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Just call me Chef

by Francine Cohen

September 1st, 2007

Despite a prevalent philosophy that a women's place is in the kitchen and many chefs citing their mothers and grandmothers as their inspiration, the sight of a woman in charge in a professional kitchen is still all too rare. But thanks to the determined efforts of more than a few women who boldly went where few women dared go before, one of the last bastions of maledom are being integrated. The industry is slowly but surely entering an era where the playing field is measured by ability that is both testosterone and estrogen fueled. And chefs like Alex Guarnaschelli (Butter), Rachel Lansing-Hidalgo (Aureole), Deborah Racicot (Gotham Bar and Grill), Carmen Gonzalez (Lucy of Gramercy), and Patricia Yeo (Sapa and Monkey Bar) are helping to make it happen.

It's their confidence that leads the way. Each of these chefs - who range in age from 25 to 48 - defines herself as a creative being, and each is a leader in her own right. They have honed their craft and don't have anything left to prove; their food does it for them. Gonzalez, who has run restaurants since the age of 20 when she opened her first small sandwich shop in Puerto Rico, acknowledges a common misconception about women's ability to succeed. "It's as if they think we're going to have an attack of PMS and run out of the kitchen," she says.

These five chefs are more than happy to stand out from the crowd. Particularly a crowd which involves many sweaty knife-wielding men letting off steam with a constant stream of raunchy chatter. Gonzalez dismisses the notion that the banter is intolerable. "You get used to it. I scream with laughter and keep going and then they are very respectful. If I didn't do that we wouldn't have the kitchen spirit." This spirit is clearly appreciated by one particular male chef who asked to remain anonymous, who admitted that "The women in my kitchen are even dirtier than the guys. And chefs love that!" Guarnaschelli actually relishes whatever conversation crops up. "You've got 20 cooks and only two girls," she said. "Guess who's going to be more interesting to talk to?" Gonzalez is respectfully addressed only as "Chef Carmen", or "Chef" in her kitchen. Her kitchen staff fell quickly into line when they experienced the petite chef's wrath one day, when a waiter made the mistake of asking her, "Honey, where should I put this empty plate?" For Lansing-Hidalgo, the youngest of these accomplished chefs, there are benefits to following the women who came before her but she acknowledges that time hasn't put an end to the sex talk in the kitchen. Nonetheless, her skill with desserts has won her the respect of her colleagues, leaving her unafraid to don her favorite pink apron, despite the gentle ribbing it elicits.

Their own culinary educations and careers came about in very different ways; some went to school to cook, some don't even find it necessary, and some are now teaching in culinary schools. Yet each one of these women, whether they're overseeing a staff making pastry or poaching lobsters, has earned her stripes in her own unique way. From a young age, Lansing-Hidalgo helped with the food preparation in her family's catering business. She went on to attend the culinary arts program at Park West High School in New York City and won a C-CAP cooking competition in her senior year. The prize was a full scholarship to the CIA, and while she was there she worked an externship at Aureole. On the other hand, there's Racicot, who came to New York on vacation in the early 1990s and never left. She earned her stripes the old fashioned way; she was tutored in the kitchen, and worked under Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern. Th ough she's lost track of her first mentor, Hugh Kohl of Seattle, the thought of all he did for her brought tears to her eyes. "He was an amazing man. It's a real super special person who can touch another person and help you," she said. "I'm glad I was taught by cooks and chefs who taught me that flavor was number one, presentation second. I started at a point where things were male oriented. They didn't want to hear you cry or moan. I don't blame them!"

  photo of Steamed Halibut Thai Hot & Sour Clam Broth

Yeo was a Princeton student on her way to a science degree when she met Bobby Flay at a cooking class she had taken between semesters, and he hired her to be a line cook at Miracle Grill. "I never meant to stay in the business," she says. "I gave Bobby Flay a 1 year commitment and ended up staying five years." Ask Guarnaschelli what it was like to graduate from La Varenne Culinary School in Burgundy and begin her rise through the ranks of Guy Savoy's Michelin-starred kitchen in France and she'll tell you it was tough. Being a woman, and an American one at that, in a very traditional French kitchen in the early 90s, where despite the beloved Grand'Mere cooking culture that so many French chefs embrace, a woman's place was not in the professional kitchen. She ultimately thrived under Savoy's watchful eye, but not without it leaving a lasting impression. "I chose the police brutality route. The environment (in France) was intensely aggressive. You can do and say anything you want," says Guarnaschelli.

  photo of Frozen Banana Charlotte, Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Gananche, Vanilla Malt Ice Cream

Despite the barriers, these women are bringing a fresh perspective based on their unique skill sets. Men may be physically stronger, but female chef's nurturing nature and natural ability to multi-task and organize often add a sense of calm to the kitchen. "Women are really good multitaskers," Yeo said. "We can get seven projects done at the same time, but where we excel is at soft skills. As a chef you're not just thinking about the menu, you're also doing other things - like talking to the press! And we're less competitive and work better as a group." Both Yeo and Guarnaschelli have sous chefs that have been with them for years; an anomaly in an industry where people move constantly. And, in particular, the group at Butter has flourished and stress levels are reduced thanks to Guarnaschelli's mothering ways. She is insistent that everyone leave their station to sit down together for staff meal at 4:30. "These are the things I do that calm people down," she explains. "Do this every day and we forge a trust." Beyond trust and getting your staff 's respect is the responsibility of making a business flourish. It's a complicated recipe to ensure a restaurant's success. It takes years of experience working with numerous chefs and adapting pieces of their different approaches that work for you, plus making the commitment to working with the best ingredients possible and having a thorough understanding of restaurant math. Racicot presses her staff to work with a cost conscious attitude. "I try to run my department like a little business, with no waste," she explains. Guarnaschelli models her approach to running Butter from what she learned working with Joachim Splichal, a mentor she greatly admires for his business acumen.

  photo of Cherry Lane Farm Asparagus Salad with Sliced Tomatoes and Basil

The demanding hours a chef means there is not much time for socializing. "Cheffing takes a huge toll on relationships," said Gonzalez. "Who wants to date you when you get out of the kitchen at 1:00 a.m.?" Lansing-Hidalgo is one of the lucky ones; her husband is in the business and understands her hours and her issues at work. Starting a family like Guarnaschelli just did (daughter Ava was born in July) is an enormous juggling act that requires great family support. A strong network of female chefs who rely upon each other for ideas and camaraderie still exists. Alice Waters and Barbara Tropp are two names frequently mentioned as industry icons and Gonzalez gathers her friends Emily Luchetti, Jody Williams, and Nancy Silverton together whenever possible for a little bonding. "I don't tend to hang out with a lot of people in the industry because we all work so much," says Racicot. "But you do want a little face time, and it's important to network. Doing functions helps you stay out there and getting involved helps you naturally network and see what others are doing."

Those are all good thoughts from chefs who have made a name for themselves in what has traditionally been a man's world. To shoot for your dreams, work as hard or harder than your colleagues, believe in yourself, hold true to your principles, and be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve the end goal almost goes without saying. However, Guarnaschelli couldn't resist providing the ultimate roadmap to success with this advice, dished out with a smile; "Park your boobs and your eyeliner at the door and do the work. And it will reward you twenty-fold."

  photo of Cherry Lane Farm Asparagus Salad with Sliced Tomatoes and Basil

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