On Being a Chef, a Woman, and the Need for Safe Spaces

Every once in a while I come across an article on the internet about female chefs. A quick Google search for ‘female chef’ pulls up sparse results, usually a year or more between each entry. If you search ‘female pastry chef’ (more relevant to me because I AM one), you find still less. The articles that DO come up are very often written about a chef or chefs, but not by the chef.

Some background on me: I am a pastry chef – currently the assistant to the head pastry chef of where I work, and that’s not a bad place to be. I have also worked on occasion as a line cook, a prep cook, and off and on in the past I’ve worked as a short-order cook. My current position is a high-impact job, and I have to maintain some level of health and fitness to do it. I went to school for baking and pastry, and this is my life’s work, I love it, and I can’t picture myself happy doing anything else.  However, I had to take a lot of crap in a relatively short space of time to get to where I am now. I speak here as a chef who is also a woman, in order to impart my experience (not the worst, all told), but hopefully also, to start a dialogue among other women chefs as well.

My last week of school, the instructor leading our year group asked all the women in our class to stay behind in order to speak to us about being a woman in the industry. She told us, among other things, to work twice as hard as you feel like, to not be afraid of being tough with other employees, and that it was important to never cry, to not lose it at work, no matter what. To lose it was to lose, and that was that. That we’d picked an even tougher niche in the industry, that some people would expect us to make ‘sweet and fluffy’ confections because we WERE women – and that if we really wanted it, not to be discouraged by that. With that parting advice (along with some words about always having a good supply of pain reliever and tampons) she sent us home, and later set us out into the world already filled with the expectation that being a woman in a professional kitchen was going to be hard.

I imagine she gives that talk to all her end-course female students, because she’s right.

My first official job, I worked in a bakery in a hotel:

~an extremely offensive, officious older customer took up almost an hour of my time telling me about how beautiful women are, how charming he found Southern beauties, while I did my best to ignore him, who later went and asked to speak to my manager in private to find out if I was available to serve him later that evening. It was such a ridiculous, horrendous situation, my boss was speechless, I was appalled, disgusted, and yet I didn’t know what to do, how to react in a situation like this. Even in the deep, sexist, red south it was completely beyond my scope of comprehension.

~I found out one day (by luck or by accident) that some of my male co-workers were discussing my intelligence in relation to the pitch of my voice (high), my stature (short), and my physical… appearance (curvy).

~a manager interrupted a conversation between myself and two co-workers as we were talking about Mc Donalds cheese burgers to go on a long and incredibly homophobic (and confusing AND pointless) tirade about why he would never again eat at Mc Donalds. I was so offended I registered a complaint, which nothing was done about. Worse still, one of the co-workers I’d been talking to was so uncomfortable afterward he felt he could never come out to the rest of our co-workers.

My second job, having left the first one because of the economic downturn, was worse. I took what I could get, working at a small, private country club kitchen, usually by myself on a busy shift schedule.

~at one point my boss decided to cut my hours back because he was upset that I was not an available fuck for him. He cut me back to one day a week, on the slowest day of the week (this would be the point where I quit the job).

~a customer felt he payed me the highest compliment by telling me he hoped I was a good, Christian girl, and that I would get married and have children because he KNEW I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else if I wasn’t taking real good care of someone – this after I asked him if he wanted a refill on his sweet tea. It was a slow afternoon, and after he left I closed up the building and cried in the bathroom a while.

These are just a few experiences that come to mind.

By this point I was exhausted and depressed. I’d hit a creative roadblock – I couldn’t really remember why I’d wanted to cook in the first place, and I didn’t feel like I was really doing anything relevant. That’s when I landed my most recent job – I applied for a serving position at another facility on the property, the head chef of one of the kitchens saw my resume on another manager’s desk, he was just getting ready to put out an add for the position, and he ended up hiring me. I was nervous, and very lucky.

There are a lot of problems (many related to the low country/coastal attitudes in the service industry) with the kitchen I work in now. There’s plenty of sexism, classism, and racism handed out, though not as bad as other professional kitchens in the area. But if there is one saving grace (and there are a few, but this is the most important one here), it’s that my supervisor, the pastry chef I work with, has provided me with a quiet, safe space where over the past year I have been able to rediscover my love for cooking and explore the bounds of my creativity. No inappropriate questions. No unnecessary touching or unwanted gestures of affection. Just someone to share a space with, to work in. We work in silence most days, once in a while to pause and ask the other a question, or bounce ideas back off one another. A calm and focused routine, steady work, always something to be done – bread to bake, a comparison of two new recipes of chocolate torte to see who has a better one, and always the steady rhythmic pounding as one of us rolls out dough on the large wooden bench. I don’t just leave my job behind when I clock out for the day, I continually work on new recipes, ideas, reinterpretations of older recipes, until I come in the next day with some new ideas to focus on, and a place to try them out. Working in a space where I feel secure and safe makes the work I do more creative, valuable, and meaningful.

Now to the point. We need safe spaces, places where women – chefs, pastry chefs, cooks, bakers, molecular gastronomists, whatever – can work and create in an environment where they feel safe and secure. Where they know that what they do in the kitchen has meaning, is valuable, and where creative spirit and ingenuity isn’t squashed under hazing, unwanted attention and generally appalling conditions.  I wish I’d been able to start work in an environment like this, I could have skipped over the months of therapy and a few years of depression. I wish I didn’t feel the need to be guarded with co-workers, because I work with some genuinely nice people – and I don’t want other aspiring chefs to continue to have to wade through all the sexist, racist muck that is so much of this industry, especially not alone.

We can’t build safe spaces singularly – we need to build a community, a network of women chefs who aren’t afraid to speak about their experiences, to guide other young women, to be mentors and to foster safe, creative spaces. We can’t talk about which women chefs inspire us the most if we don’t know who they are – but if we build a community, we can inspire one another, and encourage our up-and-coming. We are overdue to talk, write, shout to be heard – we have to communicate to the rest of the world who we are and what we do – we just can’t be silent when we do it. So talk – what are your experiences, inspirations, expectations?

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