The Horrors, Degradations & Ass-Kicking Triumphs of NYC's Female Chefs
It started with one chef. An accomplished veteran who regaled us a month or so ago with a load of stories about what it’s like to be a woman working in some of New York’s best restaurant kitchens. The takeaway: it sucks. And sometimes it really sucks. Then she suggested we get in touch with someone else, and we did, and on and on.
Pretty soon, we’d spoken to nearly two dozen women about their experiences toiling in the business -- good, bad, funny, horrifying tales that go well beyond the usual debate about whether women can endure the high heat and heavy pots of professional kitchens. The older chefs got the worst of it, the younger ones have grappled with the changing sexual dynamics of modern kitchens, and pretty much everyone has had to deal with a lot of penis-shaped food items strewn about with great abandon. The good news: it’s better than it was, but there's a long way to go. Want proof? Read on.
*Special thanks to Les Dames d’Escoffier New York, an organization that has been providing support to women in the culinary business since 1973, for helping us set up several of the interviews.
Part 1: Respect? You Will Get None of That.
Amanda Cohen, chef-owner, Dirt Candy: I’ve never experienced any kind of sexism in a kitchen. I’ve sometimes been treated like garbage in kitchens, but everyone gets treated like garbage in kitchens. But the place where I’m constantly reminded that I’m a woman is when it comes to recognition. The first few years of Dirt Candy, people would come to the kitchen to pay their compliments to the chef and they would stand next to my station and I could tell they were looking for a man. They’d dismiss me because I’m not a man. They’d dismiss my line cook because she was usually not a man. Finally, they’d settle on my dishwasher. I can’t tell you how many Dirt Candy customers in those first few years sincerely and graciously thanked my very confused dishwasher for their meal. The few times when I’d have a guy on my line, I’d see these same customers' eyes light up. They would ignore the 38-year-old chef standing next to them, running the kitchen, and give manly handshakes to a 22-year-old kid working the line, telling him about what a great staff he has.
Barbara Sibley, chef-owner, La Palapa: I’ve had lots of people come in and say, “Honey, where’s the boss? Is he in here today?” It happens all the time.
Anita Lo, chef-owner, Annisa: That happens here, too. People are like, “Oh, do you know the chef? Is he in the kitchen?” Constantly. It’s amazing.
Maristella Innocenti, co-chef-co-owner, I Coppi di Matilda: I worked as a consultant opening a new Italian place in the East Village almost two years ago. I actually had this guy who ended up installing the AC who was a nightmare. I kept calling him to come finish the job, we were dying from the heat, it was insane. When he finally came he was really nasty to me: who do you think you are, the Madonna? And I was like, “How dare you? You've offended me!” He told me in his country -- Senegal -- women don’t talk like that to a man. I was like, “I’m not your woman. I’m the person who’s gonna pay you for a job.” And he didn’t expect that, so he jumped in the truck and closed all the windows and started to leave, because I had insulted him. So I went in the middle of Fifth Street and I stood there with my arms crossed, and I was screaming at him: “I won’t let you go until you apologize!” The other guy with him had to come down and apologize to get me to let them go.
Alina Martell, executive pastry chef: When you work in a kitchen, you get a nickname pretty quickly. I used to joke with my friends who worked in restaurants that we’d name our memoir Sugar Baby Honey Mama.
Part 2: Banished to the Pink Dungeon
Jacqueline Lombard, executive chef: The chefs who trained us in culinary school were all French, and when we graduated they all said, “Good luck: if you’re lucky you’ll get a job in pastry. I wouldn’t hire you. But hopefully someone will!” When I got my first job they did make me do pastry one day a week, because that was a girl’s job. They thought that I would be more comfortable there. They said, “Are you sure you don’t want to do pastry all the time?”
Anonymous, executive sous chef: When I started at my first restaurant, the only spot that was available was pastry, and I was like, I love to bake, but I want to prove myself and work on the line. They said, “Okay, no problem, no problem. Just work pastry for a little bit and we’ll put you on the line.” I worked pastry for a year and a half, and I was like, "Am I ever going to move off?"
