Archive for the ‘Food politics’ Category

The Girl in the Kitchen

crab cakes

Crab cakes on the flat top

Our industry has changed a lot in the last twenty years.  With the popularity of chefs increasing and the public’s demand for better food growing as a result of the advent of primetime food television, restaurants and other foodservice providers have been require to step up our game.  But while the number of women in the kitchen is on the rise, we are still, in many cases, considered “that girl”, rather than as a member of the team.  Now I am the first to say I am not a traditional feminist, and I don’t want any sort of special treatment or consideration based on my gender.  I do, however, want to be on the team, rather than just some sort of mascot relegated to the sidelines.

I started cooking professionally (for money) when I was still in high school.  My mother owned a diner in a small northern California town, and the entire family, with the exception of my five-year-old baby sister, worked in the business.  My middle sister loved working the counter and the dining room, visiting with the customers, while I preferred the kitchen.  I started in the back room, on early morning prep, and quickly moved to the grill/griddle.  My parents were liberal Californians, and so I was raised to believe that gender didn’t matter, as long as you could do the job as expected.  I spent my weekends and evenings after school cranking out burgers, sandwiches and a weekly special family dinner menu.  Dancing between the big flat top and the deep fryer, I developed a love of the adrenaline high of a busy service, allowing my mother to manager the all-important cash register.

When I went off to college, it was understood that I would pursue an academic degree, and get a “real” job, but I knew the best way to earn extra money was to work in a restaurant.  I was just seventeen, and hit my first “wall”.  “…I’m sorry honey, we can’t have you in the kitchen until after you are eighteen…wouldn’t you rather be a waitress?”  This was especially frustrating since I saw boys my age doing vegetable prep and in the dish room.  I waited impatiently until my eighteenth birthday, and much to my surprise, it made little difference.  I was still lectured on how the kitchen was a hot and dangerous place, and girls were too delicate for the work.  I finally managed to talk the manager of a local sandwich shop into hiring me for morning prep, since no one else seemed to be interested in that job, preferring the more visible sandwich maker positions.  I showed up every morning at 6:00AM, cranked up the stove and the stereo and settled into six hours of slicing meats and vegetables, preparing the chili, steaming the roast beef and pastrami and setting up the twelve sandwich stations for the lunch shift.  Afternoons, I went to classes, pursuing a degree in Business.  I’d board the bus at 1:00P to ride downtown to campus, reeking of pastrami and clutching my free sandwich, which would become my dinner between afternoon and night classes.  I worked that job for two years, until one day, I came in to find that they had hired a “chef” that would take over the prep duties.  Of course he was a guy, barely older than I was, but wore a white cotton floppy hat and a dirty white chef coat, instead of my red cotton apron and baseball cap.  After that, I stayed out of the kitchen, instead working as a waitress and eventually cocktail waitress as I tried to finish school.  The money was better, and I was working nights and weekends instead of weekday mornings, so my social life improved greatly, but I still missed the kitchen.

I returned to the kitchen many years later, after twenty years of working as a sales and marketing manager in the high tech industry.  I was burned out on the high stress world of being on call 24/7, when your beeper (and later your cell phone) would ring at 4:00AM with that all important call from a client in Asia.  I started working for a catering company, first as a sales manager, then as operations manager.  Part of our training was to work in all of the departments of the company, and I found myself clocking in at 4:00AM with the baker to work my first shift of my kitchen training.  I fell right back into it like I had never left.  I eventually opened my own catering company, and decided to pursue some traditional culinary education at a local community college and eventually at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley.

In almost every one of my classes, I was one of two or three women.  My age and gender meant that most of the young men, who were line cooks and junior sous chefs decided that I was a “housewife” and did not belong in the class.  Either that or I should be what they called a “pastry bunny”, a derisive term for the pony-tailed female pastry program students on the other side of the huge kitchen hall.  I remember going to my Skills II instructor, well-known chef instructor that trained in the Swiss and German hotel system.  I lamented that my kitchen lab partner treated me like his personal prep cook, relegating me to slicing vegetables while he worked the hot line.  I didn’t want to be the complainer, just wanting to be treated as a team member and peer, but I was paying good money to learn, and I refused to be denied the opportunity to cook.  Chef Dieter advised me to ignore what my partner was doing and choose which recipes I wanted to prepare; to come to class with my prep lists written, showing up before breakfast so as to get a head start and be deep in my work by the time my so-called partner showed up to class.  I did, and on the last day of the class, when my partner ended up in the weeds, I stepped in and finished his saute work while he struggled to plate his dishes in time for service.

Even online, we seem to be the butt of all the jokes.  In one forum recently, I disagreed with a male chef’s viewpoint on a situation, and found myself berated in a most graphic manner in a rant that went on to discuss bodily fluids and my relative value as a breeding sow.  Thankfully, the group administrators (all men, by the way) stepped up and booted the troll out of the group.  I am grateful for the level playing field of many of the online groups that I am a member of, as the sharing of inspiration and our work is a valuable tool in developing as a chef and culinary professional.  Give us a chance to contribute, and the experience is richer for everyone.

