“Dainty doesn’t do it”

When we were on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River earlier this summer, my partner and I stayed at a delightful bed and breakfast, run by a woman who knew about good food. She urged us to have dinner at a small restaurant nearby and, given that we had so far only encountered fast food restaurants in the area, we did not hesitate to follow her advice.

She warned us not to be put off by the journey: we would have to leave the main road and venture down a pothole-ridden dirt road, pass through a campground, turn right, go over a small bridge and then turn left.

We followed her directions and discovered La Capitainerie, a small restaurant housed in a building that used to serve as a marina. The chef was a young woman, who had returned to Quebec after cooking in France for some years. Working with her were her mother, who ran the front of house and her father, who headed out every morning to forage and gather wild mushrooms, strawberries, salicorne and whatever else he came upon, and to buy freshly caught fish.

We enjoyed a delicious meal in a beautiful setting that took advantage of locally raised and foraged ingredients, clearly prepared by a highly skilled chef and presented by the staff with respect and love. The only disappointment was that there were almost no other diners in a restaurant that deserved to have a line-up of hungry gourmands waiting outside.

Pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen

Women still do most of the cooking (and meal planning, grocery shopping and meal clean up) in Canadian families but, despite some progress, they remain under-represented in the cooking profession. They work in restaurant kitchens by the thousands: in fast food chains, as line cooks, salad makers, even as sous chefs, but not a lot make it to the level of chef or restaurant owner. According to Statistics Canada, 70 percent of kitchen helpers, food counter attendants and other support staff are women. Of course, these are all the lowest paid positions in professional kitchens.

I once co-owned and cooked in a restaurant. When we opened our doors in the late 1970s, I had never run a business and never cooked other than at home. Oh, and I had a three-year-old child and was pregnant. (I may have been pregnant and in the kitchen, but I was never barefoot at work.) What could go wrong?

My memories of the perpetual state of exhaustion I was in are mingled with recollections of some of the really good meals we served. While I may not have known much about cooking going into that adventure, I knew a lot about it coming out, which has served me well over the years. Some days, I fantasize about opening another restaurant, but then I think about the immense amount of physical labour and remind myself that, at the age of 65, my knees just are not what they used to be.

As Julia Child has said:

“Dainty doesn’t do it in the kitchen.”

Fighting for space

Things for women chefs are changing, slowly, for the better.

Toronto pastry chef Kate Burnham’s 2015 claim to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal about the sexual harassment she had been subjected to by male chefs brought into the open the long kept secret about the treatment of women in professional kitchens.

As bad-girl restauranteur Jen Agg wrote at the time:

“What’s surprising is not Ms Burnham’s allegation – sexual harassment in professional kitchens is ubiquitous. What’s surprising is that someone finally came forward about it. . . . High-end kitchens have long been regarded as a male domain . . . Slapping with tongs, snapping bras, relentless grabbing – women chefs learn quickly to crouch, never bend over, when picking up a pot.”

Burnham’s case was settled on terms that have been kept private, and her case sounded an alarm that has benefitted other women wanting kitchen careers.

Jen Agg organized Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time, a conference where women could discuss the toxic culture in restaurants, a conversation that has continued ever since.

Stacey Patterson, owner of Toronto’s Il Fornello restaurants, upon seeing a photo of six male chefs at a table together playing poker, decided she needed to do something to change the landscape of professional kitchens. She founded Open Kitchen, a dining event series that features a different woman chef every month and supports a scholarship for women students at George Brown College’s culinary school.

Donna Dooher, owner and chef at Mildred’s Kitchen in Toronto did what a number of women chefs have done: opened her own establishment to escape the sexism and roadblocks she had encountered in male-run kitchens:

“It’s changing and it’s getting better.”

But, despite the changes, there are not enough women being recognized for their culinary expertise. One Saturday a month in July and August, patrons of the downtown Kingston famers’ market can enjoy cooking demonstrations by local chefs.

Out of eight Saturdays, only one features a woman.

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