I could hardly believe my good fortune when your email arrived on November 23, 2016. When you wrote, “I wish I could hug you,“ about my writing on female chefs and social justice issues in the professional kitchen, my heart sang. It’s one thing to have readers connect to my work and another thing altogether for a young female chef to find meaning in it.
When you asked, “How did you know to bow out? There is no doubt in my mind that it is the SMART thing for me to do, but somehow I feel like I haven't yet achieved what I wished to achieve,” it took me back to a critical juncture in my career. (The photo of me is from that period.)
In 2000 I did a six-week stage at the River Cafe in London. It was a pivotal moment in my 13-year career. I was sous chef in a top Canadian restaurant and my path to that point was stellar (and in some ways insufferably long).
The democracy and absence of hierarchy at the River Cafe were a revelation. There were so many women working in Ruth and Rose’s kitchen. It was a dream. When I returned to Canada, I wasn’t the same. I felt ready to take the last step in my journey to becoming an executive chef.
But nerves, self-doubt, and too little opportunity proved formidable foes. I left the kitchen within a year of my return and struggled for several years to find a place for myself off the trajectory where I had spent my entire young life.
I did grapple with all the feelings that remained after the thing I had made tremendous sacrifices for was laid to rest. I spent time mourning, and the most cursed thing was, I mourned alone. That’s one of the biggest final humiliations of working in a male-dominated culture; your absence goes unnoticed.
I don’t know if it was the smart thing to do. I'm a wonderful cook, and I do think about what could have been. I’ve felt shame and some regret about not having steeled my nerves and forged ahead.
Your words are powerful. When you write, “I am tired of putting on a brave face and acting like some kind of martyr. The thought of starting at another new restaurant and proving my worthiness while I watch younger less experienced men start above me is exhausting and insulting,” please know that you are not alone. Young female chefs worldwide share your disappointment and anger.
A lot of young women leave professional kitchens within five years of graduating cooking school. You’re a rare and talented woman if you’ve made it to ten.
The other great exodus for female chefs is just before they take the final step. I offer my story as a cautionary tale. I might have done things differently had someone encouraged me to stay all those years ago.
With ten years of experience behind you, there’s no more need to prove yourself. The time for letting an executive chef dictate your position is over. Say goodbye to Garde Manger (and pastry) FOREVER. Seriously question the intelligence and integrity of any executive chef who wants you in that station with your experience. It’s time for you to decide what position you want in a kitchen. One of the reasons all those “less experienced male cooks” start above you is that they ask for what they want.
I’m exhausted and insulted reading that you’re paid a day rate of $100 for 14 hours of work. That’s $7.14/hour, a full $3.61/hour below minimum wage in Quebec. Just bridging the gap to minimum wage over the course of a year would put $7220 more dollars in your pocket (and that’s without overtime). Think about that the next time you pay rent. Day rates and salaries almost never benefit cooks. They’re often a red flag that wage abuses are likely to occur.
Please don’t make earning minimum wage your goal. It’s too low. At ten years, you’re responsible for the return on your investment and wages are something to negotiate. I’ve talked to countless young women who found out they were earning below their male peers in large part because they didn’t ask for more. Role-play, practice, do whatever it takes to cook up the chutzpah to secure a wage in line with your experience. Make it a figure that gives you reason to stay.
Figure out what you burn to achieve and go for it. Don't waste any time. I hope all of it scares you shitless. For many women, a sure sign you’re ready is to think that you’re not. Go for it with everything you’ve got. Show those futhermuckers who's boss.
I’m with you in spirit. So are countless other female chefs. Let me know when you land the position of your dreams.