On Embracing Femininity When Your Profession Is Dominated By Guys
One woman's quest to reclaim her true self after ditching it to fit in.
February 9, 2017 ● 4 min read
As the daughter of a stay-at-home mom, I vowed never to lead a life of domesticity.
What I see now is that my mom was a badass — she could often be found lugging around 50-pound bags of cement for whatever project she was working on, like the time she fixed our roof on her own — but all I could see were her sacrifices and lost opportunities. Why should she be burdened with all the domestic responsibilities while a man went out and pursued his dreams?
One day, predicted my young self, my husband would cook and clean while I went to work. I would, of course, not have children. (Inevitably, adulthood finds me as not only the mother of two boys, but as the Executive Chef of a large operation in New York City. My husband, also a chef, can often be found cooking by my side.)
I grew up with two older brothers and always felt a need to prove my toughness, to show my resilience, to be the last one standing. I wanted to be the baddest chick in the room, and that meant bro-ing down with all the guys. Cooking became an obsession in my late teens, after I devoured Kitchen Confidential in a few hours and got a taste of the rough and tumble, male-dominated industry that valued what I did. Holding my own among a bunch of knife-toting, cigarette-smoking shit talkers sounded like my kind of thing.
Perhaps ironically, the first kitchen I ever joined was lead by a woman, where the quality of the produce and goods were on par, even superior, to many kitchens I have been in since. I was in awe of her, and of the sheer creativity of the food she served. She was also beautiful, strikingly beautiful; it was usually the first thing people brought up about her. The second thing they would say was she couldn't cook, that she was just coasting off the success of her ultra-rich husband. One day, I arrived at work to a sign on the door — the restaurant was closed, for good. There was a rumor that she’d done what strikingly beautiful women do: she had an affair with another chef, and her husband had pulled funding. These rumors were never, to my knowledge, validated. Retrospectively, I wish I had told all of those rumor-mongers to fuck off.
After witnessing this, I found myself wondering how much of a woman I should “allow” myself to be in male-dominated kitchens. What would that look like, when anything approaching “like a girl” insinuated incompetence or weakness or worse, getting by on your looks? As a 19-year old, I began to make adjustments to both my wardrobe and behavior. I wanted to be taken seriously, so I systematically over-corrected my feminine tendencies. Dressing in an androgynous way seemed to be the only way these guys were going to respect me.
I moved to New York City, and landed at Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto. I’ve had the great fortune of working for a number of chefs throughout my career that were in full support of women in the kitchen, and Barbuto was among them. My sous-chef at the time had a long history of not showing anyone, man or woman, any mercy, which was fine by me. I wanted to learn everything I needed to know, and this barrage of constant critiques and abuse appealed to my competitive nature. But even here, among the “enlightened,” you’d encounter the machismo dudes who would grind up behind you, grab you “by accident,” or simply ignore you altogether.
I spent far too much thought and energy trying to figure out how to assuage these types of cooks, or worse, win them over. I made it a point to be the first cook there, the last one to leave. I always pushed to do more, be more, so no one could question my value or contributions. I yearned for acceptance, and never called anyone out for fear I’d no longer be considered one of the guys. I wasn't one of the guys, though, and when talk got nasty it often made me uncomfortable. Too scared to ask anyone for advice or help, and with no female colleagues to commiserate with, I began to mask parts of myself.
Being a good cook was more important than anything in the world to me. My womanhood, I decided, would not stand in my way.
Meanwhile, I was constantly questioning my own worth. Learning to cook professionally is a constant repetition of gritty failures. You will do everything wrong. Good chefs will be patient, and teach you how to get it right — some will terrorize and kick the shit out of you — but the best thing about cooking is that every day, every service, every dish is a chance for redemption, a chance to right the wrongs. The level of humility and vulnerability required to accept these failures and push through can often be the deciding factor as to whether or not someone can make it in this industry. Pride has no place when learning to cook.
After the birth of my first child, I weighed several pounds more than usual — at 30, my body looked and felt more womanly than it ever had. In the wake of this change, I did something totally different: after what felt like a lifetime of holding back, I started to dress the way that I wanted to, rather than worrying about how I might be perceived in the kitchen. I bought dresses, form-fitting clothing, even shorts. I felt liberated in the embrace of my feminine figure. I immediately became more self-assured. I never realized how much I had been holding back. Accepting and celebrating this side of myself has made me a better leader, and a better human being.
Feminism has no gender. Neither does beauty. And yet, femininity is so often equated with weakness in this industry. When I was starting out, I didn’t know about Anita Lo. Gabrielle Hamilton. Amanda Freitag. Jody Williams. Suzanne Goin. I spent much of my career muting my femininity in an effort to be accepted. Did someone tell me to do this? Not once. I picked up on cues that indicated I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I didn’t.
A chef needs to be a leader: sure of themselves, but willing to admit failure and move forward. A person who can govern without pride, who knows when to compromise and when to stand by their convictions. Those are human qualities, not masculine or feminine ones, but to any girl reading this, who may question their ability to achieve in the cooking world: know that not only do you have the capacity, but likely you possess attributes, given hard work and training, that could make you ultimately superior to the competition and a fucking force to be reckoned with.
And? You can achieve all of it without changing the core of who you are.