The chef’s life is the life.
Scooting around stylishly on your Vespa from marché to marché to find the freshest parsley. Dropping by the butcher so that he can tell you he’s kept the nicest cut of veal just for you because, well, “You’re the best.” (You can hardly argue.) Getting to the restaurant just in time to watch the staff prep as you make a quick sandwich and espresso. What’s that? Your new cookbook just came out? Someone’s got some signin’ to do!
It’s the image Jamie Oliver—aka the Naked Chef—helped popularize. It’s the life that Nigella Lawson, perhaps the world’s only female celebrity cook, makes to look so sexy, so, well … glamorous. But if you think restaurant kitchens everywhere are filled with little Nigellas, dutifully making every pork dish known to man and licking every last spoon, think again. The reality for most cooks involves at least eight years spent slaving away in the kitchens of mediocre restaurants before one can even hope to be appointed chef de cuisine.
That’s eight years spent in the world Anthony Bourdain so famously describes in Kitchen Confidential—a world of rampant drug use, stabbings, humping and plain old bad behaviour. It’s a world of monkeys locked in a cage—brutal and dominated by men.
There are women in those kitchens, and they’re working just as hard to climb the ladder to stardom—except they’re not getting there. The reason: there are just not as many women working in these kitchens. This means less women ending up on top and, ultimately, fewer women superchefs attaining celebrity status.
“Half of the students in my cooking class were women,” says Emma Cardarelli, recently promoted saucier at Globe Restaurant, a successful Montreal establishment on trendy St. Laurent Boulevard. “Which is fucked up as the ratio of women to men [in professional kitchens after graduation] is so low.”
While women in the food game do get the respect they deserve from the rest of the kitchen staff—it’s hard not to appreciate someone who’ll haul three sacks of potatoes when you also have to haul them—they’re far from getting the recognition commanded of late by the male chef in our celebrity-obsessed culture. Take Kitchen Confidential. The book might have been adapted into a television show, but scripted as the story of a chef’s return to culinary stardom after being destroyed by years of boozing, womanizing and drugs, the show is definitely no Desperate Housewives.
The fact is there are few very famous female chefs blazing a trail for women in the industry. The considerable international media coverage devoted to newly appointed White House chef Cristeta Comerford—the first female in that post—is noticeable evidence of this rarity.
Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, the closest thing to a professional association for American female chefs (don’t bother looking for a Canadian equivalent) has only attracted 2,000 members since eight top women chefs founded the organization in 1993.
Even Nigella Lawson was a journalist (and the daughter of a former chancellor of the exchequer) before she was reincarnated as a celebrity cooking sexpot—the world is still waiting for the first woman cook superstar to rise on blood, sweat and tears alone.
Women seem to be getting lost somewhere between the cooking-school diploma—a milestone typically reached around age twenty-three—and executive-chef status. It’s not a question of skill—enough women have made it through the ranks to prove otherwise. It’s that most women just aren’t willing to put up with the long hours, terrible pay and intense physical labour—or make the family-related compromises that such a lifestyle demands.
“The hours are fucking terrible, I am always sweaty, hot and tired,” says Nancy Hinton, chef de cuisine at L’Eau à la Bouche in Ste. Adèle, a small, picturesque town less than an hour’s drive north of Montreal. “Most women would rather choose catering, as the hurdles to jump in the ten years it takes to become a known chef are too numerous. You have to be very passionate ... You have to love it.”
The pressure to keep up with the boys is also a factor.
“Before, I would lift shit I couldn’t lift. I felt a pressure to keep this hard edge in order to fit in,” says Hinton. “I’m successful because I enjoy being a part of the boys’ club,” explains Cardarelli.
Which is not to say that the job isn’t difficult for the men either; being treated like shit is hardly gender-specific. In fact, it might be worse for the men, who are expected to be tough enough to take it.
