Don’t Kiss the Cook Feature #2: Tracy Chabala

How long have you been cooking/baking?

I started cooking professionally in 2011. Prior to this I never did much cooking, although I did like to bake and come up with clever dessert ideas. I’ve worked for a total of four years in the business, and have taken time off to write at various times.

How many restaurants have cooked/baked in?

I’ve worked in a total of seven kitchens.

At present, how many female cooks/chefs/bakers do you work with?

I’ve just left the kitchen again to focus on my writing. At my last job at Little Dom’s, my direct boss was female (she’s the head pastry chef), and I worked with two other females. There are way more females on pastry in any given kitchen. Outside of the pastry team, there were no girls cooking in the kitchen.

When was the first time you remember being treated differently than your male coworkers?

I think from the first day at my first kitchen at Whole Foods I noticed that men treated me differently. The first guy who trained me spoke down to me in a way that both surprised me and pissed me off. Another guy did the same on the same day, and I found myself getting very stubborn and refusing to be bossed around by dudes who weren’t my boss. I became bitchy, which I normally never have to do on the job. I grew determined to kick ass just to show them who’s boss, that I could hold my own.

Has anyone spoken to you or about you in a derogatory way?

Yes. One time at Water Grill, the most male kitchen I’ve ever worked in, I asked the chef if I could be transferred to the hot line (I started on prep, then worked pantry, and he put me on pastry, definitely because I’m a chick), and the entire kitchen burst into laughter. I was infuriated. There were no women on hot line.

What’s the worst thing someone has ever said or done to you in the kitchen?

One cook asked me in the walk-in how often I fuck my boyfriend, and another one told me he was going to “tear my ass up” when he got mad at me. The same dude smacked my ass with a vacuum-sealed rib eye, right in front of the head chef who did nothing. Another time, at Spago, the pastry sous told me I needed to use my brain because I wasn’t. She was female, but as I detail below, the culture of that place is very toxic and this comes from the old-school leadership of Wolfgang Puck.

When and how do you feel valued as a woman in the kitchen?

I didn’t start feeling valued by the entire kitchen until I moved from Water Grill to Suzanne Goin’s Lucques. That restaurant is owned by a James Beard winning chef, and her business partner is also a woman. I found the entire place had a softer energy. It was still a very demanding workplace, but I felt respected as a woman. There were no instances I can recall where I felt sexually harassed. Of course, the cooks would draw dicks and balls on stuff at times, but that is very mild bad behavior, and totally typical.

Do you perceive differences in how men and women cook?

I don’t think I see differences in how men and women cook as much as I see differences in how they treat fellow cooks and subordinates. At the same time, restaurants under younger chefs or female chefs have a totally different vibe. Water Grill’s kitchen, which had a Michelin star at one point, historically operated under head chefs who were very old school, all brigade de cuisine, and they opened in the early 1990’s. The same holds for Spago, where I worked for a brief spell, and it was so toxic. Though the head pastry chef was female, the culture ran as Wolfgang Puck wanted it to run. It was a brutal job with lots of talking down to one another. There is a big contrast between these spots and newer spots with younger millennial chefs, even if they’re male. The chefs and owners set the tone. I have heard gnarly stuff about the kitchen of Jon and Vinny—the guys from Animal and Son of a Gun—from a female chef, though. I think the way both women and men behave has to do with their training and the kitchens they are “raised” in. I always resisted the militarism and the mean way of speaking to people. It seemed senseless. I have found that those with higher education are kinder and have a much greater understanding of how people learn differently and how yelling at people doesn’t always get the job done. At my last job the head chef who was male was far more mean than my pastry chef boss. So there does seem to be a difference there. Women seem to have an easier time admitting mistakes and asking for help as well.

Why do you think a woman’s place is in the kitchen?

If we’re talking about the kitchen in the home, that is just due to the need to break up tasks. Historically, men have been the breadwinners so women had the task of buying food and preparing the meals.

As far as the professional kitchen goes, it’s so ironic that women have to work twice as hard (in my experience in male-dominated kitchens) to get rewarded as opposed to women, given women are the ones who have done all the domestic cooking over the years, that this has historically been their job. It makes zero sense. So, I think women make great chefs, even though they’re rarely acknowledged in the media, because they are effective leaders who don’t seem to need to “break people” to motivate them to put out good food and do their best. Again, it comes down to the vibe of each kitchen, and I think the brigade de cuisine is a perfect example of an antiquated patriarchal hierarchy that is not necessary in 2018. It was formulated after the French military, and has no place in modern businesses. I’d say women are quicker to spot out the myopia of sticking to this old school think.

Please share your worst/best story as a woman working in back of the house.

I was super pissed when my two buddies at Water Grill got raises and I didn’t. We all started work around the same time, and I threw an absolute fit about it. Not only did they not give me a raise, they had actually increased my responsibilities by moving me to pastry and pantry (up from prep) with no compensation. The managers and chef immediately gave me a raise when I confronted them about it.

