This piece comes from our new partnership with Whole Foods Confessions.
When you’re a young female chef, the last thing anyone expects you to be is good at your job.
The last thing anyone is ready to do is take you seriously, pay you a wage that’s commensurate with your skills/training/experience, and treat you with respect.
Sound dramatic? This phenomenon is manifested- in big, blatant ways and small, subtle but still problematic ways- by the interactions that our bosses, co-workers and customers have with us. Here are some of the most common interactions that fill my everyday work life and are shared by so many female chefs across the country:
Quotes from Customers
“These recipes are great! Where do you get them?”
“Thank you! They’re my own that I developed.”
“ YOU made these recipes?!?”
“I have a question about how this was made. Can I speak to the chef who made this?”
“Sure, that’s me.”
“…Really? Are you sure?”
(From Amanda Cohen, Chef-Owner of Dirt Candy: “The first few years of Dirt Candy, people would come to the kitchen to pay their compliments to the chef and they would stand next to my station and I could tell they were looking for a man. They’d dismiss me because I’m not a man. They’d dismiss my line cook because she was usually not a man. Finally, they’d settle on my dishwasher. I can’t tell you how many Dirt Candy customers in those first few years sincerely and graciously thanked my very confused dishwasher for their meal. The few times when I’d have a guy on my line, I’d see these same customers’ eyes light up. They would ignore the 38-year-old chef standing next to them, running the kitchen, and give manly handshakes to a 22-year-old kid working the line, telling him about what a great staff he has.”)
“I thought you were just the little kitchen helper!”
When I was training as a line cook, I worked for a little culinary operation run by one of the best chefs around. The sous-chef at the time, Andy, was a creepy drunk loser who couldn’t even re-heat soup without burning it (he was too busy trying to holler at all the female employees, including myself.) For the big Saturday dinners, Andy would make one small item (badly) and contribute nothing else. The executive chef fired him soon after I was hired and I moved up to Andy’s place as sous-chef. I worked my ass off, worked my way up to equal partnership with the executive chef and have been co-running the little business ever since.
Andy ended up getting fired from more jobs, lauding himself as a published master poet while writing abominable poems on the internet, and eventually murdering and decapitating someone (I shit you not!)Yet to this day, Andy gets vastly more credit and recognition than I do when people talk about the business. As he sits in prison, he gets credit for food that I made long after he was gone.
Quotes From Co-Workers
“What are you making?”
“Maple-coconut chia pudding.”
“Do you want me to show you how to make that?”
“I’m good, thanks.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yeah, thanks. It’s my recipe, actually.”
When you’re a female chef, there will always be people offering to mansplain your own recipes to you. People would mansplain how to boil water to me if I let them. But I don’t because fuck that shit.
“Hey baby, you want me to turn off that burner for you? I think your onions are done.”
“No thanks, I need to have them fully caramelized for this dish.”
“Are you sure? I think they don’t need to cook anymore.”
“Yeah, I’ve made this dish as my Wednesday special every week for the past seven months, and it’s my own recipe, so I’m good. But thanks.”
(I leave for 30 seconds to get another ingredient from the back.)
“Hey baby I turned off that burner for you.”
“In the future, could you please not do that? I really did need those onions to keep cooking.”
“Do you need help lifting that?”
“No thanks, I got it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah it’s fine, thanks.”
“You shouldn’t be lifting that by yourself.”
“Really, I’m fine.”
“You know, you should really ask for help if you need help.”
“Yeah I agree, and I do ask for help when I need it. But I don’t need help right now.”
Then the person then gets frustrated and takes the interaction as a personal affront to his masculinity, and walks away with a huffy sigh.
OR he stays right there, all up in my space, and stares at me like a creep as I proceed to lift the object.
OR he disregards what I’ve just said and takes the heavy object out of my hands.
(“He” could be a lot of different people; I have this interaction regularly with most of my male co-workers.)
I get it. I’m a tiny little vegan woman- 5’4” on a good day and under 110lbs. I’m also strong as fuck, which takes people by surprise. And that’s fine I guess. You look at me, see that I’m all petite and shit, watch me carry two 40lb cases of wine up two flights of stairs at a time, watch me do it ten more times. gasp gasp surprise surprise she’s not a weakling after all, and the fact is established and we move on. In theory.
For the record, I have no problem asking for help when I need it. There have been two or three instances in this past year when something has truly been too heavy for me or I’ve been sick or injured and I’ve asked for help carrying it. I know and respect my body’s limitations and I use them to determine whether or not I need help. You know, like common sense would suggest.
