We can’t just blame the guys: we have to take some of the responsibility. Don’t over-apologize, don’t cry when your chef chews you out, keep composure when in the weeds and don’t shy away from responsibility. Expect respect, but steer clear of accepting chivalrous help when on the clock. Also, lift the heavy sh*t.
How can you men affect this culture and evolve our professional world? Don’t assume that the women who want to work alongside you are unwilling, incapable or less of an asset because of their stature or genteel appearance. Cooking is a beautiful profession but a tough business, and anyone willing to take it on as a career understands that it’s not going to be easy. Also, make everyone lift the heavy sh*t.
Why should an industry so in-tune with the harmony of flavors be happy with cooking in such an imbalanced, male-dominated work place? Just as a top-notch dining experience takes advantage of all senses, and a quality menu calls upon many techniques, our kitchens would benefit from more perspectives and an evolution of what is expected, accepted and typical.
I have confidence in the American kitchen. We all want to cook delicious, interesting dishes, right? Let’s not only introduce diners to food they should be eating but let’s redefine the “normal” composition of a professional kitchen staff while we’re at it.