Who Feeds the Cooks?

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Restaurant workers are working their hardest while the rest of the world is taking time off of work to eat. It’s a straightforward connection: as a restaurant cook, I work during conventional meal times. But the cooks, especially as exceptionally food-obsessed people, are hungry as well. So what do we eat?

Cooks are, obviously, surrounded by food all day. My job requires me to take small bites from my dishes each time I prepare them, checking for seasoning and flavor. I am constantly tasting ingredients and sauces. However, a hundred bites of lemony, garlicky fish broth do not constitute a satisfying meal when you are on your feet for a long shift.

Many restaurants serve a “family meal” just before the establishment opens, as a benefit for the staff and also to pragmatically prevent cooks from passing out in the kitchen heat. All restaurants have different standards and practices– some use low cost items from the menu (fried chicken, salads, etc), while others use family meal as a test run for new dishes, or an opportunity for individual cooks to show off their skill.

Many kitchens, however, also use family meal as an opportunity to cut down on food waste, and get rid of product that is too past its prime to serve to customers. At my current restaurant, one line cook is responsible for preparing the meal and serving it on time. On an average day, the family meal cook might arrive and find a small pile of ingredients on a shelf in the cooler to work with: a half quart of slightly limp green beans, the blanched potatoes from last weekend, five ounces of snapper, and a bit of an old vinaigrette.

Now, like Jesus during his sermon on the mount, transform that into a meal for fifteen to twenty people. Including your boss.

For many months at my restaurant, family meal was my responsibility. At first, I emphatically despised the role. Family meal adds a lot of pressure to an already tight kitchen prep schedule; you still have the normal responsibilities of all the other line cooks in addition to the staff meal. You have few, or low-quality, ingredients with which to work. And, you are preparing food for people who work with food professionally. In my first few weeks, I apprehensively served a lot of buttered pasta and garlic bread.

However, slowly, I started to evolve my own family meal style. I made a few bizarre (“original”) pastas, then discovered how to make a simple sauce taste good. I became more creative with my salads. I learned the art of soup d’anything, because my northern upbringing taught me that there is no better way to feed lots of people from few ingredients than hearty soup and dipping bread. I started to scheme the day before, doing extra work to prepare the healthiest, most comforting meal possible.

After a few months, I even started to enjoy making family meal. It was a daily challenge, looking at odds-and-ends ingredients and making a meal out of them. Sometimes the staff would request certain dishes, or there would be an unfamiliar ingredient, forcing me to do some culinary research. Other times, a classic dish would prompt my coworkers to reminisce about their family recipe for a certain soup, or the way their grandmother made turnip greens.

The more work I put into family meal, the more I felt a small release, a quiet return to what I love about cooking food in the first place. In my day-to-day kitchen responsibilities, I cook dishes from someone else’s menu, and then I watch the plate disappear into a dark dining room to some stranger’s table. I love cooking at the highest level, learning plates from different world cuisines and traditions. But when I cook family meal, I am cooking whatever I feel like, whatever creation I can with leftover ingredients. I have a unique challenge and a sliver of culinary freedom.

And I am cooking, with love and urgency, for the people around me, for the people who are working hard for you when you come into my restaurant. In the midst of a fine dining restaurant, preparing classic sauces and grand plates, I am also learning a thing or two about the homiest of cooking- a family meal.

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On Cooking and Baking

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In my restaurant’s kitchen, I cook the meat. I am responsible for searing and then perfectly roasting that ribeye steak, for crisping up the skin on the garlicky whole chicken, and for cooking your fish to a mouth-watering, flaky perfection. I work with a large wood fire, with heavy cast iron pans, and chunks of dead animals.

A few weeks ago, as I walked to our back cooler during prep time, a farmer, dropping off his wares, asked if I did the baking– the bread looked so good today! He was smiling kindly at me, sure I was the one responsible.

In the culinary world, bakers and cooks generally occupy different spaces. Strictly speaking, baking is a subset of cooking. The distinction is small: baking refers to using dry heat, like an oven, and, generally, leavening agents and flour. Because it so often involves desserts in addition to breads, it is frequently lumped together with sweet pastries.

Baking is an incredible art. It requires a deeper understanding of chemistry and a closer eye for detail than cooking. For me, the slim margin of error is intimidating; you cannot change dough once you’ve started the chemical reaction to turn it into bread. There is no last minute adjustment of the seasoning or sauce. The dough was either made and formed correctly, or it will not turn into that perfect loaf of bread. It requires detailed knowledge, an intense familiarity, and patience.

Most pastry chefs are women. This statistic starts from culinary school pastry courses and continues in restaurant kitchens. And most restaurant line cooks are men (even though many general culinary school programs have finally approached parity in enrollment). This farmer’s mistake is not groundless. As the only woman he sees in this kitchen, statistically, it is entirely likely that I baked the bread.

There are many explanations offered for why the art of baking is so dominated by women, while all other aspects of cooking are male-dominated. People point to the psychological appeal of measurements and precision, the differing work schedules, and the demands and pace of the job. I also think about the historical momentum– pastry has always been an afterthought, secondary to the main courses. The pay reflected baking’s ancillary position. These less prestigious jobs were available to women when they started working in professional kitchens, and the association has lingered.

Up until this point in my career, I’ve been studiously avoiding doing the baking. On some level, I’m afraid that once I cross into the pastry kitchen, I won’t be allowed back near the grill. I am already so frequently cornered– applying for line cook jobs, I am asked during the interview, “but… are you interested in pastry?” In kitchens, I’ve been given the dumpling-rolling prep, or cracker dough, because I have “the hands” for it (possible translation: delicate little lady fingers).

When I am mistaken for the baker, my first reaction is defensive: “I don’t bake, I cook meat!” Afraid to be cornered into a role based on my gender, I, too, fall into the trap of diminishing the importance of a baker. I rank baking as inferior to cooking, and, implicitly, the craft associated with women as inferior to the craft associated with men.

But baking and cooking are two genres of the same culinary art, intertwined and both essential to the other. Both demand discipline and experience, creativity and commitment. These crafts have become gendered through our social lens. But there is nothing inherent in these occupations that follows a gender stereotype divide. There is momentum in stereotypes and conventions, but there is also more flexibility in the industry than ever.

Maybe someday that farmer won’t be able to tell if I’m the baker or the butcher.