I’ve been working at this job for a while now. Every one of my co-workers has seen me carrying heavy objects with no difficulty, because I do it every day. Bad at reaching things, good at carrying things- this is old news. Yet every. Single. Time. Some co-worker argues with me about how I can’t or shouldn’t carry that object myself. Even if they’re just offering help, they do so in a pushy way that doesn’t accept an answer of “Thanks for offering, but I’m good.” Offering help is great in and of itself, but if the person says “No thanks”, you need to respect that. Even in non-sexual contexts, consent still matters.
Can I say that again? Even in non-sexual contexts, consent still matters. Because consent is when you’re treating someone enough like a human to make sure they’re down with the experiences you’re enacting on them. Big experiences and small experiences. All can be humanizing or dehumanizing.
Because of my male co-workers constantly insisting on Saving The Day™ as I go to lift heavy objects, it ends up taking me at least three times as long to get the object from point A to point B. Just leaving me alone to do my job would save me so much time and effort. Moreover, it would be respectful. I’m so tired of listening to my co-workers insist that they know the limitations and capabilities of my body better than I do. They don’t. You don’t. You’re not being a gentleman by insisting that you do. It is not my responsibility to pretend to be physically incapable in order to make anyone feel more masculine.
“I like you better with your hair down.”
“Are you a Muslim?” (with a negative inflection so as to invoke that being a Muslim is a bad thing)
I wear a headscarf every day at work. In my religious/cultural background, wearing a headscarf sends the message “I am not here to get hit on or to look pretty for you. I’m a whole person, and I ask to be treated and respected as such. I seek to be taken seriously and not objectified or reduced to my physical appearance.” Even when the dudes I work with don’t pick up on that message, covering my head still feels like an empowering claim to ownership over my physicality. It also happens to be the only effective way for me to keep my long, uncooperative hair completely out of the way/out of people’s food while I’m cooking. I’m not a Muslim; I’m a Jew. My headscarf is a Jewish tichel rather than an Islamic hijab. But- just a reminder- if I were a Muslim, there would be nothing wrong with that. #Islamophobia101
For the first week or so at this job, I wore my hair in a braid because I was told I was only allowed to wear my work-issued baseball cap and no other head coverings. (Bullshit- my headscarf is protected by law. My bosses have tried to informally challenge that, unsuccessfully.) So when I went from a braid to a headscarf, the men I work with had very vocal reactions. I’m not necessarily trying to look ugly (and I know my tichel game is on point), but dudes come up and say “I think you look prettier with your hair down” and I’m like “Exactly.”
“Oh, did you still need that?”
After taking something out of my goddamn hands without asking or saying anything. Not out of conflict or because they needed it, but just because they thought they should take it and didn’t bother to check with me first in any way.
It’s like being back in preschool where one kid takes the glue stick out of the other kid’s hands because they haven’t learned to ask permission yet. Except this time, it’s with grown-ass adults. Again. Consent. It always matters. The lack thereof is degrading, even in small doses.
FROM THREE FEET AWAY.
Quotes from Bosses Part 1: What they say outright
This fall when I was going for a promotion, I sat down for due diligence with my boss. He was a pretty uninvolved boss so he’d never seen me work before. When I told him I was going for the promotion, he said:
“I don’t think this is the position for you. You’re too quiet and mild-mannered.”
He was not being sarcastic. All I wanted to say was “MOTHERFUCKER HAVE YOU MET ME?”
I eventually got the promotion because I was the only qualified person who applied. My workload and responsibilities were doubled; I went from working on the line cooking other people’s recipes to running my own station, writing my own menus and using/developing my own recipes, supervising another employee. I was not, however, given a raise to go along with those extra responsibilities. I was still paid the hourly rate for a starting cook with no experience, which I wasn’t even at the point when I was initially hired. I had years of serious chef experience and training. My boss told me he wasn’t allowed to give me a raise while I was still so new to the company. A few months later, a male chef my age got hired (at a higher starting wage even though we had about the same training/experience background.) He was also promoted within the same amount of time I was (and for the record, he’s actually very quiet and mild-mannered.) But in his case, he immediately got the raise.
“Could we talk about this a bit more in detail? This change and the lack of prior communication about it bring up a lot of unprecedented logistical issues.”
“I can see that you’re upset…I need you to just calm down.”
“Please recognize that I am calm. There are just a lot of logistical questions I have to figure out now. If you’d prefer to talk about this later, that’s fine. But either now or later, we need to have a discussion about this to create a game plan. I need to figure out some solutions to make this unexpected change feasible.”
