Where We Eat


Restaurants are everywhere- from the food stalls in Hanoi, to the walk-by pastry windows in Bucharest, to sidewalk cafes in New York. I’ve eaten at restaurants, on occasion, my entire life. With varying frequency, you probably have too. You’ve eaten food prepared for you by strangers at a mutually agreed-upon location, paying them in exchange for their labor and product. We all gotta eat. But, sometimes, we can’t always cook.

In the United States, people frequently refer to this business as the “restaurant industry”. To be clear: restaurants are an enormous industry, employing 10 percent of the American workforce and bringing in nearly $800 billion annually. The restaurant industry covers everything from the fastest food at McDonald’s to the slowest at Chez Panisse, and everything in between.

I work in a particular subset of the restaurant industry, the small corner of chef-owned and operated restaurants. I believe in the importance of these types of establishments: they are small, and independent, and they usually are the ones driving culinary experimentation and risk-taking.

But as immersed as I am in this subsection, I still like to eat my way through the entirety of the dining landscape. There is an entire ecosystem of establishments and enterprises designed to feed people. I love going to greasy diners, or stopping by to peer into food trucks, and I have been known to swing through many drive-through windows for fries. Every different kind of restaurant provides me with different experiences, and, certainly, food. It is worth asking ourselves: when we do not cook for ourselves, where do we go, and why?

The question is layered, and lies at intersections of class and culture and a multiplicity of identities. Feeding yourself, or your family, is an immensely personal act of consumption- when it is outsourced to a restaurant, what do we consider? Is it just price? Is it taste, or speed? Is it the feeling of the place, or familiarity of certain foods, or the convenience of a location? Is eating at a restaurant just an act of sustenance, or does it have a social function? Where do we go when we are tired, and where do we go to celebrate? Where do we take our moms, and where do we take first dates? Where do we go when we have a lot of money, and where do we go when we want to feel like we have a lot of money?

For most, restaurants may only occupy the mind when they are hungry- but these establishments occupy a large space in our society. These questions matter, because they determine what an enormous portion of our food system looks like. Your food dollars shape our economy and local life on our neighborhood block. Restaurants reflect trends and indicate our current realities. They reflect our priorities, values, and tastes, both culinarily and culturally.

What do your restaurants look like?


On Being the Only Woman in the Room


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?

Professional(izing) Home Cooks


Fine dining, when executed well, is an art. The work is nuanced, complex, and difficult, and when I patron fine dining establishments, I take the craft very seriously. I critique each plate’s execution, the service, and every element of the meal, maintaining high standards and expectations. I know how fine dining restaurants work, because that is my work.

But whatever my fine dining standards, I do not visit my mother’s house and tell her that her salt usage is inconsistent. If my mom cooks, I eat her food, I thank her, and then I urge her to sit down and let me do the dishes. For if I am invited to someone’s home, I just eat. Food isn’t always a serious matter, to be dissected. Sometimes, the beauty in a meal lies in the way it simply brings people together. On my off days, I am probably hungry, and tired of cooking. A home-cooked meal tastes good because of the company, because of the love put into the preparation, or, perhaps simply because someone besides me made it.

However, there is a new breed of home cook, one who takes cooking very seriously. America’s culinary consciousness is growing, with the rise of cooking shows, hip cookbooks, and access to diverse ingredients and diverse cuisines. A serious home cook may never set foot in a professional kitchen, but can still devote time and energy to learning different techniques or reading about the craft. I love watching this trend, because I think that cooking at home encourages healthy eating, self care, and quality social time.

Nonetheless, as a cook, I do not always know how to navigate situations with these professionalized home cooks, with their gear and tools that rival my own restaurant’s. At a recent outdoor barbeque, hosted by the neighbor of an acquaintance, I found myself cornered by the large, enthusiastic host who had appointed himself “grillmaster”. After someone had told him I was a cook at a restaurant in town, he told me all about his techniques, his grill, and how he approaches cooking meat. He obviously devoted a lot of time to grilling at his home, and he was intent on impressing me with the particulars.

I always want to talk about food, so I gladly listened. Our conversation continued deeper and deeper, and I started to offer some of my thoughts on his seasoning techniques and the cooking temperature he had chosen. Immediately, the tone between us shifted- there was a tension in the air, and a defensiveness in his remarks. I became hyperaware of the dynamic between this young woman telling an older man how to cook meat, going against stereotypes and expectations. I changed the subject, going back to safer ground, but I kept thinking about our conversation.

In a professional kitchen, nothing I do is beyond critique. When I put food on a plate, or ingredients in a pot, the chef is peering over my shoulder, tasting spoon in hand. If my salt level isn’t right, I hear it yelled, loudly. If I try to do something differently than I was shown, I am interrogated. If I put one more piece of squash on this plate than I did on the last plate, I am reprimanded in front of everyone. And Lord help me if my sear on this steak isn’t exactly like it is supposed to be every time. Profanities and attacks on my work and character abound, and the only acceptable response is “yes, chef”.

The standards in professional kitchens are ruthless and competitive. I have developed the thickest of skins, being able to listen to criticism and then letting it go immediately. I have developed tenacity and endurance under pressure and literal heat. Those who take insults and criticism personally do not survive in professional kitchens. The work forces you to let go of ego, to let go of being right all the time, because it is impossible. A critique of your food is simply seen as feedback, not personal, because everyone in that kitchen is working toward the eternally unreachable Good Food goal.

At this grillout, while I thought I was offering gentle feedback on the food, the host saw it as personal critique. In some way, I do understand how he was taken aback- after all, I was a guest in his home. I confused a passion for cooking with the professionalism of restaurant cooks. The “restaurant quality” grill that he bought at the store does not also come with a restaurant quality executive chef ready to scream about his steaks. Home cooks may want to professionalize their cooking, but they are not looking to follow the intense, masochistic standards that define fine dining kitchens.

Home cooking is a hobby, a pastime. Why should I hold these cooks to the same standards that I am held to at work? After all, when I am the home cook, on my weekend, even I ignore some of the fine dining rules. Because on my off days, I may be drinking the same wine that I’m using to deglaze the pan, and my steak will not have a perfect sear. And I’m too busy relaxing to listen to any critique of that- can’t we just eat?

Who Feeds the Cooks?


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.

On Cooking and Baking


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.