Martell: They call it the pink dungeon. [Laughs] The pastry kitchen. It’s where the women are.
Anonymous, chef de cuisine: Usually the pastry department is dominated by females. It’s a different craziness. I’ve lived through both worlds because I was a savory cook, then I went to pastry, and I went back to savory because I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t live in that world. Not to put women down, but they’re very competitive with each other, and they would sabotage each other. They’d exchange sugar for salt, they would crank someone’s oven up when she needed it at a perfect 220 degrees. If someone was making a meringue that needed perfect egg whites, they would throw an egg yolk in there. Just to fuck with each other. While in a savory environment there are very few of you, so you tend to stick together and help each other.
Part 3: The French Nightmare
Lombard: When I went to the French Culinary Institute, André Soltner and Jacques Pépin were two of the heads of the school. I graduated at the top of my class, and I remember Jacques Pépin went up to my husband after graduation and said, “Congratulations! You have a beautiful wife who can stay home and make you dinner all the time now.” My husband said, “Excuse me, my wife’s a chef. She’s going to work.” And everyone just looked at him like, Such a nice thought! I didn’t even get upset because Jacques Pépin just paid me a compliment. I just took the win. But my husband noticed.
Anonymous, sous chef: When I was in France, the chef used to grab the girls by the buns on the backs of their heads and yank their heads back. Mine would attach a carrot to a string and hang it over my station. He’d call me “The Little Donkey.” “Donkey américaine.” He was a great chef. But he was a monster.
Martell: I started out at Jean-Georges, and there were days you were so scared you’d go into the kitchen shaking. Some days you’d have things thrown at you, pots, whatever, it happens. But then there were always those moments where you're like, Okay, you’re human. One of those happened on my first day on a brand-new station. And I was so nervous, making sure everything is perfect, everything is cleaned down. I’m immaculate, there’s nothing on my apron, and I’m rigidly standing there, waiting. Jean-Georges comes over, and I’m sweating because I’m so terrified. And there’s this girl, she was a cook at the time, Grayson Schmitz, she comes bouncing over and Jean-Georges looks at her and goes, “Why is your hair down?” She had a ponytail, it wasn’t all tied up. And she had the balls -- she throws her arm around him, and she goes, “J-Gizzle, how am I gonna get a man if they can’t see my hair down? I’m working in a kitchen.” And I’m like, Who is this girl? Did she just call Jean-Georges J-Gizzle?
Grayson Schmitz, chef: [Laughs] And you know what he said? He said, “Uh, okay, okay,” and he let me keep my hair down. I was the only one who got to wear my hair in a ponytail, and it was probably 12 inches long. I worked with JG for a long time, so I knew I could be a little sassy to him without it coming off as disrespectful. I also cooked at every station and I could do everything. I proved myself by doing everything the guys could do, but better, and nobody fucked with me, like ever. Beyond the normal harassment that we all get.
Part 4: The Baby Bomb
Anonymous, executive chef: I was interviewing for a job once, and the manager said, “You’re married. Is that going to be a problem?” I said no. Fully dedicated to the job. He said, “All right, are you gonna get pregnant?” I stopped and I said, “Excuse me, is that a legal question?” And he just put his hand on a big stack of resumes and said, “This is how many people want this position. So I need yes or no.” I just wanted the job, so I was like, “Of course not. Of course not. I have no interest in having kids. I just want to work here and have the job and that’s it.” He said, “I’m willing to take a risk on you, but I’m not going to have a woman fuck up the line.”
Ashley James, line cook: It’s a concern. They see women as a flight risk, because you never really know who is that committed and who isn’t. Men can impregnate somebody and go back to work, but even if I’m really committed, and I can afford nannies, and still put my head down, there’s still that nine-month period where they don’t want me on the line because of liability or whatever the case might be. It sucks that all of us have to endure that sort of thinking, that all of us are that risk.