It seems like every kitchen I show up to work in, the first assumption is that I should really be on pastry, or on the salad line.  “Girls” aren’t strong enough, aren’t tough enough, take teasing too seriously, won’t stand up to the rigors of working the line.  “Girls” aren’t fast enough, can’t take a joke, get their feelings hurt or will let you down.  Let me tell you something, “boys”, girls are tougher than you think.  “Girls” don’t quit, show up when we are expected to, aren’t afraid to ask questions, tell dirtier jokes than some of you do.  Hell, many of us even understand and speak Spanish.  It’s always a moment when I am working away, listening to the chatter around me, and inadvertently laugh at the punch line of some particularly vile joke, without even realizing everyone is speaking  Spanish.  The first time it happened, everyone just stopped dead in their tracks, the kitchen was silent, and every eye was on the “girl”.  I have to admit, I loved the shock value.  I also loved beating the guys at their own game.

Women in the kitchen don’t have to make themselves into men in order to fit in.  I am not saying that the image of the tough “grill bitch” female chef is wrong.  It’s just that like male chefs, female chefs come in all shapes, sizes and dispositions.  As an executive chef today, with a largely female kitchen, I run a tough shift, but yet there is little shouting, and little or no abuse commonly found in male dominated kitchens.  We crank out some amazing food under challenging circumstances, as many of our kitchens are in the field, literally in a field.  There is still nothing like the rush of a challenging service, a plate up of multiple courses for 100+ guests, and when we are done, there is still a lot of butt-slapping, high-fiving, and a few well deserved “f’ yes’s!”  As more women rise up the ranks, the dynamic of the kitchens will shift.  No, we won’t make everyone stop swearing, we won’t make all of you wear pink aprons.  Instead, we will hold the entire team equally accountable to the success or failure of service, just like our male peers.  Like I said earlier, we don’t want to be special, we just want to be on the team, to suit up, show up, and kill it at service every time.  So next time you are tempted to segregate the “girl” in your kitchen to the back room, give her a chance to show you what she’s made of.  I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Post by Julia Conway on April 18th, 2018

Bashed by Bon Appetit

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit’s Wedding Guide, April 2015

It’s hard to know where to start when you open your longtime favorite food magazine and see your profession denigrated in the first page of editorial content!  Bon Appetit’s April edition promises  “We Do, A food lover’s guide to weddings” and starts off with the questionable moniker, “…the BA guide to the tastiest, booziest, most fun wedding ever…”  Booziest?  Seriously?  But it does not stop there, as they go on to advise “Lose the caterer.”

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit’s bar and appetizer recommendations, April 2015

Turning to the next page (yes, I’ll admit, the headline got me), they go into the details of how to (1) serve “assemble-it-yourself drinks on vintage trays”, (2) “DIY the Cocktail-Hour Food” and (3)“supplement (the bars) with passed cocktails” (by whom, if you lose the caterer?).

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit says “roast a pig”

Turning the page, we find the directive to roast a whole pig; “…hire a BBQ place to take care of the whole thing….” (isn’t that catering, just asking?),  and then “The best way to make sure your caterer doesn’t serve bone-dry chicken:  Don’t hire one.”  They recommend you contact your favorite trendy restaurant or celebrity chef to prepare the food at your wedding.

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit’s cake and “late night” ideas

As we head into the last page, we encounter suggestions to “Go Ahead, Skip the Cake”, hire a food truck (we’ll get into that later in the discussion) and to “Put your least responsible friend in charge of (the) late night (bar).  It’ll be more memorable than the parts of the night you planned to a T” accompanied with the idea that shots of Wild Turkey are the way to cap off the celebration.  Oooh, aren’t we hip and cool now?

After I took a walk around the office to cool down, I tried to assess exactly which of these irresponsible and inflammatory sound bites I found the most offensive.  I have been a chef and caterer as my full time profession for over fifteen years now, and go to a great deal of trouble to see that my clients get exciting, fun and great tasting food at their wedding celebrations.  Yes, we have all had our experiences with rubber banquet chicken breasts (that’s another post entirely, here) and cold plates of surf and turf, but caterers today are putting out some amazing fresh and innovative food.  Many of us have seen the inside and outside of the restaurant trade before choosing catering as our creative avenue.  I have hired my share of talented restaurant chefs, only to be told what we, as caterers do, is “way too difficult and stressful.”  Caterers are experts at bringing the restaurant to wherever the client chooses, be it an open field, a windy beach, a redwood forest or the middle of a vineyard.  We serve hundreds of plates AT THE SAME TIME rather than in succession as is done in even the busiest restaurant kitchen.  We oversee a myriad of details and timelines to ensure that the entire event flows smoothly and successfully.

