One of the boys: How I lost myself in kitchen culture

This piece includes experiences from a number of workplaces which have been condensed for the sake of clarity. Names and dates have been changed out of consideration for those concerned.

When I was an apprentice I worked in the most remarkable kitchen. The head chef and part owner was a woman. Most of the chefs were women, as were several of the restaurant managers. This is remarkable because the hospitality industry is overwhelmingly run by men, especially in the kitchens.

My head chef was not only skilled in her trade, she also had a knack for management. She nurtured potential in all her staff by knowing how to deliver feedback, who needed boundaries and who thrived in competition. This was an egalitarian kitchen where everyone washed dishes and mopped floors and anyone was welcome to have a say in menu development. I don’t mean to idealise the whole experience; this was still a hardworking commercial kitchen, but it had an overwhelmingly positive environment. Everyone told me you’ll never work in a kitchen like this again but I was fifteen and naïve so I said ‘yeah, yeah’ and didn’t really get it.

By the time I was a fully qualified chef I was restless and ready for new experiences. After holding the same job for several years I was eager to prove myself out in the big wide world and hold my own in bigger, more prestigious kitchens. Jobs aren’t particularly difficult to come by in hospitality so it wasn’t long before I found what I was looking for: a place where the chefs were talented, the food was interesting and people could teach me more about my craft.

I quickly came to realise that this was one of the no-holds-barred, shit-talking, boys-will-be-boys kind of kitchens I had been warned about. It was a restaurant almost worthy of Kitchen Confidential in a time before Anthony Bourdain had ever heard the words me too. The waitresses were ranked by cup size and attractiveness. Customers were assessed for their fuckability. If the woman was in earshot they might use codewords (Chicken’s hot! Penne up!) or they might not bother to conceal the catcalling at all.

To begin with I did all the good feminist things. I objected to the names, I rolled my eyes at the codewords and in-jokes and refused to laugh at the sexist humour. Quickly, however, I became emotionally exhausted from constantly pushing back. It became harder to do my job.

I feared I would be just another woman thrown into one of those categories: fuckable, or not.

Kitchens are a collaborative workplace; everyone needs to synchronise their work for the dishes to come together on time. I’d joined this workplace because I wanted to develop my skills with a talented team. To do that I needed people to take time to teach me but I was fast becoming everyone’s least favourite person to be rostered on with.

I was the bitch that ruined the fun.

I don’t remember making a conscious decision to alter my behaviour. It happened so gradually that, at first, I didn’t even notice. But day by day the place chipped away at me until I was less and less myself. My objections to the jokes became half-hearted, then non-existent, then I’d find myself laughing along. It was so much easier.

I worked harder, longer and without breaks to prove how tough I was. I learnt to drink beer and joined in when everyone drank on the job. I drank a lot because they respected someone who could keep up. I ranked the waitresses. I wore extra baggy shirts and pants because if I looked too feminine I feared I would be just another woman thrown into one of those categories: fuckable, or not.

Male sous chef Alex had an old sports injury, tendon damage in his ankle, and had to take time off. No worries, anything you need, mate. Take a month, take two. We’ll cover your shifts.

Female chef Emma decided to have a baby. Well, how many days a week can you work? What do you mean you’ve got a doctor’s appointment? This is too much fucking hassle. We can’t cover your shifts.

Emma went on maternity leave early and she didn’t come back.

‘That’s not fair,’ I told them. ‘She’s making us all look bad. Not all women do that.’

Another young woman, Laura, started in the kitchen. By this time I was entrenched in the culture of the team and no longer gave any thought to the impact of the attitudes and jokes. She wore her aprons tied tightly around a tiny waist and complained constantly in a high squeaky voice. She was the very image of all the things I had worked so hard not to be. And it wasn’t long before she was everyone’s least favourite person to be rostered on with. She was the bitch that ruined the fun, not me. No, chef. I was one of the boys.

When she took a day off due to period pain the male chefs complained. This is why you can’t have chicks in the kitchen. I had never taken a sick day; it was a point of pride. ‘That’s not fair,’ I told them. ‘She’s making us all look bad. Not all women do that.’

Laura quit.

One day, with no warning, I had a mega-period. I was bleeding hard, I mean really fucking hard, and I didn’t know why. I frantically googled my symptoms on bathroom breaks and hiding in the coolroom. Was I having a miscarriage for some improbable pregnancy? Had I ruptured something? This was not normal, I was scared.

My heart sank as I changed into my last super-pad and mopped up the leakage. I was dreading the inevitable taunts and I knew what they’d say because I’d said it myself.

I told the head chef I needed to go home and he laughed in my face. ‘Ha, feeling sick? You must be pregnant!’ Honestly I could have walked in there with a broken leg and he still would have made that joke. I was too worried and exhausted to hold back my frustration: ‘I’m sick! People get sick! Can you not be a dick about this? I’m just sick, I need to go home. I’m not fucking pregnant.’

