The knife’s edge

How women chefs deal with sexism in kitchens.

Written by Advaita Kala | New Delhi | Published: March 4, 2012 2:52 am

How women chefs deal with sexism in kitchens.

The briefest job I ever held was at an American fast-food drive-through — it,or rather I,lasted all of two hours. The complexity of handling a headset,the intractable cadence of my Indian accent struggling over insistent static and the task of dunking fries in to a fryer proved to be too much. I went with apron in hand to the shift manager and said,“I quit!” I have never been more relieved.

A few months later,I returned to the professional kitchen,this time on the other side of the fryer,as a server. I encountered a different resistance,the Mexican commis refused to acknowledge anything I said to them. In tears at the end of most service periods,I took recourse to the words of my southern belle co-worker: “Don’t worry,hon,them Mexicans got that macho thing going. It don’t matter! You keep doin what you’re doin.” At the time,cultural disparity was an easier answer than gender disparity. I brushed aside any misgivings I had of the work environment in the kitchen and carried on,deciding to pursue a professional career in the food and beverage world,albeit in a management role. Had I taken the easy way out? Was I aware on a subconscious level of how difficult this really was because I was a woman?

Chef Veena Arora (Spice Route,Imperial Hotel) is a grandmom – and a chef with 30 years’ experience; of these,22 were spent working in India. Born and raised in Thailand,marriage brought her to India. Initially,she found it very difficult to work with Indian men,it was the comments that got to her. Even if those in her kitchen,the Thai kitchen,were conscious of her presence,senior chefs would often pass suggestive remarks. How did it make her feel? “I wanted to hit them,” she tells me,and suddenly,she isn’t quite the diminutive grandmom of a few moments ago. She recounts an incident (at another hotel) that made her realise that Indian professional kitchens were very different from those in Thailand. It was at a meeting of chefs,where the scarcity of milk was being discussed. Just ask housekeeping,the executive chef suggested. Why housekeeping,she asked,but was shushed by her only friend in the group,another chef. Why housekeeping,she asked him again when the meeting was over. It’s because mostly ladies work there,her friend told her,just ignore them. The implication was clear. She admits that working in kitchens defeminised her — the short hair,the lack of make- up and jewellery,the brusque,short sentences that leave no room for banter,the always-erect back to compensate for her petite frame. Working in kitchens meant she had to give up on being a woman in many ways. She tells me all of this but when I ask her if kitchens are sexist,there is a long pause and then self-conscious laughter. So I ask another question,what advice would she give a young woman who wanted to be a chef? “I would tell her that when you work with men in the kitchen,be like them,in the way you talk,walk,dress. And I would also tell them that this career is meant for a strong person.” Physically? I ask. No,she shakes her head,“Emotionally.”

I spoke to male and female chefs about the idea of sexism in the kitchen. Everyone related incidents that could be described as blatantly sexist but no one would “pin the tail”. It has to do with the lines that blur so easily. The work environment necessitates physical proximity,the urgency of a meal period and difficult and uncomfortable work conditions see tempers flare and abuses fly. These were impulses that even the great Georges Auguste Escoffier — the creator of the modern culinary brigade — was not immune to. Instead,he opted to go for long walks,so he could hold his tongue.

The hospitality business necessitates high levels of conformity and it is only the kitchens that remain a refuge for the non-conformist. The Chef says it’s a home for the psychopath. Really,chef,must you exaggerate. Seriously,he tells me,it’s a wonder we don’t have any knifings in there,it’s always surprised me,he mutters to himself,as I shut the door. And I think of the young girl who trained under me and came to me complaining about abusive language in the kitchen. I wanted to tell her as I had been told,to just ignore it. But I didn’t. As it turned out,she went ahead and lodged a formal complaint. I stood by her,wondering whether it was worth it. It was. She got her apology and made that kitchen a better place for the young women who followed.

(Advaita Kala is an author and has worked in restaurants and kitchens in India and abroad)

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