BA Vegas Event

Bon Appetit’s Vegas Uncork’d

It is ironic that the advertisement placed in the middle of this section is for Bon Appetit’s Vegas Uncork’d food and wine event, featuring three celebrity chefs.  One of the best-kept secrets of these tasting events is who actually prepares the food…..yes, it is caterers!  While client confidentiality prevents us from naming names, we are the ones who prepare the hundreds of tasting plates, peel the potatoes, mince the onion, set everything up in those little glass prep bowls and even prepare the “hero plate” that is shown and photographed.  The celebrity chef or, in some cases magazine food editor slips on their pristine chef’s jacket and steps out in front of the cheering crowd.  We are the ones who scour every grocery store for 100 miles to find the out-of-season stone fruit to duplicate the tart that the food editor created almost a year before for the companion article.  We are the ones who take the celebrity chef’s intricate and multi-step restaurant recipes and prep every single component for their fifteen minutes of fame at the demo stage.  If you have attended a luncheon or dinner at a charity event, supposedly prepared by a celebrity “guest” chef, it is almost certainly your local caterer who is back in the kitchen tent, pumping out the food while the guest of honor is schmoozing with the VIP guests.

Unless you are a Hollywood star or a Silicon Valley mogul, it is unlikely that your favorite trendy restaurant chef will be in the kitchen at your wedding celebration, even if that is who you are paying.  Who do you think restaurant chefs hire to prepare the food at their own weddings?  They hire caterers, who know how to manage the logistics and timing so that the hot food is served hot and the cold food is served cold.

Oh, and yes, all the DIY articles on the internet cannot prepare you for the shock of preparing and serving the large amounts of food required to feed 200 guests, much less keep it safe to consume without the benefit of a fully equipped restaurant kitchen on site.  How many of your friends will want to bus, scrape and wash the mountains of dishes generated by groups of this size, much less sort and box the glassware?  These are all things that your caterer does as a matter of course.

And let’s address the Food Truck myth.  Do you want your 200 guests standing in line at the truck to order their food, being served by 1-2 people taking orders through a small window, and handing each order over to the 1-2 people working the line in the truck?  When a caterer plates a meal for a wedding celebration, they usually have 4+ people plating on the line for each group of 50 guests, and this does not take into consideration the kitchen staff preparing or finishing the food and the service staff (one for every 15-20 guests) carrying the plates to the table.  Yes, food trucks are fun and the food is tasty, trendy and not your usual banquet menu, but if you consider that it takes even three minutes for each order for two x 200 guests, that is 300 minutes , which would equal….almost  5 hours to feed everyone.  Food trucks are great when not everyone wants to eat at the same time, which is why they work so well for festivals.  Not the case at a wedding celebration, where dinner is often squeezed into an hour, maybe two in the context of the complete event.

We can’t forget what this article focuses on the most; the bar.  The same “rule of lines” applies at the bar, which is why the article even goes on to recommend lots of bar staff.  How many of your friends want to be bartenders when they are a guest at your wedding?  Maybe, for about five minutes, or exactly as long as it takes to get themselves a drink.  Professional caterers hire professional bar staff, trained and tested to ensure safe and sane alcohol service.  If you take Bon Appetite’s advice to put your “least responsible friend” in charge of pouring drinks, who is going to be responsible when one of your guests drives off the road on the way back to the hotel from your rustic barn venue?

At the end of this rant, I guess what I’d like to get across is that catering is a profession.  We are not just bored housewives that are throwing parties out of our home kitchens.  As an aspiring caterer, I worked long hours as a server, prep cook and setup person at events.  I pursued a culinary education not only in restaurant kitchens, but at the Culinary Institute of America.  I worked for another caterer in all facets of the operation before considering opening my own company.  I have a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and continue to educate myself in the areas of marketing, sales, customer service and accounting and finance.  Our company is licensed, carries liability insurance, we pay taxes and subject ourselves to numerous necessary regulations for food and beverage safety.  I continue to educate myself on food and event trends, attend industry conferences, belong to professional associations and network with others in our industry.  Every catering company owner and chef that I know takes their work seriously, as it is a passion for many of us.

After almost 40 years as a loyal subscriber and reader of Bon Appetit, I will be cancelling my subscription.  But more than that, I will continue to advocate for my chosen profession and all the hard working people who put in the tireless hours to make sure that our clients’ special day is just that, special.  I guess I’m just not hip enough to appreciate the snarky editorial style of today’s Bon Appetit.  I do plan to vote with my pocketbook, and hope you will do so as well.  Had the magazine taken the time to do an in-depth review of wedding catering, and offer realistic alternatives to the reader, this sort of feedback might have been easier to swallow.  However, this piece smacks of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind.  Toss out a few gossipy bits, don’t support it with real research, and laugh your way to the bank.  I count quite a few food writers and editors among my friends, and we are all equally dismayed at that state of food journalism today.  Bon Appetit, I hope you wake up one day and look in the mirror, and see what a shadow of your former self you have become.

Post by Julia Conway on April 2nd, 2015