I can only liken my experience as a female chef cooking in a 3-star Parisian restaurant to that difficult time in America when women were starting to make a presence in the military.There is a hierarchy in the French kitchen, just like the army, and they don't know how women should fit in – do they treat us like dogs and yell at us point blank the way they do with the young men to toughen us up? Do they flirt with us and just enjoy the fact that we're there to brighten the eleven hour work day? Do they resent us because we're screwing up the system? What do they do?
Then there's the reverse question – what should I do? Do I take the sexual humor as a joke and let it roll off? Do I put forth my best butch impression and try and be one of the boys? Do I play off the fact that I am a women so I don't have to do all the icky work? Do I dare show talent and determination?
Of course, I am who I am, there's no changing that, but how to fit into an ingrained system that is not quite sure about whether or not women are acceptable? I find this more challenging than even the French/English language barrier.
The restaurant kitchen is not set up for women at all. There is one toilet by the chef's dressing room that doesn't lock and isn't clean and we can't use the bathrooms in the restaurant. All chefs are expected to change in one locker room that has no privacy. No one is supposed to wear their uniform in or out. However, I live a block away, so I've decided to forgo that rule.
I'm not shy, but I don't feel like giving 36 young men a sneak peak and then having to work with them in the kitchen. Even the way the day is set up, working from 8:30 AM – 11 P.M. with a two hour break in the middle, provides a barrier for any woman who might want a family.
I would say that most of the chefs really enjoy female presence in the kitchen and even though they aren't quite sure how to behave around me yet, they want to make it work. I think I have proved my self-worth to the point that I now am heaped with prep work.
I do have restaurant experience, so I'm not completely a deer caught in the headlights, and I think that shows in the speed in which I can whip through tasks. However, I feel that I have to prove myself at all times, because there is always some one watching me either out of curiosity or disdain.
Looking back on my first week, it has definately been a difficult one. The physical exhaustion, the language barrier, the male dominated army like regime. Very very difficult. There have been rays of sunshine that have brightened my week and I count myself lucky because I've only had one afternoon where I came home in tears and seriously thought about not going back.
As one of the older and wiser chef's said to me : You'll get used it. Don't worry mon petit, after two months it won't bother you at all.
Hmmmm, I hope so...