Lombard: I have the ultimate sympathy for the women I hire, and I do as much as I can to accommodate any restrictions they may have. If I have a pregnant lady, I have a stool at her station, and I’m making sure she’s taking her breaks and resting. But because I do that, everyone else in the kitchen is pissed off and resentful. I’ve had cooks with cancer, cooks with emphysema. I’ve had cooks with gallstones. I accommodated them and no one objected to that. But is a pregnant woman any more liable to cut herself, or hurt herself than that drunk guy, or your coked-up ass? If anything she’s being twice as careful. But no, they say it’ll mess up the line. It’ll make the guys nervous.
Innocenti: You can do it. I was pregnant when I was the chef at I Coppi in the East Village, and I worked the whole nine months. Nine months with gestational diabetes. Huge belly. I worked and I worked and I ran like crazy. Nine months. I remember the day before I was scheduled to deliver the baby, my sister, who owned the restaurant, wasn’t feeling good, and asked me if I could work for her on the floor seating people. It was crazy-busy. So all day, I was running down to the garden out back, back to the door, down to the garden. This guy stopped me and said, “I’m sorry, when are you due?” And I said, “Tomorrow!” He said, “What are you doing?!” I said, “I heard that it helps labor! The adrenaline!” The next day, I was about to go to the hospital, and I took a reservation on the phone before I jumped in the cab. A month and a half later I was back, expediting in front of the kitchen with the baby sleeping in the BabyBjörn. That’s what you do. As a woman you can do it. We’re multitaskers. That’s a gift we have. And thank goodness, because otherwise we would die.
Part 5: A Superabundance of Filth
James: I’ve had to become very comfortable with being around men in their natural habitat. I had a lot to learn. I mean, I curse like a sailor now and I didn’t before. But the things we talk about, I would never talk about with guys outside of work. Things they say to me that I just roll my eyes at or laugh off, I would never, ever let a guy outside of work say to me. I guess I’ve become adjusted to it, and I don’t really care anymore. Plus it would just be more work to try to get them to stop.
Anonymous, sous chef: The guys say terrible things all day long. And I’ve never been one who loves the sexual banter, but if they’re throwing it down, I’ll throw down with them, because you need to neutralize it. If they want to talk about sex, I’ll tell them about the sex I had last night. And that way they know they’re not gonna freak me out. It shows I’m one of the guys. I feel like I’m always becoming one of the guys.
Lombard: I hired this girl once. She was, like, a women’s studies major from Sarah Lawrence. This wasn’t gonna end well. She ended up quitting. I told her, “I warned you, if you get hired here, they’re gonna give you shit, they’re gonna fuck with your station, they’re going to leave mashed potato balls with a banana dick in your refrigerator every day -- because that’s what they do. In every kitchen. It’s a compliment. If they leave you balls and a cock it means they like you. They’re making a joke. They’re not trying to scare you. They’re being friendly. That’s how they show friendliness.”
Anonymous, executive sous chef: Oh yeah, that always happens. Every kind of penis-shaped vegetable will end up in your lowboy.
Anonymous, chef de cuisine: The other day, the butcher formed a penis out of pasta for the pasta guy.
Anonymous, chef de cuisine: They’re everywhere. A few years ago we had a lamb set that had two long strips of Swiss chard that was stuffed, wrapped, then braised, and it had one huge piece and two potato balls. So every time we’d fire it, it’d be “fire two balls and a dong.” Or when we would have octopus, instead of calling it octopus, we’d say “fire pussy.” “Fire two dongs and a pussy!” I was like, "Guys -- as much as I’m okay with it, we can’t call out tickets like that. We’re gonna get a lawsuit."
Anonymous, pastry chef: We had a plate once. It’s this lipped plate, this perfect eye-shaped plate with a line down it. The chef would just hold it up to girls. I’m like, Come on.
Anonymous, sous chef: I’ve done it to guys. I found this fig that looked like balls. It was incredible. It was perfect. So I just kept it on one guy’s station the entire night we were working. Every time he tried to move it, I just put it back.
