Chefs Who Happen To Be Female

 

Gifted women are transforming kitchen culture in their push for talent to reign over gender. The Greasy Spoon is bringing together 16 chefs, all of whom happen to be female, to raise money for Sistering -- an organization that services socially isolated and unhoused women in Toronto. Ahead of the dinner, we met six of the chefs in their homes to ask about the evolution of their career and how normalizing something -- like being a woman in a male-dominated industry -- often means that it's no longer a point of contention.


1. This Greasy Spoon in Toronto is kind of poking fun at the attribute “female” predicating chef. You’re not a “female chef” you’re a chef who happens to also be a female. How does that play into your experience in this industry?

2. In terms of the evolution of kitchen culture, if we’re trying to obliterate this delineation between male and female in the industry, how do you see it becoming equalized if it’s not already there?

3. What has been a memorable experience for you as a chef?

4. Why did you want to participate in this Greasy Spoon? 

 
 
 
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How does being a chef, who happens to also be female, play into your experience in this industry?

As an entrepreneur, I guess you don’t really think about the role that you’re playing, you’re just trying to keep your head above water.  Being able to understand that entrepreneurship is not something that everyone can do; it’s a fear and a drive that you have that propels you forward. It’s something my dad had, it’s something I have, it’s something I see in other women business owners and restaurateurs. You walk into something knowing and accepting that you’re going to be in a position to thrive on your own. It's all about the integrity of your work and your craft, and the community you surround yourself with.


In terms of the evolution of kitchen culture, if we’re trying to obliterate this delineation between male and female in the industry, how do you see it becoming equalized if it’s not already there?

What I want for the change in the industry is collaboration. I’m part of that movement and belief that you don’t have to do it on your own. We’re recognizing that the world around us is super male-dominated, especially in the restaurant industry, but we as women know that we’re creators of businesses and nations; we're problem-solvers and nurturers; we are the most relevant in that conversation of what we can bring to an organization or project. We have to pave the way. And with the evolution comes the next chapter and space of acceptance.

What has been a memorable experience for you as a chef?

I remember it being a week past my due date and I was in the restaurant prepping on one of the stools. I was quite pregnant and thinking, “when is this baby going to come!?” He should have already been in the world but he hadn’t arrived yet, so I’m sitting there making meatballs and remember that my midwife had said I would feel some cramps. I felt one and was like, “okay, that was a cramp.” Then a few minutes later, I felt another one that was more than a cramp so I decided to head home. The restaurant was packed and I snuck out the back. I got home within ten minutes and was in full active labor. For me, that was the moment of thinking: am I going to give birth to my son in this restaurant? My husband and I had worked so hard for that restaurant; I mean, it was like my first baby, and now, here was was my second baby! Beginning contractions in that space will always be a special moment. We’ve now had to leave that restaurant for many reasons but we did really good things with it and had a really good time. I will always remember sitting there and making those meatballs.

- Suzanne Barr

 
 
 
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How does being a chef, who happens to also be female, play into your experience in this industry?

It’s exhausting. Every single fucking interview I had at the beginning was, “so what’s it like being a female chef?” and I’m like, “I cook, I work long hours, I get paid shit sometimes. I don’t know what to tell you.”

In terms of the evolution of kitchen culture, if we’re trying to obliterate this delineation between male and female in the industry, how do you see it becoming equalized if it’s not already there?

It all depends on where you put yourself. I think that if you’re constantly thinking that it’s going to be lopsided then it’s going to be lopsided. I’ve learned to become a very positive person. The industry is on the up and up. I had a stint working in London kitchens and also in Australia, and it’s a bit of a different vibe. That was years ago so I don’t know what it’s like now, but it was definitely more lopsided. Here, it’s crazy. It’s going places. I started at Scaramouche, it was my first professional job. The sous-chef was Carolyn Reid so I already that female figure to motivate me and was very fortunate to have that bar set that you can be a kickass chef and it doesn’t matter if you’re purple or green or whatever.

What has been a memorable experience for you as a chef?

After I did Season 2 of Top Chef, that’s when my confidence boosted. I knew what I was capable of because I was put in a stressful environment full of the unknown. I knew I could be a head chef after that. Then doing Top Chef Allstars, I was like “what the fuck am I doing?”

Why did you say yes to doing it?

Because I don’t like to say no. It’s all about opportunities. I wanted to make sure that I had no regrets about it. If I saw bus signs or any kind of commercials and I knew I had said no to it, that would be a shitty feeling.

- Trista Sheen 

 
 
 
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How does being a chef, who happens to also be female, play into your experience in this industry?

