Kitchen Apprentice: Badass Ladies on the Line
Every woman in my family cooks. When I think of my maternal grandmother, I think of the boiled amaranth greens she'd put on top of congee, the iron from their roots bleeding across our bowls. My paternal grandmother was famous for her shizitou, a fist-sized meatball skirted by mushrooms and baby bok choy. My aunts fried halibut, pinched pork wontons from scratch, and turned out pans of Shanghainese kaufu in accordance with old hand-me-down recipes. For New Year's celebrations, my mother would fold daan kouk, miniature egg omelets meant to represent imperial sycees and prosperity in the New Year.
My father, who'd worked as a waiter and prep cook as a teenager, behaves differently in the kitchen. He would never have the patience to coax individual daan kouk from a steel soup ladle held over an open flame ("Just make one big omelet and cut it up!"). His foremost concern is efficiency: the quickest way to sear the most dumplings, the best way to get rid of leftovers (fried rice), the fastest way to fold wontons, nevermind how they looked. My brothers do not cook at all.
So as a child, it seemed to me that women cooked to feed their families, to entertain in their homes, and to generally maintain a balance of culture in their households. They didn't cook just because they were good at it or had mouths to feed, but also because it was what their mothers did, as had their mothers' mothers.
My first experience working in a professional kitchen only encouraged my blanket-statement way of thinking. I was the only female in the back of the house. I hated it. Eager to get into the food industry, I begged my way into the position in high school. Every shift, the chefs threatened to fire someone. Cooks came in hungover, pushed out the lunch rush, pushed out dinner service, yelled at each other and left to go drinking. It always smelled like stock layered on top of something deeper and foul. If a dish was burnt but not scorched beyond recognition, the kitchen would try to serve it anyway. The menu was stale. It was an aggressive, eye-opening place.
But I'm glad it didn't make me give up on the industry altogether.
I'm also very grateful that I've found my way into a kitchen that negotiates the space between business and art with grace and authenticity. The produce at The Restaurant is fresh, sourced from prime purveyors and delivered daily. The menu offerings are thoughtful and transform with the seasons. While traditional techniques and ingredients are kept in consideration, the chefs try to introduce new ideas to conventional tastes, but never at the expense of a dish's integrity or quality.
It's food you'd be proud to serve, or it doesn't reach the pass.
What surprised me most about The Restaurant was the number of women cooking on the line. I'd just never seen that many women in a restaurant kitchen before.
Right now, I know of four ladies who cook on the line, and they're all amazing at what they do. They know how to hustle and how to work a service. Their arms are strong, tempered by hours of flipping All-Clads or whisking thick pancake batter. They work fast and clean.
The kitchen in the middle of any service is a sight to behold, but I find "ladies' brunch," when Erica, Sarah and Alex (wo)man the line, to be especially encouraging. After watching my mom putter around the kitchen my whole life, ladies' brunch shows me how to properly kick ass in a restaurant kitchen. I'll definitely be looking to them for lots of advice—that is, if I ever graduate from the pasta station.