In everyone else’s eyes this was a hysterical joke, made all the funnier because they knew I was upset. For the rest of the week I was unable to escape it; anything I did or said would set off another round: Settle down pregnant lady! When are you due? After telling everyone to get fucked I was pulled aside by the head chef for a ‘chat’ about my attitude.

Nobody’s going to pussy-foot around you just because you’re a girl. Learn to take a joke. Be one of the boys. Fit in.

I had spent the better part of a year chipping away at myself to fit into their twisted mould of masculinity. I had bought into their pack mentality and by acting like one of the boys I had climbed up through the hierarchy. I earned a seat at the table and had a voice in creating menus and running the kitchen. I had made them pay attention to my skill and I believe, in the end, they did respect my work. But I had paid a hefty price. They may have respected my work but they did not respect me.

In my youthful naivety I had mistaken frat-house mateship for professional respect.

I’m convinced that these men would be horrified to find themselves described as misogynists. They hired women and paid them equally so how could they possibly be sexist? But they were only willing to work with women who didn’t challenge their worldview. They expected anyone joining their team to fit in andto shed any part of themselves that didn’t conform because a pack mentality sees no value in difference.

During the time I worked there my self-esteem had withered. I was bitter, I became a bad friend, I was a bully and I was ashamed of myself. In my youthful naivety I had mistaken frat-house mateship for professional respect. I had fed the beast and now I was being bitten.

Learn to take a joke? Fit in? Fuck that. If they wanted me to change my attitude, I would: I reclaimed the mantle of ‘the bitch that ruins the fun’.

No, I don’t want to discuss which waitress is the most fuckable.
No, I don’t think rape jokes are funny.
‘Like a girl’ is not an insult.

I had a lot of pent-up rage and letting it all out did not make me popular. It was exhausting and frustrating, not least because I felt like such a hypocrite. I had spent so long disregarding my own values, health and sense of self in pursuit of the approval of my male workmates that I had trouble finding a better way to function within that space. The behaviours I had adopted were so fundamentally opposed to any attitudes that might have fostered a more inclusive culture. I had dug myself in too deep to be able to carve out another way.

It wasn’t long before I booked a plane ticket and gave my notice. I needed a little time, a little inspiration and a whole lot of perspective.

What I’ve learnt is that when a masculinity that prizes and validates disconnection, self-abuse and mutual belittlement is embedded in the culture of a competitive environment, it becomes contagious and pervasive. As my experience shows, it can be difficult to maintain your sense of self in the reality of that environment. I would like to think the overall culture in hospitality is changing, and there are certainly strong indications that there’s a shift happening. It was Anthony Bourdain’s response to the #metoo movement that forced me to rethink my own actions and I can only hope that others will too.

Nowadays I’ve radically shifted my approach to changing workplace culture. I’m generally more upfront with new workmates and bosses about my experiences and expectations. Telling everyone from the get-go that you’ve got zero tolerance for sexism will nip a lot of potential problems in the bud.

I’m also slowly coming to terms with the fact that progress requires patience and diplomacy; realistically, a combative attitude doesn’t get you very far. I’m trying to shout less and listen more. I aim to find common ground but in moments of stress or frustration I sometimes find myself reverting to old habits of passive-aggressive putdowns or indignant rage-filled rants.

It’s not been easy, and I’m certainly no perfect feminist. I try to maintain an attitude that lets me advocate for change without alienating my workmates. Finding that balance between submission and anger has been challenging. I’ve burnt a few bridges along the way. Currently I consider myself fortunate to have colleagues, male and otherwise, who keep me honest and don’t put up with any nonsense.

Ultimately, in a hierarchical kitchen environment, it’s the executive and head chefs who need to be fostering positive change. Hierarchal systems can be functional, but become dangerous when those at the top tolerate bullying andpack behaviour. Too often, anyone considered ‘other’ is expected to conform. Instead the architects of these spaces should be opening them up and extending their attitudes to include others.

I know men who have struggled in kitchens and found themselves in the position of being both victims and aggressors within that culture.

This will require us all to take a good look at the work environments we foster. What kind of jokes are being told and who is the punchline? How are roles assigned and who is missing out? How are the staff bonding as a group and who is being excluded? Without solving these issues, how can we expect young people, especially queer and female chefs, to reach a point where they can thrive and contribute to the industry?

Although it’s easy to focus on how the cultural shift will enact positive changes for women, a more diverse and respectful community is good for everyone. I know men who have struggled in kitchens and found themselves in the position of being both victims and aggressors within that culture. As a community, if we take the time to self-reflect we may find that those reflections, much like they did for Bourdain, can lead us towards a broader understanding of disadvantage and discrimination. Then, collectively, we can actively cultivate environments led by people of all genders that appreciate and celebrate difference.

Hindsight is a bittersweet gift and I wish I’d better appreciated my time in that remarkable, feminist kitchen. They said I’d never work in a kitchen like that again but I hope the industry can evolve and we, together, can prove them wrong.

Header photo by Michael Browning

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One Comments

  • Maribeth Cole

    August 15, 2018

    Damn straight, LuluChef. TESTIFY.

    Reply

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