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Sexism in the Kitchen Goes Both Ways

We talked to a female pastry chef about sexism in the restaurant industry, flirting with co-workers, boss dynamics, and woman-on-woman prejudice who also happens to develop crushes on her male bosses.

Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.

While mom might have been the force in the kitchen growing up, the restaurant industry does not reflect that notion: Less than 20 percent of chefs in American restaurants are women, even though they make up more than half of the national food services workforce. In this dude fest of a work field, female servers earn 68 cents to the dollar compared to their male peers. It's also been reported that women are five times more likely to suffer from sexual harassment in this industry compared to other career paths, adding another layer of total bullshit for them to deal with. And yet, even with the adversities they face, there are still successful and happy women clocking in to work at the beginning of every shift. I talked to one female pastry chef in New York City to hear about the male-female dynamic in the office, and was surprised to learn that sexism can go both ways.

Female. 31. Pastry Chef at Michelin-starred Italian restaurant somewhere in NYC.

MUNCHIES: How long have you been working in the restaurant industry? I've been working in the food industry for four years, but I've been doing BOH jobs for about three years now. I started working as a server for about a year. I had expressed interest in working in a kitchen, and they just happened to be looking for someone to do pastry production. One thing led to another and I cut back to serving two nights a week, and three days in the BOH.

Who do you work with now? There are ten people in our pastry department: two men and eight women.

Is that the average gender breakdown in a restaurant pastry kitchen? Yeah, but I'm not sure why. The pastry industry tends to have a connotation of being comprised of mostly women. I've always had an interest in making desserts because it's been second nature to me, but not just because I'm a woman.

How does sexism play a role in the BOH? Sexism does exist in the kitchen. It's interesting because the head pastry chef at my work is a man, which is pretty unusual for a pastry kitchen. But there are a lot of women who use their gender to their advantage.

In what way? Kitchen guys are constantly offering to help kitchen women. Some of the women will pretend that they can't carry heavy stuff because there is always some dude who will come and try to help. That being said, the other women will totally shun those female cooks. It's the men's way of flirting—they would never go and ask a fellow line cook the same offer. Some guys in the kitchen realize that girls will use being pretty to their advantage.

Are you suggesting that being an unattractive female in the kitchen can make a difference in how your co-workers react to you? Yeah, it does. One girl I work with is overweight and doesn't care about her appearance. Guys from both FOH and BOH always come to the pastry station to say hi to the pastry women and flirt, but none of them ever approach her.

What are some other misconceptions about women in the pastry kitchen? People think that working in pastry is easier because you're not standing in front of a hot stove, but that's not true. Savory cooks are always around the stoves and burn themselves often, but even though you're not around that much heat in the pastry department, it doesn't make it any less difficult.

Can you give me an example on what mishaps can happen in the pastry kitchen? People feel like pastry is easier because we're making stuff like ice cream, cakes, and other things they might think of as delicate. We're not dealing with ingredients like meat and other proteins, so people think line cooks in the kitchen have it much harder than we do. But our hours are all similar and we also can work twelve-hour days, too. And it's not like our workload is lighter or that everything in pastry is just fun. We have those same moments where there are tickets on the board and we have to get X amount of desserts out in X time. We might not be burning ourselves on stoves whole doing so, but that doesn't mean it's any less work.

Does the gender of your boss make a difference? I can't speak for other women, but for me, having a female boss and male boss is very different. I tend to develop crushes on my bosses. It's like there's a need for approval from any male boss, like wanting their 100 percent approval. But if it's a female boss, I'm usually thinking, Do you have respect for my work ethic? I would work just as hard and give it my all for a man or a woman, but I guess I always end up fantasizing about any of my male bosses.

That sounds pretty sexist towards women, especially since you are a woman. No. It's more about how I personally interact with men vs. women in life. This is just my personal outlook on female and male bosses. It has nothing to do with working in a kitchen. I actually have only had one female boss ever in the kitchen. She was just a competitive person, even with her female underlings. She would treat guys working for her differently compared to girls. For girls it's like they had to earn her respect. But it seemed like for guys, she would automatically just warm up to them. She hasn't had an impact in the way I think, except that I've learned from her that I'd never want to be a boss like her. I'd want to be a fairer leader who would give everyone the benefit of the doubt right off the bat. I'd rather be a more nurturing and supportive boss. And it doesn't have to do with her sex because I've also had the same learning lessons from male bosses in the kitchen. Whether my boss is a girl or guy though, I definitely always want their approval.

Interesting. Thanks for chatting with us.