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McHenry County Turning Point » Restaurant Kitchens still a Boys’ Club

Restaurant Kitchens still a Boys’ Club

restaurant-kitchen

Part of Women’s History Month is celebrating how far women have come toward equality, but sometimes we need to acknowledge how far there still is to go. This piece from the Daily Beast is a sobering reminder of the issues women face in a hostile workplace.

When a reporter went undercover in an Applebee’s kitchen she thought she was joining the boys’ club. Getting drugged and assaulted proved her wrong.

I’ve always wanted to be a tomboy, the kind of girl who could keep up with the boys—and do them one better. So when I landed in the kitchen of an Applebee’s, reporting undercover for my book, The American Way of Eating,I felt like I was getting my chance to be a downmarket, female version of Anthony Bourdain. My workplace was a perfect setting for it.

The kitchen was big, a span of ruddy tile and stainless steel pulsing with heat from the grill, cooktops, and a line of deep fryers. During busy nights, the line was manned by six or eight men, typically at a ratio of one Caribbean to two Latins. My job was to expedite—to play traffic cop with the orders coming through the kitchen, to add sauces and lemon slices to plates, to make sure we substituted onion rings for French fries. At the peak of service I’d work in tandem with a manager, all of whom were male. I was the only woman working with the line, and usually the only white in the kitchen.

The raunchiness of cooks has always been legendary, but kitchen lit and reality TV have given it a glamorous sheen. I had a hankering to prove that I could hold my own. My co-workers tested me nonstop. When Geoff, a dark-skinned Caribbean cook asked me if I liked chocolate, and said he preferred vanilla, I rolled my eyes. When Christopher, born and raised in a rough part of the city, puffed up his chest, tapped me on the collarbone and said, “I’ma put my name right there, on a chain, ’round your neck,” I pursed my lips, said, “I would like to see you try, motherfucker,” and we both laughed. I learned that “culo” meant ass, and made sure to ask Joel, a cook, if there was a problem when I caught him eyeing mine.

The only comment I couldn’t handle came when I burned my hand during a rush of service. I yelped in pain and kept working. After things calmed down, vanilla-loving Geoff grabbed a handful of ice and came up behind me. “Which hand?” he asked, and when I said my right, he stepped close, grasped my hand in his, and began tenderly massaging it with the ice—but not in a medical sort of way  “That’s enough, Geoff,” I said, retracting my hand and assuming a school-marm tone. “I’m a grown-ass woman.” Geoff didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, I can see that,” he told me evenly with bedroom eyes, pressing his palm against mine. I broke his gaze, unnerved and speechless: it’s one thing when people are chattering at you from across the line—that’s a public performance as much as communication. This was a direct and concrete challenge, coupled with physical touch. It was a couple seconds before I managed a retort: “Whatever.” It still bothers me that I didn’t have a better comeback.

It wasn’t all crass and lawless, though. The kitchen manager who had hired me, Freddie, kept things in check. He was a veteran of chain kitchens around town, though I never got a count on the years he had spent in the business. Early in my tenure, he heard the fry cook call me Mamí, and he rapped sharply on the station’s steel shelving. “Listen to me,” he snapped in Spanish. “Her name is not Mami. Her name is Tracie. Do you understand me?” I tried to explain that I’d been called worse names than Mamí, that I didn’t think the cook meant anything by it, but Freddie shook his head. “Nah, it’s not cool. Let me handle this.”

I loved the work, and I wasn’t bad at it. By the end of my two months there, the managers were talking about my future with the company, should I want it. One told me that if he could clone me, he’d set up the whole line with Tracies. I could feel myself becoming part of the kitchen, appreciated for my hard work, my willingness to weather the raunch directed at me, and my increasing ability to give as good as I got. My last night, co-workers celebrated me at the end of service, setting a platter of fresh ceviche on the pass and handing me an iced shot of Mezcal. I was elated; I thought I’d become one of the boys.

And then I woke up in a near-stranger’s apartment, uncertain of how I’d gotten there or how my pants had ended up on the floor.

Read the harrowing conclusion at the Daily Beast.

March 02 2012 06:48 pm | Women's Issues

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