A Woman's Place
Out of all the places I could be on a holiday weekend night, why here? I thought, as I squeeze-bottled lines of red pepper sauce over a seafood tagliarini dish. (Oh, squeeze bottles, what would we cooks ever do without them?) I couldn’t think about how weeded I was, or the heat, or the fresh burn bubbles going all the way up my arm. In restaurant speak, “weeded” or “being in the weeds” means slammed, way behind, struggling to stay on top of the rush. Imagine you’re juggling, but people keep throwing you balls, and you have to keep juggling all of them. Then the balls catch fire, but you can’t stop. And people keep telling you, “I need that ball now! How long before you’re done?”
I glanced over to the corner of the kitchen, where a server was rolling silverware and chatting up a storm. She seemed so tranquil, a cool cucumber compared to the madness of the line. In the less than half a second I spent in silverware Zen-land with the server, I thought, What I’d do right now to be there, with not a care in the world except rolling silverware. I shifted my focus back. I couldn’t focus on how weeded I was; I just had to keep cooking. Next pickup: three sea bass, two seafood pasta, a cowboy steak special, and three airline chicken. Focusing on that next pickup was the small thread I hung on to, to keep from drowning in a sea of paper tickets.
Women are expected to cook at home for their family, not in a tough, physically arduous, mentally exhausting, balls-to-the-wall-paced, no-screw-ups-allowed, male-dominated restaurant kitchen.
Why do the people who say “A woman’s place is the kitchen” usually think this is true unless it’s a professional kitchen, where, instead of cooking for a few friends and family members, she’s cooking for hundreds, maybe even a thousand paying customers with high standards?
Where, instead of having plenty of time to cook one big casserole for everyone, she’s cooking to order big-ticket entrees, and has only fifteen minutes to cook each dish?
Where she might be the only woman and may even be in charge of leading a team through a dinner rush?
If a woman can cook, they call her “wifey material.” If she cooks at a restaurant, they say, “You’re too pretty to work back there. You should be taking my order.”
“So, you’re like a prep helper or a cake decorator, right?”
“You should work cold stations and dessert. You wouldn’t want to get burns from working the grill.”
“Can you make sure it’s a man who cooks my steak?”
“That’s nice, sweetie, but can I talk to the chef?”
“Women can’t put in the same hours men can.”
These are all real quotes, by the way, that I collected from other female cooks and chefs.
“I bet you make great tips there as a waitress,” they say, after I’ve told them where I work as a cook and have just finished a busy holiday weekend. It stings a little harder when you are at a place that does not tip out the kitchen, which is quite common.
That night I found myself in the weeds, plating up seafood pastas and trying to keep my focus away from the server in silverware land, was one of those busy holidays. I was covering for the main sauté cook over Labor Day weekend while he was out for a few weeks for an unavoidable family situation. Every station in the kitchen has its own hardships, but sauté was definitely the most intricate, and only a few cooks could work it. Just when I thought I was holding it down pretty well, the orders coming in at a decent pace, the ticket printer started rattling off like a machine gun and didn’t stop for three hours.
Early on in that rush, I hastily and carelessly dropped a skin-on airline chicken breast into smoking-hot oil in a pan and it splashed everywhere. I knew oil splattered all over my arm, but I didn’t feel any burns; that’s the kind of adrenaline you’re on during a four-hundred-cover night (covers meaning how many people came through the restaurant, in this case between 5 and 10 p.m. Four hundred butts in the chairs. Four hundred people ordering appetizers, main courses, and desserts). I was cranking out sea bass entrée after sea bass entrée—having five to seven of those working at any given time throughout the night. I was plating up prime rib sides and seafood pasta dishes to the tune of whirring hood vents, crashing dishes, and the chef calling out our next pickup.
I had all twelve stove burners on and both ovens full. I didn’t have time for pain. And the heat? I wasn’t even thinking about the heat, even though it was a late-summer evening, cooped up in a windowless, stainless-steel dungeon, reaching into a 450-degree oven every five minutes. At 10 p.m., when the rush calmed down, I showed a server my burns. His jaw hit the floor.
“A grease splash? You look like you pinned your whole arm to the grill!”
I still have the scars as I write this.
So yes, please keep telling me that cooking is a “woman’s job,” or that a man who can cook is displaying “feminine” qualities. Please keep telling me that my place is the kitchen, because it is. But if you’re going to use it as an insult or some sort of way to assert dominance as a man, I dare you to find the busiest restaurant in your city on a day when the line is out the door, peek into the kitchen, and watch. You might not even see a woman, and if you do, you better believe she’s tough as nails.
My first restaurant job was at a place I’ll call the “seafood spot” in the quaint downtown area of the town I had just moved to. Although it was a mountain town far away from any ocean, the owners had the plug on some high-quality, overnight-shipped seafood, and the restaurant specialized in lobster rolls and fresh-butchered fish, featuring a tank of live lobsters, red picnic benches, and clam “chowdah” in a bread bowl.