For me, I spent a lot of my career in the beginning trying to hide the female-ness. Whether it was a simple thing like putting on that double-breasted chef coat that doesn’t fit and trying to make it look like I’m one of the boys instead of standing out as a female. One of the reasons was that when somebody doesn’t yet know your talent or worth and you’re working in a big kitchen or one that’s very French or technique-driven, it helps to amalgamate.

I think it has changed, especially as more women are showing their flair for the food, speaking up, and saying “I don’t need to dress like you.” It sounds really simple, just changing the chef coat, but it makes a visual impact and doing that helps people understand that it’s how she wants to be portrayed. There is more of a drive towards talent opposed to being gender-based, which is why this whole thing about chefs who “happen to be female” is so important because it’s usually been about hiding your femininity or being asked questions like, “how do you feel as a female chef,” which is such a funny question to me because I’ve been female my whole life; I don’t know what it’s like to be a male chef.  

Why did you want to participate in this Greasy Spoon? 

The bonding aspect is huge. It’s natural that a lot of kitchens in the past, the male bonding happens because there just tends to be more of them. Usually, a female chef would be in the pastry area or a few sporadically in the kitchen, so it was natural that conversations would be different. It’s nice to have opportunities like Greasy Spoon, not just for the cooking aspects, but also to be able to talk about these kinds of things. Women talk differently than men, and when you bring a bunch of them together, the conversations do tend to go deeper. Also, I went to the Greasy Spoon in Vancouver and really got to know Mark Brand, Ash, and the gang out there. I think it’s not only a great opportunity to help that community but also to bring it nationwide, and I love the idea of getting a whole bunch of badass girls together!

- Veronica Mal

 
 
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How does being a chef, who happens to also be female, play into your experience in this industry?

To be completely fucking honest with you, I hate this conversation because the more we talk about it, the more segregated it gets. So this whole line of questioning of “how. does. it. feel. to. engage. in. this. marketplace. as. a. woman, blah-blah-blah,” I’m like “oh my god, are we really still having this conversation?” because that’s not how I treat people or engage with people. It’s always frustrating for me because we’re just talented people who are being recognized, whether I have a vagina or a penis or I’m a naiad* or whatever. If someone were to say “I don’t take you as seriously in the kitchen because you’re female,” I’d be like, “what the fuck is wrong with you?”

What has been a memorable experience for you as a chef?

I was asked to be in a competition on Prince Edward Island at the Culinary School of Canada called the Garland Culinary Competition. I’m an alumnus of that college and was the only female invited. It was myself against 11 other men. I also had an event with The Whalesbone after that in Ottawa so I had to ship a bunch of stuff on the bus to my sous-chef and asked him to deal with it until I was there in two days.

So I’m practicing my ass off for this competition and I felt very prepared. I show up early in the morning; I’m nervous but I’m feeling confident with my dish. And I lost. My station was clean, I was too fast, I finished my dish in 22 minutes and my chef was like, ‘you can slow down and take your time to do this,’ but I was just super ready. When I lost I was really bummed.

The judge came up to me and said “can I talk to you about something?” and I like “okay, sure, I’d love to know what I did wrong, what happened, what I could improve?” And he said, “you lost because you’re a woman.” And I was like, “what?! I don’t know what you mean.” And he said, “you lost because you’re a woman and all the judges were men and your chance to win went out the door as soon as you walked in the door. Your dish was five times better than anyone else’s but because you’re a woman, your dish has to be ten times better.” And I was like, “I don’t know what you’re saying to me right now, I don’t understand this language that you’re using.” And he said, “that’s just how it is.”

I grabbed a bottle of wine and went back to hotel room and cried in the shower for an hour and a half. I had never experienced segregation before. The next day, I had to do this chowder competition and I was pissed off and miserable and angry. I didn’t give two shits. I just wanted the competition to be over so I could get on a flight and get to Ottawa. I had a volunteer who was 70-years-old and I asked him to carry my garnish out to the table and he dropped it all over the concrete floor. I lost it on him, that poor little man. This really innocent volunteer got the brunt of my anger. It was pretty funny. I apologized later. Anyway, I lost that competition too because I had no garnish.

I got on the plane and as soon as I got back with my old team, this beautiful tent was set up and my old sous-chef was there and he was like, ‘chef, we’re ready to go, all your dishes are put away, we know exactly how you like it, we’re so happy that you’re here, we miss you and we respect you so much.’ That’s when I realized that I had never recognized being treated differently, until that moment. I never saw it. I was naive; blind! But also, people see things when they want to see things.

When I was asked to judge the Garland competition, I said that I’d love to, and all the people who are judging are all women; good job, guys. A woman won last year! And people are like, ‘oh, is it because she’s a woman that you chose her?’ and I was like, ‘no, it’s because I would eat her dish over again. That’s how I choose winners.’