Part 6: A Word on the Facilities
Anonymous, executive chef: At this one place I worked, their setup for a locker room was very typical. There was no male and female locker rooms. There was a basement with some lockers and an open doorway with no door, and then two bathroom stalls. And about a month after I started, one of the bathroom doors got ripped off, “accidentally,” so you had to face sitting face-out at the guys to go pee. And then I was like, “Guys, I’m a girl. You can’t rip the door off.” Then the next day the other stall door was off. So for the next two and a half years I peed looking at the guys. They think it’s funny. They’re not trying to torture you, they just want to see your tush. Later I went to another place, and, again: coed locker room, one bathroom, no door. At that point I was the head chef and I was like, “I’m using the guests’ bathroom. You can fire me, but you can’t make me do this anymore.”
Anonymous, pastry chef no. 2: A lot of these places, there’s only one bathroom for, like, 30 employees in the kitchen. And we can’t use one outside the kitchen because the guests will see us. Hey, guess what, man? I’m a female. I get my period once a month. There’s only one bathroom, for real. For all these guys and two girls. What about us? Or we gotta change in front of the guys, because the locker rooms are unisex. I’m not shy, but I don’t want to change in front of a bunch of guys.
Part 7: Sex, Smut, and Violence
Anonymous, sous chef: The boss’s right-hand man found it very entertaining one time to throw me in the office, lock the door, and make me watch porn. He was like, “Come in here, come in here, I need to show you something.” And he locked the door. Oh my God. I wouldn’t say it was the worst porn, but maybe a step above that. I’m like, “I really gotta go.” He didn’t stand in front of the door, he let me go, but still. And I was like, “Oh man, I can’t say anything.” I know you’re supposed to report it, but I kind of want to keep my job. I’m gonna be blacklisted even though it’s not my fault. I don’t want to be that person. I just got there. I felt like it was easier to just erase it from my head. I just tried to avoid any other situations after that. Like, run away. I had never told that story before.
Anonymous, executive chef: I had a boss who hooked up with a lot of waitresses. That’s fine. I don’t care. But I walked in the office really early one morning, and he’s doing one of them from behind, and there’s coke all over the desk, there’s a bottle of whiskey tipped over on my computer, and it’s frozen on a cock shot. It all happened in one second. He’s got his back to me, he hears the door open, and he kicks the door shut.
Renee Marton, culinary instructor, former executive chef: I had a sous chef at [the legendary, now-defunct] Florent in the Meatpacking District who had a severe crush on one of the other cooks in the kitchen. She wasn’t that interested in him, but he was totally besotted. And they were having an argument in the kitchen once, and he picked up a cleaver and went after her. He had it up in the air and he was running after her. He was in a state of rage. And I think she was cowering in the corner, but I grabbed his hand and yanked it backwards. I said, “Get out right now, and I never want to see you again.” And he looked totally astonished, as if he couldn’t believe I would say such a thing.
Anonymous, executive chef: I used to get to work at like 5:45 in the morning, open, and then the dish crew would roll in around 6. And one morning, I’m changing, and this 60-year-old scumbag comes up behind me, like, Come on baby, trying to rip my bra off because he thinks we’re the only two people there. I’m screaming and fighting him off, and I hear somebody coming downstairs. He grabs the guy, punches him, and tells me, “Run upstairs, run upstairs.” He tells him, “I’m reporting it.” And the guy is like, “You can’t report me, she’ll get fired.” That was the first concern. We didn’t know how the boss would react. Is he gonna say this is why we can’t have women in the kitchen, because it tempts men to do these things? They could get sued. So I said, “Just tell the boss, but tell him I’m cool. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m doing the job.” He told the boss, and the boss immediately fired the guy. But then, even though I didn’t talk about it, everyone wanted to know why he got fired, and when they heard, they were all mad at me. I had runners who wouldn’t even pick up dessert from my station after that.
