Cook, ladies, cook

It’s complicated being a lady in business with mostly men.  

To what I imagine is the dismay of my alma matter, Wellesley College, I’m not very vocal about the role of women in business.  Not because I don’t believe in gender equality, I do, but because it’s just so complicated to iron out all my own misgivings on the topic let alone communicate my position in a concise, thoughtful and convincing way.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself nodding along with Gabrielle Hamilton in Blood Bones & Butter where she describes working with men and the love-hate relationship she has (and I have) with other women doing the same.

It was not until I opened my own place that I realized how present and ongoing the struggle to be female in a professional kitchen had been. It’s like the hood during service. Everybody talks about the heat in a kitchen, and the heat, without doubt, is formidable. It’s a powerful opponent. But for me the real punisher is the exhaust hood, with the suction so powerful that it sucks up all the metal bound filters from their spots and bangs them against the lip of the hood. The big mechanic kick of the fan belt starting up, the unified clank of the filters rising — like a Rockettes kick, all in unison — then followed by eighteen draining hours of heavy-duty vacuum hum, over which orders are barked, dishes are clanked, pots are slammed around, and the stereo blasts. Then finally at midnight or one, after the disher has turned off the fryer, someone turns off the hood and a profound silence descends. I never realize how much space the noise of the hood takes up in my mind and head — that heavy vacuum sound — until I shut it off, and total bliss and relief set in.

In the same way, when I opened my own restaurant, I enjoyed such an absence of boy-girl jostling that I only then understood that, all through my entire work life, I had been working a double shift. I had been working the same shift as my peers, with all of its heat and heft and long hours on your feet. But I had been doing a second job all along, as well —that of constantly, vigilantly figuring out and calibrating my place in that kitchen with those guys to make a space for myself that was bearable and viable. Should I wear pink clogs or black steel-toe work shoes? Lipstick or Chapstick? Work double hard, double fast, double strong, or keep pace with the average Joe? Swear like a line cook or giggle like a girl?

Meanwhile, the parsley needs to be chopped, and the veal chops seared off. There is, still, the work itself to do.

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