On Being the Only Woman in the Room

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If someone claims they are an experienced line cook, it is easy to test, because the skillset of a cook is a visible one. If you give someone a pile of shallots, either they can finely mince them, or they can’t. If you put someone in front of a full set of gas burners, either they can keep track of orders and flip saute pans, or they can’t. If you test someone in a kitchen on a hectic Saturday night, either they can keep their cool, or they can’t.

You cannot fake experience with physical skills, because the results are tangible. In many ways, I find line cooking similar to sports- there is a certain physicality to the skillset that needs to be executed, perfectly, over and over. I make that sauce the same way every day, I chop that squash into obsessively uniform pieces, and I season that steak consistently every time. I cook grouper perfectly on a slow Tuesday night when the staff is barebones and everyone is yawning, and I cook grouper perfectly on a hectic Saturday night when the kitchen is literally going up in flames. Great Chefs may argue over minute details and artistic vision, but when it comes to line cooking, the cook has either executed the dish exactly as shown, or has not.

The skills of a line cook are learned, for the most part, through sheer repetition and muscle memory. You cannot filet a fish well unless you have done it dozens of times. When you cook steaks enough, the timing becomes a physical intuition, and you start feeling in your gut when it is finished. And flipping saute pans is lot like juggling, requiring simple repetition. All of these skills are based more on experience than strength, or size, or any physical characteristic. The hours are long, the kitchen is hot, the work is physical, but more than anything, the work demands tenacity and mental discipline.

So why do I work with only dudes?

This ineloquent question comes back to me, again and again, as I navigate the restaurant world and my place in it. At its foundation, the skillset required to be a cook has no basis in gender stereotypes. But I only need to look to my grandmother and mother to know that the art of home cooking has been traditionally delegated as “women’s work”. And I only need to look into restaurant kitchens to see that professional cooking is statistically and culturally dominated by men.

Even as barriers to women in kitchens start to disappear with dated gender roles, the general machismo culture of the industry remains. It is undeniable that women are entering the workforce in larger numbers, but the industry’s “boys club” reputation continues. At a certain point, I’ve begun to wonder if it is this cultural momentum that has a larger influence than the actual demands of the job. Restaurants, especially in the fine dining segment of the industry, continue to be seen as men’s work, long after generations of women and men have proven that gender doesn’t dictate skill.

One other question comes back to me, again and again, too: how do you shift the momentum?

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