Pnina Peled, executive chef: Maybe 13 years ago, I had two cooks come into my office, they closed the door, they locked it. I was sitting at my desk. One was 6’2”, one was 6’5”. They worked for me. And these guys were giving me problems from day one. It was a union hotel, and one of the guys was the hotel shop steward. First thing out of his mouth was, “I’m going to either get you fired, or you’re gonna quit.” So I sat back down in my chair, and I said, “Really? And how do you plan on doing that?” He said, “You’re gonna see. You’re gonna see what I do to you.” And he’s now in my face, and the other guy is now right behind me. He was intimidating, but my Father always taught me not to ever back down from anybody, even if it means getting your ass kicked. So I basically told them, “Okay, are you done? Did you say what you have to say to me? Do you feel good about it? Now turn around, and take your fucking friend, and get the fuck out of my office.” He looked at me shocked that I would even speak to him that way. And he started to yell. And I picked up the phone and I said, “I’m giving you an opportunity to walk out of my office, if you don’t, I’ll call security and they’ll remove you from my office. Which do you prefer?” He gave me a look and walked out.
Long story short, I documented everything this guy did. I ended up sitting in arbitration with him at the union house, and I got him suspended for one month without pay, which is really rare for the unions. And after a month, that guy came back like a dog. Like a dog. Trying to talk to me, trying to befriend me. For the month he was suspended everyone was quiet in that kitchen every single day. They got it. Even still today I tell my staff -- and this is my favorite quote -- don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.
Anonymous, executive chef: I was hired to open a place as executive chef. And after I worked 120 straight days the owners told me to take some time off. I sniffed something was up, but I took a few days off. When I came back, they called me into the office and said, “We don’t need you. We’re going to keep your staff, but we don’t need you.” And I was like, “You can’t do that.” They’re like, “Yeah we can." I asked, "What if I try to fight this?" And they said, “Then we’ll go to the press and we’ll tell ‘em you were fucking the owner." I was laughing I was so pissed. That job ended with me going home and not working for three months. I was terrified I’d never be able to get a job. I’ve heard stories of people who got blacklisted because they filed for unemployment. Because owners talk.
Katrina Cunning, chef and owner, The Hot Knife Catering: When those rumors start to go around, whether they’re true or not, it’s always viewed differently depending on whether it’s a female or a male. It’s even portrayed in movies -- like, the male cook is sleeping with the female owner and it’s sexy. But the other way around and it’s sad and you’re a slut."
Part 8: The Subtle Art of Management
Sibley: I’ve had people quit because I demanded they do women’s work. Because I have a Mexican restaurant, and Mexico’s very segregated in terms of gender roles. A guy can do the barbecue, but his wife does the tamales or makes the molé. I had someone quit because I had him cleaning chile [peppers]. He said, “I don’t do that. The women clean the chile.” But if you’re braising the meat, that’s the guy. For me I found the best way to do it is by training all the people who work for me. If you can work for a woman and you want to learn, I’m happy to teach you.
Anonymous, sous chef: Most women usually can’t use blunt force to get what they want. For the guys it’s “What the fuck is wrong with you? Go faster. Be better.” But women have to use finesse. They have to be problem-solvers. They bring balance.
Anonymous, chef de cuisine: You pair a man with a woman. I don’t have a team that does not have a girl, and I don’t have a team that’s completely female-dominated. Some are thinkers, some are natural cooks. They all have to figure out how to work with each other's personalities. It keeps everybody calm.
Anonymous, sous chef: You do play the female card a little bit to get stuff done. There are disadvantages, but there are advantages too. The Mexican guys will do whatever I want because I’m like, Mi amor, how are you doing today? I have a dishwasher I give a hug to every day. He’s Jamaican. But any time I have a big produce order come in, he’s the first one there with me.
Anonymous pastry chef no. 2: I don’t kiss the chef’s ass. The dishwashers: I kiss their asses. I walk into any kitchen, and head for the dishwashers right away, “Hello, how are you, where are you from, you have a family?” Then, “Can I get this pot cleaned please?” Boom. I get to them first. Because to me, the dishwasher is king. The chef leaves, okay, you’ll be all right. The dishwasher leaves: we’re fucked. Dishwasher’s ass? I’ll kiss that in a heartbeat.
