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 

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