On Cooking With Fire

_MG_2892

Growing up, I never learned how to make a fire. My family, led by my outdoor-adventure-adverse parents, didn’t camp. I didn’t learn how to roast skewers or s’mores over a campsite fire. Even though I grew up in a small town, attending country bonfires on cool summer nights, I stayed close to the fire only to avoid mosquitoes. I never gathered logs, or kindling, or offered to start the fire.

On some level, I thought of it as men’s work. It was the gangly teenage boys poking the embers with logs, or dousing our shoddily-made fire with lighter fluid, who seemed to be having fun. It was always someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s pursuit. I didn’t want anything to do with fire, because I was afraid. To me, it was hot, seemingly unpredictable, and dangerous.

Then, I started working in professional kitchens. And my relationship with fire changed.

It began when I first started working the “hot” portion of the line at my first restaurant. There was a standard setup for cooking the hot entrees: an open-flame grill with an attached flattop, stacks of ovens, and a long set of stovetop burners for sauté pans. Everything was burning or flammable. There were a lot of amateurs working in this particular kitchen. Things caught on fire, often.

The cook who loses his or her mind and makes jerky, panicked movements when flame is involved is certainly going to ruin some food, and possibly jeopardize other cooks. I had to learn, bit by bit, how to keep calm and see the flames as something I could control. I now work with a game plan for every potential type of kitchen fire, because I’ve encountered most of them. My fingers dance nimbly around open flames, flipping seared potatoes in the scalding hot pan. Small flare-ups of dripping fat from grilled meats don’t make me flinch anymore. And flaming sauté pan fires are quickly and efficiently put out. Flames became familiar, a part of the job.

When I moved to my most recent kitchen, my relationship with fire changed again. At this point, I was not an inexperienced cook. I knew how to cook steaks, and fish, and chicken. I knew how to do all of that, in sauté pans, and over a gas-controlled grill.

But this restaurant centered around a real, bona fide, wood-burning oven. It is the kind of oven where you stack wood logs in the corner, build a raging fire, and then maintain coals hot enough to cook with, over a 5-hour dinner service. You cook with heavy cast irons and sizzling metal platters, raking coals and flipping logs to maintain a balance between steady heat and growing flame.

By the time I started to work the wood-fired oven station, I had already been at this particular restaurant for months, calmly holding down the sauté stations. I was doing well, and I felt confident in the kitchen.

But I did not know how to start a fire.

I avoided the wood-fired oven for a long time, acting as though I wasn’t interested. There were some blustery, “veteran” cooks in the kitchen ahead of me, all men, and they were happy to work the oven. I stayed where I had experience, where I worked with the kind of flames I was familiar with, and where I didn’t need to compete. I cornered myself for months, avoiding that fire.

Eventually, staff turnover, sous chef encouragement, and self-candor forced me to the wood-burning oven. It was not a comfortable transition. I cooked bad food; I made mistakes with my plates. I blew smoke into my eyes, burned off all feeling in my hands, and sweated gallons every night. And as I have done with most other things, I put my head down and reminded myself, “fake it ‘til you make it”.

I got to know the fire. I learned what worked to start the fire, how to coax that initial flare into an enveloping flame. I started to grasp, intuitively, how to design the airflow to my advantage. I learned by touch which logs burned brightly and which logs burned slow. I grew startlingly accurate in my ability to toss logs into stacks in the back of the oven. I learned how to shovel coals, and flip individual logs, giving myself useful surfaces and pockets of heat to cook my meats and fish.

And I started to appreciate the beauty in cooking with fire- I was responsible for feeding the beast, for starting and maintain the source that I used to cook all of my dishes. Instead of gas burners, turned on with the flick of a handle, or a flattop grill, mysteriously warmed from below, my cooking method was tangible. I could see it. I had to work for it. I had to maintain it. I was feeding the fire, and the fire was feeding the work that I was doing.

I am no longer scared of fire. I love the smell, the visual, and the incomparable taste it gives food. I lament the lack of an open flame in my tiny city apartment, and I approach a campfire with the affinity of an old friend. I feel self-assured, standing in front of the oven, knowing that I have overcome my own limits and fears about fire. Cooking with fire rewards confidence, and experience. In working with fire in kitchens, I have developed both.

A fire also requires patience, upkeep, and plenty of oxygen. In facing our fears, I think we thrive on the same.