Cooking at a restaurant was almost a bucket list item to check off or something I felt I had to get out of my system for a summer. I had no formal training, but I loved to cook at home, and that summer, I decided I would give it a go. Although I had been into cooking my whole life, I had never considered it as a career. As kids, we’re encouraged to dream about what we want to be based on what we actually like. However, when we are in high school and have to actually think about what we are going to be, we are told to think of what would be sensible rather than what we “like to do.” I remember saying that I “liked cooking and wanted to keep it that way,” because “if I had to do it for work, I may end up hating it.” I didn’t know what I wanted, and I knew that, but it seems we are all pressured to decide at seventeen when we pick our college and major.
College is not the only option after high school, but in the academically focused area I grew up in, it was made to seem that way. I figured business was always a good move, because no matter what I did, there would always be a business component. After completing my senior year of high school at a community college, essentially skipping a year, I was able to transfer to my dream school up in the mountains to study business with a focus on the ski industry. I was one of three women in my major in my graduating class, so I knew what was ahead of me in the ski industry. I then finished college at twenty, moved to a ski town half an hour away from the college, worked a winter at a ski resort where I planned to return the following winter, and needed a summer job to tide me over until then.
The month I started at the seafood spot, May 2018, was a whirlwind of a month. Having just turned twenty-one, I attended my college graduation, finished up my first season in the ski industry, started at the seafood spot, and got married. I wasn’t looking to get married at twenty-one. The concept of starting a family wasn’t even a goal I would have listed growing up. I had my first date at nineteen, and I honestly thought I’d be the last one I knew to get married. I figured I would just do my thing, and if someone wanted to join in, I’d give him a chance.
We met during my junior year of college at a young-adult get-together hosted by an older Christian couple. I sat next to him and was drawn to his friendly and inviting demeanor, and how easily we kept talking—he about his summer adventures in Alaska, I about my summer work at a snowboarding camp. When we got each other’s numbers and started hanging out, we found out we had already seen each other out on the ski hill the previous winter and had talked without exchanging names or numbers. It was almost as if God had given us a second chance at meeting after screwing up the first.
While other little girls played “family” and pretended their dolls were their kids, I played restaurant, and I was always the maitre d’. I was the eight-year old girl who did kung fu and kicked Barbies to the curb. My cousin made the fatal mistake of giving me a Barbie doll for Christmas when I was five. I threw a fit and told her how much I hated it. I think that was the day my parents gave me a lecture on how to accept a gift graciously, whether it’s what I want or not.
At my elementary-school-age birthday parties, my parents would set up a “restaurant” with a menu of basic kids’ food like frozen fish sticks or pasta. To a ten-year-old, it was basically a three-Michelin-starred affair.
Although I had an interest in food and restaurants as a child, eating at an actual one was, and still is, a once-a-year-treat. I was taught from a young age to always tip the server based on the original bill, not the bill after coupons and gift cards, which we always had. I was taught by my ninety-year-old Dutch grandma, who we called “Oms” to order steak rare or bleu (rarer than rare), when we went to one of those “steak on a stone” places where they give you a hot plate to cook your own steak, and I watched her give it a quick sear on each side like ahi tuna and dig in. Many people learn a special recipe from their grandma. Mine taught me how to eat a steak.
This lack of going to restaurants was mainly because both of my parents cooked. My mom did most of the cooking and taught me the basics, but my dad would often cook as well, introducing me to the finer side of food. I was born and raised in the United States, but I wouldn’t say I grew up American. We ate every dinner at an actual dining table, as Europeans do, and we watched mainly British children’s TV shows, like Wallace and Gromit or Jellykins. We were also a frugal household. We had a drawer full of used aluminum foil, twist ties from bread, and plastic bags in our house, and we would be scolded if we dared to use one of those items only once before throwing it away. My parents always drove cars to death, buying an already-used minivan when I was born, then legally teaching me to drive it sixteen years later. We never, ever, ever threw away food. We boiled any bones into stock.
We saved the parchment from butters and used them to grease pans, which was also something passed down from Oms, my bleu-steak-ordering grandma. She had learned frugality from her time in World War Two prisoner of war camps, but that time had also given her a sense of gratitude and appreciation in her postwar life. As a prisoner, she didn’t even have the luxury of knowing that she would see the next day.
“I eat ice cream for dessert every day,” she would say, scooping a nice dollop of vanilla ice cream into a bowl. “I didn’t make it through prisoner of war camp to deny myself the simple pleasures of life.”
For her, life is too short to cook your steak well done.