Part 9: How Much Crying Is Too Much Crying?
Anonymous, sous chef: I went through a really bad breakup at one of my jobs, and I cried a lot. And that was it. It took me a while to recover from that. Men do not want to see you cry. Because then you’ll get put in that female category. That’s the tipping point.
Anonymous, executive sous chef: You can’t cry. You can’t do it. I did once, in the open, when I was coming up. The next time I had to I ran into the locker room. You can’t. The next day everyone comes back, it’s a new day, they don’t really say anything, but it’s probably on their minds: little loser. Can’t handle it.
But a few years later, I took a job at a kitchen with a lot more women involved at the line level. A lot more criers. That was very difficult. At a point I had to be like, “Stop crying! You can’t do this in front of these people! You’re making yourself look bad!” And they’d start crying again. Did they stop? They cried less. Not as often. A lot of women, when they were in all-male kitchens, they had to not do that. They had to fight their way to the top. But now the whole thing’s flipped, and it’s like I don’t know what’s worse. Now these girls hate each other, love each other, hate each other, cry, and they’d all come to me. I’m like really? Stop crying!
Sara Moulton, former line cook; former executive chef, Gourmet; author; host, Sara’s Weeknight Meals on PBS: Here’s what happens. When I first was a chef I hired all women. I was determined. But we all got on the same cycle. I’m sorry! It’s what happens! Either we’d be crying at each other or we’d be yelling at each other once a month. I know that sounds rather un-feminist of me, but it’s absolutely true. The women were good workers, but there was a fair amount of backbiting and petty bullshit. So when we moved to a larger location and doubled the staff, I hired half men: some gay, some straight. That worked the best. Everyone tempered everyone else.
Anonymous, executive pastry chef: Everyone cries now. It’s true. I’ve made guys cry. Little tear. It’s rare. I never like to have it happen. I know how it feels on the other end. It’s not fun.
Anonymous, executive sous chef: Honestly, I feel like everyone wanted to cry all along, and now they’re all doing it.
Coda: The Future
Martell: In general, I think it’s changed a lot since I came to New York 10 years ago. There’s so many more schools, there are so many more people doing this. It’s become a more respectable profession. It changed the culture in that there are more people who have different backgrounds. It’s not something you do because you need a paycheck, it’s something you do because you want to do it. In that way it’s been great for women. It evens the playing field. It’s not this rigid old French system. And we don’t get picked on as much because more of us are in charge.
Peled: I do think the men’s mentality is changing. I don’t think that they go out of their way as much to make women miserable. I don’t want to say it doesn’t happen at all, because it still happens a lot, but it’s changing.
Anonymous, sous chef: Where I am now, the kitchen is three-quarters women, and the men in the kitchen are better people because of it. They have to filter themselves. The women I work with now, they’re all very serious. So of course we talk, we chitchat. Girl stuff comes up now and again, but mostly we talk about TV, House of Cards. We were just talking about the James Beard Awards. I think our chefs -- they came out of Alain Ducasse eight or nine years ago -- are flabbergasted by it. It’s a positive work environment. It’s not a war.
When you work with a guy, you’re able to bring out his sensitive side. Like he doesn’t feel judged. A guy I worked with came in one day super hungover, looked like shit, felt like shit, and I said, “If you take this, it’s gonna make you feel better.” It was Midol. I take it all the time because it’s basically caffeinated Tylenol, and over the years I’ve been able to get three or four guys to take it regularly, in secret. They’re like, “You can’t tell anybody, you can’t tell anybody.” These are very, very heterosexual men. If their girlfriends only knew they’re taking Midol to get through the workday...
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Joe Keohane is the Features Editor at Thrillist.
*Special thanks to Gotham West Market for allowing us to shoot in The Club Room.