Diner: Woman in the Kitchen

Or How I Became One of the Boys

May 7, 2003 at 2:06 pm

"A chef! That's not a career, kitten; it's not even a real job for a girl. How many female chefs have you ever heard of?"

It was 1974 and I had called my father to tell him I was being offered a training position in New York with a retired pastry chef willing to teach me the craft as a favor to mutual friends who were ready to open a restaurant and saw a future in a wide-eyed 18-year-old.

I didn't begrudge my dad his narrow vision: He grew up in an era when the words "woman" and "duty" were synonymous with the scent of roasted chicken and freshly baked bread. His mother was renowned as a fabulous cook throughout the family, hand-stretching her own strudel dough over the kitchen table and rolling it up, plumped with apples prepared from the tree in her small backyard. But it seemed to my young, blossoming feminism that my grandfather, father and uncles expected a certain level of competence in the kitchen and occasionally belched their approval, while grandmother flawlessly prepped, cooked, served and cleaned up five-course meals.

I, on the other hand, saw my grandmother as a powerful, creative force and held her talents in the highest esteem. The kitchen was her art studio, command post and meditation room. Even though she was keenly aware of the role she had chosen for herself, she would whisper to me, her adoring shadow, "You can be more than this, Donna, anything you want to be, anything!

Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't."

It was this solemn and secret advice supported by the bra-less voices of the '60s and '70s that responded to my father's ignorance. "I'm going to New York, Dad, to study with Monsieur Bernard, then to art school. I'm going to become a chef and an artist."

Several months later, my father's words buzzed annoyingly in my head as I looked around the vast kitchen of a famous restaurant: I was the only female present.

"Would ya' get a load of this, Nick. There's a woman in the kitchen!" one of the line cooks practically hooted when I showed up, dressed in chef whites, for my first day of internship as a pastry assistant. Even though I had just completed many hours studying pastry arts under the auspices of a male chef, it didn't occur to me that I would be an anomaly in the kitchen. After all, most of my training was spent at the apron of a female who could perform every job in a kitchen simultaneously with equal grace and skill.

But I was just beginning to discover — as the standard-issue, checked cook's pants that were cut for no-ass-and-hips men would continuously remind me for years to come — the restaurant kitchen was traditionally fueled by testosterone. It came down to dollars instead of duty. Historically, men had been the wage earners. Standing in that kitchen amid the snickers stoked my determination: I was going to prove my father wrong, and more importantly, my grandmother right. I was ready to swim into the fire. I was unprepared for how hot it would get.

I liken the male cooks of the restaurant kitchens in my early years to the crew of a pirate ship. All swarthiness and swagger, they were a raucous, fearless bunch of dysfunctional fringe-dwellers who drank like fish, often on the job, and screwed their way through the staff, also often on the job. I had never seen anything like it. They even looked the role of pirates wearing bandanas, earrings, ponytails, tattoos, numerous scars and blood-spattered aprons. They wielded big, razor-sharp knives with gleefully wicked style, and they spoke in language profane enough to make any other boy's club blush. With a Rock & Roll disregard for conventional morality; they were buccaneers of the restaurant vessel, total bad asses.

I was equally repulsed and mesmerized. This was Culinary Elementary, and these were my teachers. The Feminine Mystique wouldn't do much for me in this environment; I had to find some footing that would keep me from walking the plank.

If they referred to me at all, the cooks called me "cupcake" most of the time as in, "Come on over here, cupcake, and give me some of your sugar." They worked me like a Sherpa in some of the most grueling conditions: extreme heat for 17 hours daily, up to my armpits in pots and pans when the latest "disher" would walk off the job, standing in the freezer wearing a winter scarf, hat and mittens to pipe whipped cream on the mousse because the kitchen was too hot.

I quickly learned speed, endurance, how to be enterprising and crafty, how to work well with others (if only not to be the constant butt of practical jokes) and loads of sophomoric humor. I no longer flinched at the who's-got-the-biggest-balls chatter, and I earned considerable respect for the sleeper holds I learned in Aikido and willingly used if needed. Despite my Steinem-esque stride into the kitchen, like it or not, I became part of the boys club whose manifesto was unmistakably "Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way." I did it all.

I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but one day I had become a captain of the ship.

Except for a few names like James Beard, Julia Child, Gaston Lenotre and The Galloping Gourmet, I was unaware of many celebrity chefs in the mid '70s. We had not yet welcomed "foodies," goat cheese, balsamic vinegar, portabella mushrooms and boutique coffees, beers or martinis into American culinary culture. In my particular field of pastries, chocolate mousse reigned as the most exotic dessert. I attribute the change to Wolfgang Puck, the chef who made gourmet pizzas and his Los Angeles restaurant, Spago, household words. The once back-of-the-house blue-collar chef was now cleaned up and out front, a star. There were also female chefs like Alice Waters and pastry chef Lindsey Shere of Chez Panisse who quietly claimed their own celestial turf.

Food magazines grew from the long-standing Gourmet to whole newsstand sections of How-To-Cook-Pacific Rim-Italian-Light-And-Be-A-Wine-Expert periodicals. Architecture married food as appetizers, entrées and desserts reached Tower of Babel heights. Tables were booked and sold out a month or two in advance at the latest "hot" restaurant, often launched by one signature dish. Kitchens were being staffed with gold-medal graduates of culinary programs who gave the term "high-maintenance" new meaning. Like the medical profession, everyone became a specialist. Suddenly the thuggish assortment of cooks were wearing jackets with Chinese knots and embroidered names.

Somewhere in that entire whirlwind, I grew from "dessert girl" to "executive pastry chef." The art and science of pastry was worthy of its own church and, unexpectedly, I was thrust into one of the pulpits. I didn't think I was doing anything so differently: I was still making some of the desserts I had made for years. But now there were interviews and recipe requests from major magazines, high profile culinary events and award ceremonies.

More importantly to me, I was teaching — passing on to others the knowledge and tools that had been given to me by my many teachers: my grandmother, of course, and Monsieur Bernard. But it was a bunch of scalawags and highwaymen who taught me valuable lessons which I carried throughout my career as a chef, and out of the kitchen since: Be sharp and be amused.

Ironically, it was the boys club that showed me I really could do anything. ©