“I just don’t think I can talk with you while you’re being so emotional.”
This dialogue happens when my boss has just blindsided me with a big (non-punitive) decision that directly involves me and carries a major problematic impact on my job…but that no one thought to inform me of/involve me in until the last minute. Let’s say, for example, the boss completely changes my job from running a daily pop-up station to heading production for two buffet stations. He doesn’t ask me; he tells me. He doesn’t let me know ahead of time or give me the training and information necessary for me to transition to the new role; he just says “I’m going to have you do this now and not that anymore. I want the menus submitted within the next couple hours.” So I keep my shit together, maintain calm in my voice and body language, and initiate this conversation by asking for more of the information I need. The boss, feeling like it’s a confrontation and not wanting to be feel called out on his shitty leadership, tries to dismiss me by painting me as emotionally over-reactive. He dismisses me this way because it’s an easy card to play: gender stereotypes characterize women as being prone to hysteria/over-reacting/excessive emotionality/etc. This is called gaslighting. Meanwhile, I’m sitting there calmly just waiting to have a rational and productive conversation about logistics.
Bosses part 2: What they say don’t say outright
“So…I haven’t forgotten. I know you’re way overdue for those three different raises you were promised, and I know you’ve earned them, but I have no intention of giving them to you. Don’t you dare try to bring it up or I’ll threaten to fire you.”
“Hey, you know that guy we just hired who’s brand new and so out to lunch that he literally forgot to put the chickpeas in the chickpea salad (even when you gave him a recipe and a bowl of chickpeas)? Yeah. We know he’s so spacey and useless that he’s actually a safety hazard. We know he accidentally opens oven doors in people’s faces and stands obtusely in the way of people with sharp objects. But he’s getting paid more than you, and we see nothing wrong with that.”
“You know that guy who’s been sexually harassing you and all the other young women to the point that you feel unsafe and uncomfortable at work? Who coincidentally did the same thing to all the women at each of his previous jobs? We know you filed a complaint, and we have no intention of doing anything about it. I know you’ve talked to me about it in detail multiple times, as have other women he’s harassed. We suppose you’re telling the truth and company protocol states we have to fire him, but we won’t. Even though he’s not that great a cook and he made up half his resume and wasn’t voted on the team. Oh, and he gets paid more than you too. Get used to it.”
“We won’t have a woman working on the line so we’ll make our female cooks work front of house instead…even if they don’t have any front of house skills and therefore feel uncomfortable and incapable of doing the job. If they complain about it or voice their discomfort, we’ll get them in trouble.”
“We see that you fit all the qualifications we need for a specific leadership position, so we want you to take that position. But we don’t want to pay you for it, so we’ll demand that you do the full job by yourself but say that you were just an “assistant.”
“If you ever show any trace of emotion, I’ll publicly discredit you and say you are too hysterical or emotional and don’t have a tough enough skin for this business. If you get cut or burned and I catch you shedding a tear because of the pain, you better believe I’ll say you were “having an emotional outburst” and ridicule you for it. Even if the reason you got cut or burned was because I demanded that you do something unsafe. I won’t do this to your male co-workers, even when they admittedly are quite emotional.”
“If you or the other girls give me any trouble, I’ll refuse to send your W-2s when tax season rolls around.”
“So the executive chef. We know it’s unanimously acknowledged that he ironically can’t cook to save his life. We know he’s so insufferable that he makes everyone’s job more difficult and life more miserable. I don’t even like him; he’s a lazy, obnoxious piece of shit. But you better believe he’ll keep his job, his high pay rate and his prestigious title despite all of it. But you? I’m watching you.”
These are just some examples of the swamp of day-to-day bullshit that female chefs have to wade through just to do our jobs each day. I can only imagine how much more of this bullshit I’d get if I were also trans, non-binary gendered, a person of color or a person with a disability. It’s a tough business and we’ve got tough skins- we work crazy hours without breaks, subsist on coffee and criticism alone, etc- just like anyone else who survives in the kitchen universe. We truly are just as capable. I shouldn’t have to remind anyone of that.
In an industry that values freedom and creativity and can empower marginalized voices by circumventing typical career pathways, there’s no excuse for any of this shit. But there’s a lot of ground left to cover before we’re actually treated as equals. If you can be a creative revolutionary contributing to the evolution of edible flower garnishes or wooden plank plates, don’t tell me you can’t cosign some intersectional anti-oppression praxis for equality in the kitchen.