Gathered together for a summer potluck, six female power players on the food scene chat with food editor Shawna Wagman about what life is really like under the hood
There has been a lot of talk lately about women in the kitchen — and not just as the punchline for sexist jokes. While it has remained a dirty little secret of the hospitality industry for ages, stories about women’s struggles for equality, recognition, and survival in professional kitchens are starting to simmer to the surface.
In Ottawa and elsewhere, women run a huge percentage of the food businesses — everything from catering companies and gourmet food shops to thriving home-based bakeries and bustling coffee shops. But when it comes to running the show in restaurant kitchens, it’s a different story. Sure, there are plenty of female pastry chefs, but the real power positions — the executive chefs and chef-owners — are overwhelmingly held by men. Still, a quick peek into the kitchens of some of this city’s most popular restaurants shows that an estrogen-driven culinary revolution may be underway.
The signs are everywhere. The prestigious S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list added a new accolade this year: the Best Female Chef Award. The winner, Anne-Sophie Pic of France, was then invited to participate in Montreal’s High Lights Festival. The special theme for its 12th edition? Celebrating Women.
Meanwhile, one of this year’s most popular food books, Gabrielle Hamilton’s New York Times bestselling memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, takes us behind the scenes in the male-dominated kitchens she once worked in. In the book, Hamilton reflects upon the experiences that led her to open her own restaurant in New York, the wildly popular Prune. “I tried smoking filterless cigarettes, swearing like a sailor, and banging out twice as much as my male cohorts,” she writes. “And I’d also given lipstick and giggling a try, even claiming not to be to able to lift a stockpot so that the guys could help me.” She concludes: “Neither strategy is better than the other.” We can expect more candid first-hand accounts like this in an upcoming book by Charlotte Druckman. Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat & Staying in the Kitchen is due out next year.
Recognizing female talent and telling tales may be the first steps toward changing the kitchen culture that has historically left women behind. Here in Ottawa, the subtle shift continues apace. Look at which chefs have been asked to participate in Gold Medal Plates, the pre-eminent national culinary competition. The November 14 competition boasts a male-to-female-chef ratio of 7:3. That’s a vast improvement over two years ago (and all years previous to that), when there were no female competitors. None.
The Whalesbone’s executive chef, Charlotte Langley, was one of the two women chefs who competed last year (Caroline Ishii of Zen Kitchen was the other). When she received her invitation and realized it was to be the first time women chefs were included, she decided to assemble an all-girls team of cooks for the event. I still remember the unique vibe, the matching black T-shirts, and the unbridled laughter as the culinary crew assembled and served the smoked-mackerel dish. They were having a great time. The energy was pure girl power — like a sugar-buzzed pyjama party, but with foie gras.
That’s where the idea for this article began percolating. I wanted to gather together a group of female chefs and cooks to chat about life in Ottawa kitchens. So one day in July, chef Anna March sent out an email to a bunch of her industry friends and colleagues to see who could join an impromptu potluck dinner at The Urban Element. Six chefs answered the call. Everyone was instructed to come prepared to create a dish. At 6 p.m., the women arrived, and within minutes, the choreography of the kitchen came to life: knives flying, chilies blistering, steak grilling, vegetables sautéeing and, of course, wine pouring.
What follows is a transcript of the dinner conversation that ensued. I had to edit out some of the most salacious stories — they truly were not fit for print — as well as some of the cruder language, but I assure you there was plenty of both. There was a lot of butt slapping too.
Why did you create an all-girls team for Gold Medal Plates last year, Charlotte?
Charlotte Langley, 27, executive chef, The Whalesbone Oyster House: There are so many awesome babes in this city that cook! The restaurant scene has totally exploded in the past five years. These people who are sitting here have been so supportive and put up with my crazy anxiety attacks. They’re, like, relax! Ever since I started cooking in Ottawa, girls have really infiltrated the industry.
Katie Brown, 26, chef de cuisine, Play Food & Wine: I think Beckta was the first place I worked with another girl — and I’ve worked in six or seven other places.
Anna March, 26, resident chef, Mariposa Farms: I’ve never worked for a female chef.
I understand that when Steve Vardy was the chef at Beckta, there were a lot of women working there — including several of you. Was that unusual?
Charlotte: He was a hot guy that hired hot babes. [Everyone laughs.] But seriously, there were a lot of young women around at the time who wanted to cook.
Chloé Berlanga, 31, lunch chef, The Whalesbone Oyster House: Yeah, just like Charlotte is a hot girl that hires hot guys. We’ll say, “Charlotte, somebody dropped off his resumé,” and she says, “Is he hot?” [More laughter.]