*immortal water nymph from Greek mythology

- Charlotte Langley

 
 
 
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The thing we love about this Greasy Spoon is that it’s poking fun at the attribute “female” predicating chef. You’re not a “female chef” you’re a chef who happens to also be a female, so how does that play into your experience in this industry?  

Females are the ones who taught male chefs how to cook, like your nonna and such. So why are you acting like women don’t know how to do this? It ends up being a marketing ploy too when you throw in the word “female” into anything that’s a male-dominated industry.

Why did you want to be part of this Greasy Spoon? 

I had this very difficult but also amazing year of becoming a better chef in the city and discovering who I am. On a selfish level, things like this reaffirm my own talents. Because we’re donating to Sistering, I also felt like that was really cool. Being a chef and a woman in the city can already be really difficult, so being able to come together and showcase our talents, it’s like, give me more events like these, please!

Is there an intersection between your own personal journey of reaffirming your talents and the difficulty you mentioned of being a “female chef” in the city?

They have to be related. I remember one of my first jobs in the kitchen, there was a huge box of avocados on the shelf and I lifted them down because I needed them, and one of my male co-workers was like, ‘oh, you’re so strong, you’re like a female Hulk; I’m going to nickname you Female Hulk,’ and I was like, ‘or we could not.’ I’m just strong.

I feel like ever since starting in this industry, I’ve had to prove myself for tasks that I shouldn’t have to over and over again. Even when I started running the kitchen at my last spot, they were so hyper-aware of the fact that I’m female and watched me so much closer than any of my male counterparts even though I was more accredited than any of them. And all the males were also getting paid a dollar to two dollars more than I was, which was a big slap in the face.

Overcoming that, proving myself, and having to...I don’t want to say keep my emotions in check but, if you want to express yourself in any way, people will automatically say you’re a bitch. When I first started, the guys would talk shit to me and I would talk back so they’d call me sassy. And it’s like, I’m not sassy I’m just saying the truth and the way you’re talking to me isn’t cool and I’m going to call you on it.

Where do you see the opportunity for change in the industry?

I feel like it comes down to tolerance and language. There are some talk of people banning swear words in the kitchen, which I think is dumb because if you’ve ever burnt your hand you just yell “fuck!” The culture goes with the language but it's the jokes that people make about sexuality or feminism. Or people associating being female with being weak, like “you’re such a pussy.” Pussies are actually really strong! If you want to call someone weak, call them balls! Most of the time I feel like I’m entertaining the queen while my kitchen is on fire and I’m thinking to myself, “I am strong!”

You are a pussy!

Exactly, I am. Thank you.

So I want to change kitchen culture because it can be so bro-dudey where people think the coolest thing to do is smoke and stay out late and drink until 5 a.m. and roll into work at 3 p.m. and be like, ‘I’m so hungover.’

There is this idea that if you’re not married to the job and it isn’t everything you do, are you even a chef? Actually, yes. I like other things too. I don’t want to see us burning out by the time we’re 40 because of the lives we’re living and the lack of opportunity to diversify.

Georgia Zimbel

 
 
 
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What has been a memorable moment for you as a chef?

I actually remember when I was a young teenager and I was having dinner with my family. We were all done and my brother started picking up the empty plates and one of my uncles stopped him and said, “what are you doing, you shouldn’t be doing that, let your sister or grandma take care of the plates.” I thought, “what the heck?” I didn’t know better, especially back then, when there was no equality between women and men as leaders. 

Now, I always take a moment to teach others to have respect for women not only in the kitchen but in the world too. It’s almost like men forgot who taught them in the first place. If I work with teenagers who are mostly boys, I show them respect and they show respect for me. They need to learn how to behave, and that it’s not all about cooking, it’s about how we are with others.

Why did you want to be part of this Greasy Spoon?

I am very lucky that I have amazing friends in this industry who are willing to do things together. When we get together it’s a lot of fun, we share recipes, memories, talk about what’s going on in the industry. And it’s for a good cause. There are also so many female chefs in Toronto who haven’t been recognized, but if we keep doing these events, we can break open the city and make noise that we are here and we are leading your kitchens as well.

Miriam Echeverria

 
 
 
 
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We also believe that it's important for this conversation to continue offline. 

Join us Sunday, May 27 and Monday, May 28 in Toronto with 16 chefs who happen to be female and raise funds for Sistering. If these dinners sell out, it will provide 12 of their women with 3 hot meals and snacks for 3 months. It will also fund 2 large community meals that will feed upwards of 300 participants each time. Click here to reserve your ticket. 

Photography by Chloe Popove