Culinary school was always my dream growing up. I achieved that goal right after high school. I attended La Cuisine of Culinary Arts in Laguna Beach and graduated with the highest distinction. Because of that, I got job offers at restaurants and hotels all over Orange County. I decided to venture out to Rancho Mirage and try out Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion; a high-end restaurant ran by a celebrity chef. Walking in on my first day, I did not know what to expect since I have never worked in a big kitchen before. I was greeted with, “Hey baby girl, looking good,” followed by about six whistling grown men smirking at me as I walked to my station. It was then that I had realized I had entered a man’s world with no training, no classes, or pamphlets on how to survive as a female chef in a male dominated profession.
Traditionally, in the restaurant world, the front of the house is mainly females and the back of the house is mostly males. Going into the cooking world, I did not really know that this was the norm of cooking, but it was. I was raised by my dad, so for lack of better words, I was a Tom Boy. He always taught me to be strong and have thick skin. “Don’t be a sissy,” I felt was his catch phrase throughout my childhood. So that is what I repeated to myself over and over as I walked with my head high, “Be strong. Have tough skin. Don’t be a sissy.” Who did these guys think they were anyways? I got hired to do the same job as they did, but they obviously thought I did not have what it took to hang in the kitchen.
My first night of dinner service, the head chef wanted to see what I could handle, so he put me on the expo station. On the expo station, you are the leader of the kitchen. Expo makes sure that all food orders come out of the kitchen correctly and in a timely manner, basically the orchestra conductor. At first, I could tell the guys wanted to try and prove something to me and put me in my place. I got this drift because at first they were all slamming me with plates all at once in no particular order; they were trying to sabotage me. A huge wave of frustration engulfed me as I was losing my place and messing up the whole dinner service. They had succeeded. The guys proved that I could not hang in the kitchen with “the big boys.” I was crying on the inside, and I could not gather myself. It was at that moment of all hopelessness that I got my second wind of hope. I knew I was much better than what was being displayed. I was not going to let anyone ruin my image because I knew how good of a chef I truly was.
After my first rush of tickets that went terribly south, another rush came shortly after. I took a five minute break and went back into the kitchen. I still had the smirks and whistles coming my way. When the next round of tickets came in I blocked everyone out and took a deep breath. And then it happened, I found my groove. I started calling out tickets, grabbing plates, garnishing dishes, and getting the kitchen to flow efficiently. At one point, I was going so fast the guys were asking me to repeat myself and slow down a bit, which is a cardinal sin in kitchen etiquette. At the end of service, the head chef came to me and told me that I did a great job in expediting the kitchen and getting all orders out without a struggle. I was feeling on top of the world to say the least. I had proven to myself, the chef, and my peers that I was good enough.
I knew the guys were shocked by my progress by the end of the night. You would think that they all congratulated me with open arms to have survived that hazing period, but this is no Romantic Comedy film. The guys only continued to jab sexualized jokes towards me that were both inappropriate and annoying. I had just proven myself to be as good or better than most of those guys in the kitchen. “You can get it whenever you want baby girl,” was the comment that over flowed my boiling point. I literally could not believe what I had just heard. My heart immediately dropped to my stomach and then I instantly thought of my dad-what he always told me about being strong. I think over the years I have always misinterpreted his choice words. To me those words meant to keep your head down and get things done. When in all actuality, I think what he was meaning to convey was to be strong because life is going to throw you curveballs that sometimes you may not know how to handle at that moment, but it is okay to address things you feel strongly about. I then continued to politely, but sternly ask everyone making crude comments towards me to respect that I am a female and I was not there for nonsense with the guys. I loved food, and we had the same goal of creating delicious dishes to share with people who came to eat our food.
Realizing that kitchen banter is quite vulgar was a huge shock, but every kitchen I ventured to was the same. Everyone is interested in the new girl coming in and wants to see if anyone can break her. It is a game to most guys in the industry. I had to be firm in where I stood with everyone I worked with and let them know I will respect them if they return the respect. If not, I would be not very pleasant. Throughout the years, most coworkers did not bat an eye to my requests but a select few tried to test me. It did not end well for them when I would have no choice but to call them out for being very unprofessional with me, and they looked like jerks to everyone. I really had to find my voice in a kitchen full of men. Being a chef is not glamorous like television shows portray. It is filled with hot long hours in small quarters with the same group of people day in and day out. Working in those conditions on top of all the kitchen talk can be exhausting at times, but all within reason. I had to stand up for what I thought was appropriate and what was not appropriate because I wanted my beliefs to be respected by others around me.