Patricia Larkin, 30, chef, Black Cat Bistro: I think if you were super-sensitive, you wouldn’t still be here. In the beginning, you work with someone who is rough on you, and you either tough it out or you quit at that point. A bunch of people I went to culinary school with are no longer working. I went to Jasper and worked with a guy who was tough as nails. He was so hard on me because I was a girl. He wanted me out of there so bad. It was a four-diamond restaurant, and all the other girls were in pastries or at the other restaurants. I was miserable, but I don’t mind. It made me tougher.
Chloé: You have to build character. I think all of us here — we’re all very strong.
Patricia: You gotta build a shell.
Katie: I was 14 when I had my first kitchen job, and the guys would teach me swear words. I would go home and ask my dad what they meant.
Patricia: Yeah, I worked at Pizza Pizza when I was 15. It was a riot. I’d go in on a Sunday afternoon. Everybody else there were these men 30 and up, and I was standing in the middle of the kitchen telling the drivers where to go. That helped build a thick skin.
Chloé: I think, in a sense, we all become kind of macho ourselves. We’re, like, I don’t want anyone to help me carry something, I’ll just do it myself.
Anna: That’s a big one for me. I notice especially working with whole animals and saws. I remember the first time getting a whole pig and looking at my chef and saying, “You’re going to lift it, right?” He just looked at me and walked out.
What I’m trying to understand is, does it still feel like a boys’ club?
Patricia: I don’t really think of it that way. There are a lot of girls who act like guys half the time.
Charlotte: We’re becoming androgynous, all of us. We’re all pretty young babes here. So it’s not necessarily a boys’ club, but there are still men that run the restaurants and own them, and we work for them.
It’s funny with plating. I’ve had guy cooks that have started out and they’re plating a salad and I’m, like, come on, think about sex, make it sexier — think about fucking, sex, sex, loosen up, sauce, juice, texture — and eventually they’re moving their hands and getting more involved in it. So we’re rubbing off on them. And they teach us some things too — like how to shove shit in the oven and kick the door, how to spit on the floor.
Katie: Yeah, I’ll be, like, “Why are you so angy?” And they’re, like, “I’m not angry.” And I’m, like, “Well, you’re kicking things for no reason.”
Anna: There’s a lot less aggression, a lot less machoness and competitiveness when there are women in the kitchen. I’ve heard of men’s kitchens where someone’s at the stove and someone else’s pot is just burning, and they’re just looking at it and stirring their own.
Did any of you think of quitting at any point?
Charlotte: I think about leaving every day [laughs]. It’s, like, why the fuck am I doing this? It’s a hard job and it’s pretty emotional. I am constantly analyzing the work I do. I feel that as a chef and a cook and a manager, as a woman you are more involved in it emotionally than a man would be. Women want to take care, feed the guests, make sure everything looks beautiful, make sure the kitchen is clean, make sure the dish washer is happy, make sure everyone is fed. And I’m crying at home because I can’t figure out this fucking sauce. It’s really scary just being that vulnerable.
Katie: I think that’s the most frustrating thing, is someone not caring enough — I’m, like, why don’t they care? Why aren’t they where I am?
Do men and women cook differently?
Chloé: Women are more generous. We want to please. We want to make people happy. That’s a very feminine trait, I think. That’s what food is about.
Anna: I find I get a lot of flak for being a skinny chef. From clients, from friends, from family.
[Pascale’s ice cream sandwiches are served — everyone coos.]
Anna: I find women are more health-conscious, especially with things like the staff meal — sometimes the boys got really carried away with putting as much bacon and cheese and cream as possible into our staff meal.
Katie: Sometimes I’m, like — what about a salad? Sometimes I have to sneak in the vegetables. I’ll make a big stew and think to myself — ha ha, so many vegetables!
So are there still advantages for guys in this business?
Chloé: They have better access to good jobs. I think they’ll go up the ladder faster. For girls, you really have to prove yourself in order to move up.
Pascale Berthiaume, 31, owner of Pascale’s Ice Cream: A friend of mine opened a business, and she had to hire a man to represent her to approach banks and approach money people to start her business. That’s how fucked up it is. I’ve also heard boys will get loans and girls won’t. It’s just a fact. When I was looking at locations for my business, the landlords would say, “Oh, you don’t have to sign the lease — it’s just a piece of paper.” And I’m, like, “Do you really think I’m an idiot?”
What would you like to see change?
Anna: Um, men’s uniforms — the chef coats and the huge pants. For women, they don’t fit us.
Chloé: Even the extra small are way too big.
Charlotte: If you feel sexy, you make sexy food.