The best story was when, during a busy Friday night, on hot apps, I absolutely killed it despite all the guys thinking I’d go down at Water Grill. I was talked down to and patronized loads there, and it really grated me, so I was extra determined to “show them”. This meant that when we had ten or twelve tops come in for fixed menu parties, we had to bust out stuff fast. I remember pleasing the chef when I got everything out right on time. I felt vindicated. The head chef was definitely not a problem for me there, despite him coming from the same lineage as Gordon Ramsey (he worked under Marco Pierre White). It was the younger guys that gave me so much shit.

 

Tracy is a freelance writer for various publications including Broadly, LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times and The AfterParty Group 

Don’t Kiss the Cook Feature #1: Theresa Headen

How long have you been cooking/baking?

Catering officially since 2016

How many restaurants have cooked/baked in?

I never worked in restaurants prior to opening my business with my husband, Charles Headen. I learned how to do this myself. I read a lot of books about plating, how to run a restaurant, how best to be efficient and good business practices. Cooking is not in my background. My mom remembers me playing “restaurant” with my sisters, pretending to charge them for the food that I cooked!

Do you own your own restaurant?

We own our own catering business: Elegant Cuizines (Don’t forget it’s spelled with a “z”!). Right now, we cook out of a commercial kitchen. Soon we will be opening up a new business location at 1110 West Broad Street (off of Patterson), where it will be primarily take-out.

When was the first time you remember being treated differently than your male coworkers?

People always assume Charles is the chef. When clients introduce themselves to us, they shake Charles’ hand and pay their compliments to the chef. I let them know that I am the chef—Charles is more the Front of the House person. That’s a HUGE assumption!

Has anyone spoken to you or about you in a derogatory way?

Not really. But customers can be rude in retail services in general.

When and how do you feel valued as a woman in the kitchen?

I always feel valued at work. It’s because I love and enjoy it. I create spontaneous recipes and always bring God into my work. I say to him, “Ok God, what are we gonna cook today?” I make my own jerk spices, which is cost-effective. I merge American food flavors with African flavor influences.

Do you perceive differences in how men and women cook?

Women maybe cook with a little more passion.

Why do you think a woman’s place is in the kitchen?

A woman’s place isn’t just in the back of the house–it’s all over. We have two girls who I am raising to be strong. Being a chef and a mom is not easy but being a chef with kids is really hard. Compared to the family structure of the 50’s, I am considered a “bad wife” because things get messy and I can’t always have the house clean and have the kids ready for school or bed. But we know we can’t do any of this without God. Charles and I both have chef’s coats with bible verses on the backs, reminding us to keep God at the center of our business and our lives. The bible verse on the back of my chef’s coat is 1 Corinthians 2:9 “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” Charles has 1 Corinthians 16:13 on his coat: “Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous and be strong.”

Theresa and Charles Headen own and operate

Elegant Cuizines @ Henrico, VA 23229 // For service:1-804-241-6695

Don’t Kiss The Cook

I grew up watching my father cook. He used to wear this apron that said, “Have you hugged an Episcopalian today?” But I could have sworn he had one that also said, “Kiss the Cook.” Either way, he got plenty of hugs and kisses from his daughters and wife.

The history behind our culture’s blend of romanticism and wit using this phrase dates back to the 1800’s. In fact, the Italians may have coined the original verbiage. True to form, there is drama and intrigue at its core:

The first written evidence of the phrase “kiss the cook” is in an Italian-English dictionary by Giuseppe Marco Antonio Baretti, published posthumously in 1813. He translates the phrase Chi tardi arriva male alloggia as, “they that come too late must kiss the cook.”

It took me no time to come up with the title for my new interview series, “Don’t Kiss the Cook.” In fact, I could add onto that sentiment with the following: 1. Don’t touch the cook 2. Don’t leer at the cook 3. Don’t give back-handed compliments to the cook 4. Don’t untie the cook’s apron 5. Don’t condescend to speak to the cook 6. Don’t underestimate the cook. Once I spent roughly 30 minutes in my first prep cook role, I could see that the differences between male and female cooks were staggering. Or should I say, the differences in how women are received in the kitchen bares an acute and vastly different weight than her male counterparts. It might be more accurate to veer away from the sordid love roots of “Kiss the Cook” when describing how it actually feels to be a women in the kitchen:

But what may have had the biggest impact didn’t come until 1989 on Married…With Children when Al Bundy—played by Ed O’Neill— wore an apron that said, “Kiss the Cook – Kill the Wife” during the season four premiere of the popular FOX sitcom.

I have been told in no uncertain terms that I should be handled with Kid Gloves–that I should be treated as though I were someone’s “girlfriend who you don’t have sex with,” in order to keep the peace between males and females in the kitchen. That is but one avenue out of many where I could have accepted the way things have always been done; how “it’s just restaurants.” But I didn’t and I won’t.

That is why I am introducing a new series to this blog. I’d like to keep my Higher Power at the center of all of this, but I’d also like to tell the truth of how things really are. I have sent out the call to countless women who have answered, emphatically. We are but few in professional kitchens, but we are mighty. That said, you’ve heard enough from me for now.

