First Person: Women belong in the kitchen

Speakers blare with Linkin Park’s In the End. Fries sizzle at the impact of hot oil as they are dropped into the fryers. Pots and pans clatter against the gas stovetops. Cooks yell for remaining dishes and servers say they need another portion of sweet potato fries overtop the music and environmental sounds. A timer […]
Photo: Noah Leafloor
Since I first found myself in a restaurant kitchen in October 2019, the overstimulating sounds and chaos of a nearly dozen line cooks handling the dinner rush have become my comfort.

Speakers blare with Linkin Park’s In the End. Fries sizzle at the impact of hot oil as they are dropped into the fryers. Pots and pans clatter against the gas stovetops.

Cooks yell for remaining dishes and servers say they need another portion of sweet potato fries overtop the music and environmental sounds. A timer is incessantly beeping somewhere.

The overstimulating sounds and chaos of nearly a dozen line cooks handling the dinner rush have become my comfort since one morning in October 2019, when I found myself at the back door of a restaurant in Lansdowne on a Monday, being not-so-warmly greeted by a man, coffee in hand, chin sporting a five o’clock shadow, a messy apron wrapped around his waist.

“Can I help you?” he had asked.

“I’m the new pantry cook,” I replied.

He smirked as if it were a prank I was pulling. “Really? I thought the chef didn’t want any girls in the kitchen anymore.”

What his first impression of me was, I will never know, but he let me inside and showed me where to find my own soon-to-be-messy apron and led me to pantry, the station where I would work for the next year.

In our kitchen, pantry is tucked into a corner, offset from the rest of the line, cluttered with two ovens, a proofer, three fridges and rings for an endless amount of bowls. It is generally the station rookies are sent to, where the items consist of salads, non-deep fried appetizers and desserts.

Before he could start showing me the basics, the front-of-house manager approached us. With barely a glance my way, he told my trainer, “Don’t let her touch a knife today, okay?”

I had never pictured myself working in a kitchen. I enjoyed a slower pace where you could interact with the customers, like my previous job as a lifeguard at a private pool, where you could expect the same members daily.

However, I had just returned to Canada after living in New Zealand for a year, and with my rent from two weeks earlier taking nearly all that was left in my bank account, you could say I was desperate.

But those two comments barely ten minutes into my first day made me wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea to take a shot in this industry.

American sous chef Hanalei Souza is familiar with the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Souza is also known as “ladylinecook” on Instagram where she jeers at the crazy lives of kitchen workers.

“I would say that it’s very important to have both masculine and feminine traits in leadership, not just in the kitchen,” Souza said. “But there are advantages to having both sides, both styles of leadership in kitchens or really in any workplace.”

“I think a lot of media out there is promoting women having to become more masculine or basically become more like a guy if they want to lead in male-dominated fields, but what I’ve realized is, I’m a better leader if I can show up to work every day and just be myself and bring in my own style leadership.”

In her kitchen memoir, Nice Work, Boys!: Gaining Confidence and Learning to Lead, One Job at a Time, Souza tells her story of initially working as the only woman among 30 men in ski area mountain operations, and how she has transitioned to working in a kitchen and excelling in leadership in both industries.

“Yes, you do have to be assertive and have a backbone to be in this position – man or woman – and it took a lot of growing from me and a lot of stepping out of my comfort zone to get to where I am,” Souza said. “But I’ve never had to change who I am at the core and I think more women need to hear that they don’t have to change who they are in order to fit into these male-dominated roles.”

Now, four years in and promoted to a line cook supervisor, I have recklessly become addicted to everything the fast-paced environment of a kitchen is made of: the pressures of prepping in time for our opens, the frantic race to make it through a dinner rush, and the unappreciated walk-ins of 50 people on a Wednesday night after sending most of our staff home – yes, that does happen.

This isn’t to say I haven’t struggled. There are food items in the walk-in fridge and plates I can’t physically reach without a milk crate. There are meetings I’m occasionally not invited to. There are times when I have had to stand my ground, such as when a new employee who has spent his life in the kitchen tells me, “I’m your boss, you will do what I say.”

My mind used to tell me, “You’re not keeping up because you’re not one of the boys.” But as I have grown and pushed myself, I have come to realize these trials I face are not because I am a woman, but because these are the growing pains everyone – man or woman – experiences when stepping outside their comfort zone.

“Not all of our struggles are because we are women,” said Souza. “But sometimes a job is just hard and it doesn’t matter who you are.”

If you had asked me five years ago about what my ideal workplace would look like, I would have said somewhere where I can work independently, go at my own pace and be in a quiet environment.

But the main thing I have learned from working in a kitchen is that you have to step outside of your comfort zone and push yourself to grow into your next and better “you.”

You may just surprise yourself.

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