Advertisements

Seeing the Gorilla in the Kitchen

A few years ago, Time magazine published a now-infamous cover article about the “Gods of Food”. It quickly became controversial for a notable omission: while some women were profiled for their roles as activists or businesswomen, no female chefs were included in the article. Even the detailed chef family tree, mapping famous chefs and their spheres of culinary influence, consisted of only male chefs.

20131118_600
Courtesy of Time Magazine

Immediately, there were think pieces, discussions with the editor, interviews with famous female and male chefs, and alternative lists published. In further interviews, the author, Howard Chua-Eoan, revealed that he was aware that there were no women on the list, but that he saw that as a reflection of the industry, not of his coverage. They, “did not want to fill a quota of a woman chef. We wanted to go with reputation and influence.”

I’m not interested in debating the particulars of the article’s culinary merits. Time, as established of a news publication as it is, is not a leading voice in the culinary world; it is not an authority. No chef or restaurateur is checking Time magazine for rankings, reviews, or critiques of trends or culinary traditions.

The fact that Time doesn’t specialize or hold much prestige in the culinary world makes the list even more fascinating to me. While the Time team certainly included people who knew about food, the article was meant to explore influence, rather than hand out culinary accolades. It was coming from a journalist’s point of view, chronicling people thought to impact our food on a broad cultural or economic level. The Time team presumably spent months researching and debating these diverse figures and their significance.

And, at the end of it all, they did not find any female chefs as having noteworthy influence. They saw, and included, only male chefs.

In a post-article interview with Eater, when asked if the media plays a role in the gender gap of famous chefs, Chua-Eoan claims, “I don’t think the media has to advocate for anything.” He somewhat retracts his statement a question later, clarifying that if female chefs advocate for themselves and cause the news media to pay attention, they’ll “cover it”.

Chua-Eoan’s statements make me think of the infamous basketball/gorilla experiment from the late 90s. Psychologists asked subjects to watch a short video and count the number of times basketball players wearing white shirts in the group passed the ball. Halfway through the video, a woman in a gorilla suit walks in the middle of the group and pounds her chest, and then walks off camera. Afterwards, when asked if they saw anything unusual, researchers found that about half of the participants hadn’t noticed the gorilla.

This particular study focused on what psychologists called “inattentional blindness”, or a psychological lack of attention to certain visuals that are in plain sight. Something that is unexpected, or beyond our scope of attention, can go unnoticed. There are a ton of related concepts in psychology, from implicit bias to unconscious discrimination: our intuition, or expectations, can affect how we perceive the world, even if we believe we are being objective.

We tend to see what we are already looking for. This is true of you and me, and it is true of journalists. It’s in my language, when I refer to chefs as “he” before I know their gender, and it’s in a news article, where those chefs deemed “influential” all come from a particular demographic.

Journalists play a role in shaping and defining narratives. They are public figures. Perhaps more than most, they are obligated to question their intentions and biases. If they don’t believe that they need to advocate for anything, they are forgetting that by producing content to be consumed, they are already advocating for something. They are already influencing the public discourse.

I don’t want there to be a category for “female chefs” and I don’t want there to be a quota. As I’ve argued before, cooking is not a gender-specific task, and gender shouldn’t be an important factor in deciding awards or merits. However, when there is such a slant in media coverage, we would do best to ask ourselves- is this because of the reality of the industry, or is there a bias influencing the people we choose to cover?

The women chefs are the gorilla on the basketball court, running around while the other players pass the ball back and forth and get all of the attention. If you associate great chefs with male chefs, as has been the trend in recent times, you will see great male chefs. The women doing the work, who may not look, talk, or present in the same way, will fade into the background.

Where are the female chefs? They’re out there. They’re doing the work that isn’t profiled in the magazine, isn’t “godly”, isn’t exactly what picture in your mind when someone says “chef”. They are running different kinds of kitchens, in different areas, doing different food. They exist. And they’re already doing the work.

It’s time to see them.

——-

Footnote: This article is a few years old, and there have been many relevant and compelling pieces written since. In a way, the debate around the article provided the “huge stir” about gender in haute cuisine that Chua-Eoan insisted wasn’t there to cover. I would be remiss if I didn’t point toward my favorite response, a submission from Gabrielle Hamilton (also one of my favorite chefs) to The New York Times’ Room for Debate section.

On Being the Only Woman in the Room

DSC00838

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

IMG_0835

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?

On Cooking and Baking

DSC01664

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.