My first featured interview is with a woman I love and respect. She is someone my sister and I went to high school with and continue to keep in touch with today. She is a beautiful person and amazingly talented executive chef. Without further ado, I bring you Theresa…

Featured image (original photo), courtesy of Kate Spade (Rest In Peace)

Surface Tension

I was never “good” at science. With one exception–biology, sophomore year. I think it was something about the exotic vocabulary and pictures that piqued my interest. Ironically, two years ago I became an ad hoc / extemporaneous long-term substitute teacher for the sciences, ranging from biology and chemistry to physics and astronomy.  Thank God it snowed for the first four days I was supposed to start teaching. I played catch-up the entire time I was snowed in. The last time I studied that hard was sixteen years ago. Note: I was 16 years old sixteen years ago. I just got a little faint.

I still have some work saved from High School. On paper and floppy discs! In one big folder, I tucked away several essays from my English AP classes and notes from bio. The diagrams are labeled and colored with such exquisite detail that it almost seems as if a science person drew them. When I moved back home in 2015, I exhumed my notes and found one section totally dedicated to surface tension. Its definition stuck with me then, and continues to float around in my mind now–

Water molecules want to cling to each other. At the surface, however, there are fewer water molecules to cling to since there is air above (thus, no water molecules). This results in a stronger bond between those molecules that actually do come in contact with one another, and a layer of strongly bonded water. This surface layer (held together by surface tension) creates a considerable barrier between the atmosphere and the water. In fact, other than mercury, water has the greatest surface tension of any liquid.

The more you know.

What gets me about the concept of surface tension is that it can be personified, which is probably why so much of bio makes sense to me. We all know the feelings associated with water metaphors: learning to tread water; feeling like your drowning in paperwork; singing in the rain, when it rains it pours. But surface tension never gets its due in our vernacular. Today I felt so many feelings that the “floodgates opened,” which of course means I cried. Again. But what followed, as is always my way, were the thought bubbles. Why is it so upsetting to be seen upset? How is it that in a very stressful work environment, the less I want to lean on other people the more I absolutely must?

How, I often ask myself, is it possible for other people to handle pressure at work? Why is no one else crying? The immediate answer to one of these questions is that dudes and ladies handle stress differently. The quota so far is for every one cry I have in a two week period, there are three nights where any one of my coworkers slams dishes, lashes out at a cook or decides not to show up for work. The odds are in neither party’s favor.

There are so few of us in the kitchen. We work anywhere from 50-80 hours a week, morning noon and night. We kind of have to work well together. It’s like being marooned on an island. We have to try not to cannibalize each other to survive (all due respect to the profession which, thankfully, requires us to know how to cook enough so that we don’t have to resort to such measures–emotionally or otherwise). Like water molecules, we have to stick together. But oh, the tension. God forbid someone walks into work with a sour mood. We all feel it. I often put a voice to this when it happens, which my coworkers do not appreciate. Conversely, when one or more of us is in great spirits, it can uplift the whole crew. I swear it makes the food taste better.

It’s like a pressure cooker. Everyone is exhausted. I have burns and cuts and aches that just keep happening. Yet it’s part of the deal. The physical burdens of the job are nothing compared to what it feels like to be a complete novice in a world where everyone else seems to know what they are doing. Not to mention the fact that I am hyper-sensitive/critical of any sideways glances, comments or insinuations about my femininity. For the most part, that’s a good thing. Recently a male coworker asked me what it felt like to be one of four females out of 20+ people working in the kitchen. I told him I was excited–it meant I had a front row seat to watch the Patriarchy crumble.

My bark is almost always more vicious than my bite.

What it actually feels like is quiet defeat. I can pitch a fit or become spontaneously combustible, but people still need to eat. SOMEONE NEEDS TO DOUBLE-BOIL THE FUCKING crème brûlée. That’s the way it goes.

As embarrassing as it has been to lose my shit on the regular, I am also relieved. Several of my kitchen mates remind me I am in the right place. Remember that guy, what’s his name, GORDON RAMSEY? That guy loses his shit for millions of dollars a year. He doesn’t cry; he yells.

Image result for gordon ramsay memes

He’s straight up abusive to his staff, but at least he has a sense of humor. I won’t even discuss the parity of positive public opinion on women cooks versus male cooks, but I think you can piece it together. Bad behavior gets rewarded. In any other profession, our vastly inappropriate conversations about literally anything would get us fired. But in the kitchen, you better buck up and shut up or someone will show you the door. It’s refreshing. It’s also brutal and infuriating. But in every job I’ve ever had, no one is above the law of proving themselves. And for someone as impatient, perfectionistic, judgmental and sensitive as I am, time is an imperious bully. I want to be good at everything before the oven timer for the bacon goes off first thing in the morning. Not going to happen.

So there is acceptance. And that surface tension. We are all little water molecules buoying each other up. I had a conversation with Bowie today about it. In recovery and otherwise, this is where I’ve been led. These coworkers and friends are my current spiritual teachers. I pray, as I have on many stressful days, to acknowledge to my Higher Power that I’d be crazy not to follow, follow where He leads.

There you have it: spirituality on the fly.

xo

 

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons