food for thought

Women in the Kitchen

By | April 27, 2018
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Women in the kitchen. In what era? The 1950s? Somewhere around then, getting women out of the kitchen became a rallying cry of the second wave feminist movement. The first wave won us the vote, and the second wave took on more complex issues surrounding equality, career, and representation. Ironically, despite the kitchen being characterized as the symbol of female restriction, we women, even as we find ourselves here in the midst of the fourth wave of feminism, remain underrepresented in professional kitchens. And wherever there is underrepresentation, wherever there is inequality in power and position, there is more room for, more of an opening for, the ugliest sides of humankind that find these spaces. I’ve been in those spaces. I’m a female. I’m a chef. I’m #MeToo.

But for me, personally, sharing the details of the experiences that have given me the unenviable right to the hashtag only serves to give those moments more power than they deserve. The moments in my story, my story of becoming a well-known, widely-respected female chef, the moments of that story that deserve the power, are the ones that I offer to you here. Experiences that represent a shift in the clouds. Relationships that enable growth. Moments, I hope, that show the most beautiful sides of humanity. I want to connect through my healing, not my trauma. I want to shine the light.

Key and essential to my journey, one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever known, is my mentor, whom I call “Papa Bear.” You might know him as Chef Kurt Fleischfresser. I met him when I was 26 years old at a dinner we did at Irma’s Burger Shack. The man literally danced around the kitchen. His grace, his calm demeanor, his utter possession of himself and of his realm...I’ll never forget witnessing all that at work. Emulating his grace and self-possession has served me well in my career, and it was that night at Irma’s Burger Shack that I saw confidence in the kitchen personified.

When I tried out for The Coach House Apprenticeship Program, conceived by Fleischfresser, boy, was I green. Maybe the green-est, despite David Henry’s patient tutorials at The Lobby Bar where I’d learned a few basics. But with a borrowed chef’s knife and Vans on my feet where proper kitchen shoes should have been, I relied on gumption, drive, and a passion for feeding people to get accepted. I knew the stories. I’d heard about apprentices quitting, fighting, crying. I knew the facts. Only two women had ever made it through the two and half year program that requires mastery of five elements of cheffing through six month stints in each position. I put in my time and paid my dues. I cried on a few shoulders. But I made it. Because Papa Bear had my back the whole time. It was his voice saying, “Try again. You can do better.” So I graduated, barely, with a six month old baby and lifelong friends (shout out to Matt Johnson!), without a prospect or endeavor in sight. I did, however, have a new understanding of myself, as a person, a woman, a chef.

And that’s where Robert Black with Keith and Heather Paul’s A Good Egg Dining Group entered my story. If you ever want a model as to how to build a food empire, look to any of their concepts. This beloved company is where I took my first independent steps, with the tutelage of another mentor, Chris McCabe, at Republic Gastropub, one of Good Egg’s restaurants. These people, starting with Robert, all took a chance on me. I was scared to death, facing down a kitchen with seven-minute ticket times. But Chris, as Executive Chef, enabled me as Sous Chef to be free. Without restrictions or rules, I let my creativity flow. I’m proud to this day of the specials I came up with during that time. But for all the pride I have in myself, I also have gratitude for what Chris did for me there. He led me in establishing belief in my own skills and abilities. And Boo Hee Thomas. To work alongside a woman who ran her line like a drill sergeant was empowering. She got loud to be heard. I learned here that female chefs are often boxed into two positions: pushover or bitch. The pushovers get harassed and taken advantage of. The bitches suffer from passive-aggressive power plays with line staff screwing up ticket times on purpose to create problems in the kitchen. Women have to master an in-between style. Delegate, firmly and fairly. Own the space. Run a tight ship during service and manage/repair/apologize for the toes you might’ve stepped on later. Keep your people tight. And they’ll keep your kitchen tighter.

A few other names I have to mention here as I shine light on some of my most impactful moments in the kitchen. Lisa Woods, my best and dearest friend. And some of my fondest memories surround opening Kitchen No. 324 with Robert, Chris, and Adam Halacka, from doing the testing in Red Primesteak to finally making a kitchen in the old Braniff Building. Good times.

But most importantly, my family. My mother, Wanda, and father, Ed. I will always have a cheering section in them. My husband and partner, who is constantly giving of himself to support my career. Gerald Lyon is the love that buffers the ebbs and flows of my current company. Our Wyatt and Arlo, both the sunshine and moonshine and in between shines of my every day.

Many more restaurants and business relationships have followed those I’ve related to you here. I am ever learning and growing. I refuse to compromise myself. I set the boundaries, the ones that serve my highest good. My footprints as a chef in Oklahoma have just begun. I am in awe of the support from chef to chef in our town. I am grateful for the continued love from my colleagues and friends. My purpose, my life’s work is that every person leaves a little bit better after a meal I’ve fed them. That each heart grows a little bigger. Because we’ve got work to do to shore each other up, show each other the way. The ugly can’t control us when we change it into beauty, when we create the beauty, over and over again. I make change. I create beauty. I shine my light. #MeToo

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