Why I Quit Cooking: Women in the Kitchen
There's been a lot of talk recently about women and professional cooking. New York chef Amanda Cohen posted a rant concerning female chefs, the Beard Awards, and the women's access to funding in the restaurant world, and EMD's Helen Rosner responded at her main gig on Grub Street by saying what many essayists on this topic have been trying to tip-toe around: the restaurant world is sexist.
I worked in the restaurant industry for six years, largely in the kitchen. I've worked the line (grill and saute), I've catered (high-end and, uh, less high-end), I've worked in menu development, I've worked in gourmet delis, and, yes, I've waited tables. You'll note the past tense; I quit the restaurant life about a year ago, and pieces like Cohen's and Rosner's have been making me feel guilty about it ever since.
To Cook or Not to Cook?
There's a discussion that occurs in feminist dialogue concerning choice: do women have a responsibility to improve the perceived status of their gender through working certain (influential, well-regarded) jobs, or does feminism mean that women have the luscious and heady freedom to pursue whatever career they choose? This conundrum pits second and third wave feminists against one another, and often comes up in the context of stay-at-home moms or sex industry workers. In this context, however, it makes me wonder: do I have a responsibility to feminism to continue seeking employment as a cook?
I enjoyed the work, and I believe that I was good at it. There were not practical concerns, such as pay or hours, prohibiting me from continuing in that line of work, although I do believe that it would be a difficult profession to maintain if I ever have children. So, was there some institutionalized aspect of it that made the career a hostile environment for me? If I had received more encouragement, financial or otherwise, as Cohen posits, might I be on the road to head chef-dom? Or is the misogyny of the industry too much, as Rosner says?
The professional kitchen is, of course, a boys club. The Anthony Bourdain phenomenon created more monsters than it quelled, and in my eyes, many male line cooks actually aspired to join his drunk, dick-joke making fraternity after reading Kitchen Confidential. These things have actually happened to me: I have witnessed kitchen managers lending 14 year old busboys porn. I have had jokes made about my 10-inch chef's knife being a surrogate penis. I have had cooks who were assigned to me for training tell me that they had no intention of listening to anything I said because they did not feel women should work in kitchens. I've gotten easier shifts and been continuously encouraged, even pushed, towards working in pastry*.
How much did these factors contribute to my decision to leave restaurants? Consciously, not that much. It was a point of pride to stick it out under these conditions, and there was a surge of joy that accompanied finally being accepted as one of the guys at every job I ever worked. During my time as a cook, I relished the fact that I was flourishing in a male-dominated profession. I was high on the fact that I could prosper where other women couldn't seem to hack it.
So why did I quit? The last food job I held was working for a woman-owned catering company with many female employees; in terms of pure girl power, there wasn't much more I could ask for. I didn't quit because I have boobs, I quit because cooking was hard, and I was tired, and frankly, the road ahead of me appeared nearly vertical. I quit because I wanted to write for Eat Me Daily more than my catering job allowed, and because I saw opportunities in the writing world that I didn't see in restaurants.
Women write about food, sure. Gael Greene and Ruth Reichl are in the living legend column, Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher are over in the dead legend column. Women write about food at the Village Voice, Time Out New York, New York Magazine, the New York Times and Saveur. One of the most famous lifestyle and food celebrities in the world is Martha Stewart and you can tell from her name that she’s a woman. Eater, the biggest online food gossip blog, even has a female editor. But it’s a sign of how bad women are in the kitchen that even these women can’t find much nice to say about them. Obviously, it’s because women can’t cook.
Cohen's "women can't cook" is facetious here, of course, but I want to say I can cook, I just can't cook for money. I wish that I could be one of what is hopefully a growing number of strong female voices coming out of kitchens around the world. I can't, though; for whatever reason, the bug just isn't in me. I would like to say that this isn't due to institutionalized misogyny in the industry, but I fear that, subconsciously at least, it is.
I will say this: as part of my debt to the women like Cohen, and like April Bloomfield, Gabrielle Hamilton, and Koren Grieveson, all of whom Rosner cites, I vow to champion women chefs, to the best of my ability, as long as I am lucky enough to have a podium from which to speak. Thank you for doing what you do.
*There is, of course, nothing wrong with working in pastry; my issue here is that the job is typically considered the most female-friendly in the kitchen. Also, sweets give me headaches.