Although my entire family besides my parents and brother lived in the UK, we managed to see them at least every few years, even as adults. When my husband, Gavin, and I were dating and had saved up enough to go to the UK with my parents to visit the rest of my family, we were sitting at the dining table, eating “supper,” as they say there, and Gavin was being a bit of a “loud American.”
Oms held up her fork and told him, “Has anyone ever told you to fork off?”
We all laughed. That’s when we knew he would fit right in with the family.
My other Grandma, Nai-Nai, from my Mom’s side was a soft-spoken, four-foot-ten, Burmese princess. My mom and her five siblings were born there in Burma, now Myanmar, and moved to the U.K. after political unrest and a military dictatorship drove them out. We didn’t see Nai-Nai as much as we did Oms, but rumor has it she was an amazing cook. My mom talked about how she would cook with every single part of the animal and could debone an entire chicken while keeping it all intact. I’ve never been back to Burma, but I’d like to. I was even given a Burmese royalty name, Lady Golden Palm. Had political unrest never happened, I would probably be sitting on some Burmese throne made of gold, but there I was, applying for line cook jobs instead. I guess you can call me “lady garlic palm” for now.
My grandfathers both passed away when I was young, but I remember making bread with Oms’s husband, who we called Tadcu. There’s a story circulating from when my other grandpa, Nai-Nai’s husband, was able to make a whole gourmet meal from only an onion and a bottle of gin. I was used to seeing both men and women cooking in the home, both from my parents and my grandparents
Whenever we would go back to England to visit my family, which was about once a year as a child, and less often as a teenager and adult after airline prices soared, we stayed at Oms’s house in Crawley, a small town about an hour’s train ride from London. It is the same house my father and his two siblings were born and raised in. That town feels like home, even though I never lived there. On street corners, there are those classic red phone booths and red mailboxes you see in movies. There is a park my brother and I would always walk to and play on the flying fox—a seat attached to a rope that slid down a cable about a hundred feet long. That kind of unregulated park feature would never exist in the United States—too many lawsuits.
It was at my grandma’s Crawley house where I cooked my first Christmas dinner. I was fourteen. I had been cooking at home for two years at that point, and my family saw enough potential in me to let me have at it with the most important meal of the year. I loved juggling all the different parts of the traditional British Christmas meal, each being its own masterpiece: the turkey, the homemade cranberry sauce, the roasted vegetables. We also pulled Christmas crackers, which are cardboard tubes that you have to pull open with another person, and they make a loud bang, like a party popper. They look like a big piece of candy and are usually the size of a water bottle. Inside are a collection of small gifts, usually including a corny joke written on a piece of paper, and colorful paper hats. Then there was the Christmas pudding, which is like a rum- or brandy-infused fruit-and-nut cake, which you douse with more rum and light on fire. The fire burns up all the alcohol and caramelizes the outside of the cake before extinguishing itself. Every year we would crowd around the table after our turkey dinner, with our silly paper hats on, turn off the lights for added suspense, and watch the blue flames circle around the pudding faster and faster until it went out. I sat there at fourteen, “chuffed” as the Brits say, having served all those dishes at the same time perfect, hot, and from scratch, all without stressing for a second.
I’m still not sure how I really started cooking in the first place. One day, when I was twelve years old, I just decided to take over dinner for the day. I still don’t know why or exactly when. Maybe I wanted a break from playing Hot Wheels with my brother all day. I don’t even remember what I cooked. I didn’t take cooking classes in school, but I knew the basics from my parents. I could cook pasta, a basic protein with a store-bought sauce like teriyaki, and a vegetable. Again, I still don’t know how or why this happened; it just kind of did, but from then until I moved out at eighteen, I willingly cooked almost every family dinner.
I was still just experimenting and using whatever cookbooks we had in the house to learn. Cooking was never a stressful activity for me; if anything, it was stress relief. Along with Christmas dinners at fourteen, I started making silly cooking videos on the weekends. My brother would film and make silly noises in the background, and I would demonstrate some recipe I had found online, adding twists of humor. I was hustling at the age of sixteen, selling cooked dinners to my parents’ coworkers and friends to raise money for my first mission trip to the Navajo indigenous land. I cooked curry for the Indian, sushi for the Japanese, and clam chowdah for the New Englander. They all raved about my creations.
Somehow I still didn’t get the memo that I should be a chef. Throughout high school and college, I worked a few different jobs—mostly related to my love of snowboarding and my desire to work in the ski industry. I coached kids and was an overnight counselor at a summer snowboarding camp. I worked as a marketing manager for a local ski-related nonprofit. I had a full-time data-entry office job for one summer. Just one. Never again. Then I had that mountain ops job right out of college and planned on working at least another winter there. Finally, somewhere in the middle of wedding planning, in that whirlwind that was spring of 2018, I thought, Heck, why not try cooking professionally, just for a summer? It can’t hurt.
Which brought me to the seafood spot.