UPDATE July 2021: The book is out and available at the link below!
Out of all the places I could be on a holiday weekend night, why here? I thought, as I squeeze-bottled lines of red pepper sauce over a seafood tagliarini dish. (Oh, squeeze bottles, what would we cooks ever do without them?) I couldn’t think about how weeded I was, or the heat, or the fresh burn bubbles going all the way up my arm. In restaurant speak, “weeded” or “being in the weeds” means slammed, way behind, struggling to stay on top of the rush. Imagine you’re juggling, but people keep throwing you balls, and you have to keep juggling all of them. Then the balls catch fire, but you can’t stop. And people keep telling you, “I need that ball now! How long before you’re done?”
I glanced over to the corner of the kitchen, where a server was rolling silverware and chatting up a storm. She seemed so tranquil, a cool cucumber compared to the madness of the line. In the less than half a second I spent in silverware Zen-land with the server, I thought, What I’d do right now to be there, with not a care in the world except rolling silverware. I shifted my focus back. I couldn’t focus on how weeded I was; I just had to keep cooking. Next pickup: three sea bass, two seafood pasta, a cowboy steak special, and three airline chicken. Focusing on that next pickup was the small thread I hung on to, to keep from drowning in a sea of paper tickets.
Women are expected to cook at home for their family, not in a tough, physically arduous, mentally exhausting, balls-to-the-wall-paced, no-screw-ups-allowed, male-dominated restaurant kitchen.
Why do the people who say “A woman’s place is the kitchen” usually think this is true unless it’s a professional kitchen, where, instead of cooking for a few friends and family members, she’s cooking for hundreds, maybe even a thousand paying customers with high standards?
Where, instead of having plenty of time to cook one big casserole for everyone, she’s cooking to order big-ticket entrees, and has only fifteen minutes to cook each dish?
Where she might be the only woman and may even be in charge of leading a team through a dinner rush?
If a woman can cook, they call her “wifey material.” If she cooks at a restaurant, they say, “You’re too pretty to work back there. You should be taking my order.”
“So, you’re like a prep helper or a cake decorator, right?”
“You should work cold stations and dessert. You wouldn’t want to get burns from working the grill.”
“Can you make sure it’s a man who cooks my steak?”
“That’s nice, sweetie, but can I talk to the chef?”
“Women can’t put in the same hours men can.”
These are all real quotes, by the way, that I collected from other female cooks and chefs.
“I bet you make great tips there as a waitress,” they say, after I’ve told them where I work as a cook and have just finished a busy holiday weekend. It stings a little harder when you are at a place that does not tip out the kitchen, which is quite common.
One year, I had the opportunity to cover for the main sauté cook over Labor Day weekend while he was out for a few weeks for an unavoidable family situation. Every station in the kitchen has its own hardships, but sauté was definitely the most intricate, and only a few cooks could work it. Just when I thought I was holding it down pretty well, the orders coming in at a decent pace, the ticket printer started rattling off like a machine gun and didn’t stop for three hours.
Early on in that rush, I hastily and carelessly dropped a skin-on airline chicken breast into smoking-hot oil in a pan and it splashed everywhere. I knew oil splattered all over my arm, but I didn’t feel any burns; that’s the kind of adrenaline you’re on during a four-hundred-cover night (covers meaning how many people came through the restaurant, in this case between 5 and 10 p.m. Four hundred butts in the chairs. Four hundred people ordering appetizers, main courses, and desserts). I was cranking out sea bass entrée after sea bass entrée—having five to seven of those working at any given time throughout the night. I was plating up prime rib sides and seafood pasta dishes to the tune of whirring hood vents, crashing dishes, and the chef yelling out our next pickup.
I had all twelve stove burners on and both ovens full. I didn’t have time for pain. And the heat? I wasn’t even thinking about the heat, even though it was a late-summer evening, cooped up in a windowless, stainless-steel dungeon, reaching into a 450-degree oven every five minutes. At 10 p.m., when the rush calmed down, I showed a server my burns. His jaw hit the floor.
“A grease splash? You look like you pinned your whole arm to the grill!”
I still have the scars as I write this.
So yes, please keep telling me that cooking is a “woman’s job,” or that a man who can cook is displaying “feminine” qualities. Please keep telling me that my place is the kitchen, because it is. But if you’re going to use it as an insult or some sort of way to assert dominance as a man, I dare you to find the busiest restaurant in your city on a day when the line is out the door, peek into the kitchen, and watch. You might not even see a woman, and if you do, you better believe she’s tough as nails.
Who is this lady and why is she writing a book?
My first promotion at any job ever was in a workplace of about thirty men and one woman (me). It was a job at a ski resort in Mountain Operations, or “Mountain Ops,” which meant physical labor, long hours, big machines, power tools, and lots of time on snow in all conditions. Overall, I learned so much from my time there, and I’m grateful for that experience and time in my life. I was twenty-one years old, had no leadership experience, was working seventy to eighty hours a week, and had to face a bully and two serious injuries, all within a few short months. I had to learn life skills “on the fly,” as they say in restaurants. At the end of that ski season, I knew I wanted to capture that experience in writing and recount everything I had learned in such a short time. I started writing that story but didn’t know what to do with it.
After that experience, I found my place in restaurant kitchens and encountered the same gender demographic. It’s not like I was looking for male-dominated fields for the sake of it. Those were the types of jobs I wanted to work, and I didn’t want to let that get in the way. Representation is great, but sometimes we have to get out there and be the only one of our kind, even if we’re the first one we’ve seen in that field.
Equipped with the experience from that first leadership job, I went into the kitchen with a thick skin and an open mind. The kitchen taught me even more lessons on leadership, humility, and life. I fell in love with the rush, the camaraderie, and the ways it continued to challenge me as a cook and as a person. Writing was often my after-work outlet. Some of these pages were written at 2 a.m. after a brutal Saturday night service, still covered in grease, sweat, and chicken juice, eating ice cream for dinner and trying to process what just happened. I loved capturing the madness of a dinner rush with words on a page. I wanted to bring readers on the line, right there next to me, flipping steaks and slinging mussels diablo on a holiday weekend. I wrote about my frustrations, my wins, and my losses. I didn’t know who or what it was for; I just wanted to write it.
When I began leading in the kitchen, I was able to draw parallels between my ski resort job and my new workplace. I was able to build upon what I learned and experienced there as a supervisor. I faced many of the same struggles but was able to see it with a different perspective. That’s when I put the pieces together and started this book. I know there is still so much more for me to learn, and there are lessons I talk about here that I know I still need to practice in action.
We all have a lens we view our world through. It’s how we cope with what life throws our way. For me, it is my Christian faith. I have had a personal relationship with Christ since eighth grade, and my faith has played an integral part in my identity and how I dealt with the events in this book. The Bible talks a lot about womanhood and gives plenty of examples of women in leadership, business, and other important roles. Jesus was ahead of his time in the way he interacted with women. I’ll be talking about this too and how it relates to my work and my marriage. Whether you share my beliefs or not, this book is just my story.
Names, places, and businesses have been changed to keep anonymity.
Events are as true as remembered by the author.