It had been a long day. It was probably a Saturday, with a 7am start for me in the kitchen, as I scurried around to assemble the chef’s mise-en-place for his cooking class that morning.
Fifteen hours later, it is nigh on ten in the evening. The dining room has filled and emptied twice over and now only a single table of guests remains. Two middle-aged couples are enjoying the last of their dinner, probably a crepe souffle.
I tread lightly through the dining room, heading towards the front door and the reservations book. My last duty of the day is to make sure I have everything ordered and ready for the next day of service, so that the chef doesn’t need to worry. It’s a thankless job, this sous cheffing business, and yet I take great pride in my rapid promotion to Second in the Kitchen in one of D.C.’s best French restaurants, a year after graduating from culinary school.
As I pass the four top on my way back to the kitchen, they look up at me and smile. I ask them if they’ve enjoyed their dinner, and they enthusiastically respond yes.
And then one man ruins it. He looks at me, asks me if I am the pastry chef.
Because I am a woman.
Because of course, a woman can’t hang with the boys on the line and handle the heat.
And because certainly, pastries are more delicate and not as demanding as cooking a steak, so therefore are the perfect avenue for the weaker sex.
Or so he thinks.
I stop dead in my track, and sadly, the professional flight attendant in me comes out. You know, the one that has put up for nine years with grown business men having hissy fits because they “have a Million Miles, Miss” and yet, I DARE MAKE them take their briefcases out from behind their knees and put them in the overhead bins.
New flash: physics doesn’t give two hoots about how many millions of miles you have should the aircraft come to a violently abrupt halt and the briefcase behind your knees turn into a projectile that performs a reverse godfather kneecap bashing. Physics is a bitch like that.
This is the Lisa that grits her teeth, and takes said (heavy as fuck) briefcases and puts them into the bins while these grown men sit and pout, and then revel in their schadenfreude of watching me struggle. Because of course, I made up that FAA rule just to for them.
But I digress.
Back at the restaurant, I pull myself up to all of my sixty two inches, throw a polite but chilly smile at the offending gentleman and reply, “No. I am the sous chef, and I cooked those beef tenderloins you just enjoyed. But thank you for asking.”
(In reality, small kitchens like that one don’t have a pastry chef. The job goes to the garde manger cook, a position I have worked in and subsequently trained others for. I’ve made all the desserts on the menu at some point; indeed, I have made all dishes on the carte at one time or another.)
Uncomfortable silence takes over, and the man shrinks noticeably in his seat.
The women, however, BEAM.
The better half of one couple sharply elbows her husband in the ribs. He smiles wanly, mutters something under his breath, and wishes for his cloak of invisibleness.
She gushes about how great it is, congratulates me on my job. She is ecstatic and effusive in her praise. She recognizes a member of the sisterhood trying to make it in a world skewed against our gender, and I think silently she’s rooting for women like me.
I nod, thank them, and return to the embrace of fluorescent lights to fume and swear in the sort-of soundproof cocoon of the kitchen.
I’ve been justifying, explaining and validating my cooking abilities since that day, if not from before.
Most women have had to. Lawyers, doctors, pilots, fire persons, police officers, scientists, professors……. the list goes on and on. The thing these jobs have in common? They have been traditionally viewed as the domain of men.
And for the record, I do NOT think being a pastry chef is “easier” than being on the hot line. If anything, that calling requires a degree of precision, patience, finesse and muscle that I know I don’t possess. If you think pastries are as easy as pie, you are woefully mistaken.
I thought it would get better as we as a society developed, as we evolved and graduated to a higher plane. But last night, in 2017, twenty years later, an older man asked me if I was REALLY A CHEF, if I was a chef IN REAL LIFE.
And then he proceeded to ask me for my credentials.
I’m 52 years old, and have been cooking professionally for over 20 years. I’ve cooked for and with some of the best chefs here in the states. I have been a chef overseas. I stood my ground to a fucking hurricane, didn’t run when Katrina came calling. I’ve opened my own restaurants, and have my brand on prominent local market shelves. Some may say I failed, some may think I succeeded. I don’t really care. I lived, and that’s enough for me.
But this guy wants to know my qualifications to be a chef, wants me to explain myself to him.
Women get this All. The. Time. It happens when we least expect to be questioned, so of course, we are ill-prepared to come back with a snappy scathing retort. We also have ingrained in us the whole “be polite” mantra, to our disadvantage.
Look, I’m not saying don’t ask me questions. And no, I don’t want my ego stroked. But fer crying out loud, think before you let your ignorance and latent sexism show. Maybe ask yourself, hey, how would I feel if I had to explain why I like to (fill in the blank with any activity or profession that normally is done by women). And then if you think you wouldn’t like it, just be quiet.
Guys get it, too. Think about male nurses. Or male flight attendants. Or stay-at-home dads. Or men who like to sew or knit or dance, anything remotely judged by our society as “feminine”.
Either direction, it’s not fair. We all make silly assumptions, put our foot in our mouths whether it be about religion, race, sexual orientation, age, and gender. We put people in boxes, and get mad when they don’t stay in them. Cats jump into boxes and stay there and that’s cute. It’s not the same for people. It’s never cute to box someone up.
It’s exhausting to constantly be on guard to defend and justify our place in this world. We shouldn’t have to, no one should have to.
It’s 2017. Can we please catch up to it?