“Everyone assumes I am a pastry chef, over in the corner whipping up cupcakes,” says Cardarelli. Meanwhile, no one imagines that the petite freckled redhead has spent the last year on the most dangerous part of the line, the fast-moving, burn-prone area of the kitchen where all the hot portions of a meal are prepared.
“When people ask to meet me, they are always disappointed,” says Hinton. “They are expecting the masculine stereotype”—the loud, abrasive, megalomaniacal, neurotic, often fat male chef. Think Emeril Lagasse. Think Rocco DiSpirito. Hell, think Mel from Alice. It’s the image of the chef popularized in films, books and, of course, television in the last twenty-five years.
Instead they meet Hinton, slight in stature but strong in confidence, who started in the food business as a server, moved onto culinary school and worked in Montreal kitchens for five years before landing her dream job of chef de cuisine at a reputable fine restaurant. “I guess I always subconsciously chose not to make an issue of it, but looking back, I obviously was always battling to fit in, to prove myself. Now I have enough confidence to be me, a woman, with my own strengths and weaknesses.”
Ironically, Hinton says she went through a stage when she herself avoided hiring women (“After service, we would always have to talk …”). “Due to the physicality, I thought it might be a pain in the ass. But after we started getting a couple of amazing women, I realized women cooks were extremely meticulous, rational, hardworking and creatively talented.”
Cooking is extremely physically demanding. Unlike office work, it’s tough to be pregnant while maintaining your position in the kitchen. Eventually, it’s impossible. And, of course, the exact moment when women will finally be seeing success after putting in their dues—age thirty, or thereabout—generally coincides with when many women would like to start having children. It’s a common reality across many professions—and it is one men will never have to take into consideration.
Chef Racha Bassoul might be the exception to the rule that it’s impossible to land the top kitchen job while maintaining a balanced life—but her experience is equally revealing. The chef and owner of Anise, one of Montreal’s most respected restaurants, is both an executive chef and a mother of two. Unlike Hinton and Cardarelli, though, Bassoul was able to step directly into the top spot, going directly from catering to owning her own restaurant in 2001.
“I was lucky to set my own agenda,” says Bassoul, who opened the restaurant long after her children were born, which meant that family planning and working gruelling hours as a subordinate were not part of her experience. Meanwhile, years of grunt work in the kitchen have given Hinton and Cardarelli a tough armour that is missing in Bassoul. Perhaps this is the result of a metamorphosis necessary to survive a life in the kitchen. The bottom line is that Bassoul’s template—that of the financially successful female chef and restauranteur who starts at the top—is one that is better suited to the lifestyle needs of today’s modern woman.
All the same, a whiff of motherhood and the nineteen-fifties housewife still looms over the idea of women who want to cook professionally. “My mom was a housewife and I resented that, so the last thing I wanted to do was cook,” says Hinton, offering insight into why women who were traditionally expected to cook have studiously avoided the career path of cooking professionally today.
Yet the all-male kitchen, the unforgiving lifestyle and our lack of female chef icons will not change unless more women throw open the swinging doors.
“The nature of the kitchen is a harsh environment,” says Hinton. “A kitchen that is all male is no good. More women make for better food.”
What Hinton means is that a balanced-gender kitchen leads to a more harmonious environment. That means improved communication and ultimately a better kitchen that makes better food.
These days, cooking is hot. Women are flocking to the food industry, and more of them are slowly venturing into restaurant kitchens. Women are opening bakeries, catering companies and, yes, restaurants. More women are applying for spots in the kitchen too, Hinton notes. Cardarelli tells me that when she started at Globe, she was the only woman in the kitchen (other than the pastry chef), while today she’s one of four working the line. The kitchen scales are finally tipping toward the feminine. Nigella, licking her spoon clean, would certainly approve.
Meredith Erickson has waited tables in restaurants from Sydney to Montreal. When not ducking plates at Montreal bistro Joe Beef, she’s the publisher’s assistant at Maisonneuve Magazine.