A Woman's Place is in the Kitchen: Excerpt 1

by Chef Ann Cooper
A Woman's Place is in the Kitchen: Excerpt 1

This book tells a story that needs to be told. In fact, it tells many stories of women in the culinary industry. It is about many women -- chefs and cooks -- who shared with me their passion for food, their struggles to be recognized and to get ahead, and their passion for their work. Their stories confirm something that I have believed deep in my heart for years, that indeed, "A Woman's Place is in the Kitchen." I have wanted to tell this story for as long as I can remember, but I couldn't do it alone. With the help of the many wonderful women you will meet throughout this s book, the story has taken on a life of its own.

To understand my burning desire to tell this story, I should begin with my own tale. It begins when I was 17 years old. I decided to pursue the life of a ski bum in Colorado. I hadn't graduated from high school, I had never had a job, and I had this sense that somehow, I would make it in the world. So, with my skis on my back and a couple of hundred dollars in my pocket, I hitchhiked out to Telluride, Colorado to find the snow and learn to ski. Arriving in town with no money, I started looking for work and talked my way into a position as an assistant breakfast cook at The Airport Bar and Grill -- my culinary career was born.

From that assistant breakfast cook position, my life started to revolve around food, cooking and restaurants. After two years and twice as many jobs, I started a baking company with a woman I met (another ski bum who went on to become a doctor), and we managed to make our living, for a number of years, by skiing all day and then baking until dawn. We taught ourselves everything; we bought books, gathered family recipes, and somehow, we just made it work. After few years of baking and skiing, I eventually started to cook in the restaurants around town.

One day, 5 years later, I realized that there had to be life after skiing, so I decided to go to culinary school (no easy feat without a high school diploma). I talked to a number of people in the industry and was encouraged by many to apply to The Culinary Institute of America (CIA). This quest for a culinary education took me from GED's to SAT's, and finally acceptance into that bastion of the culinary world. When I started at the CIA, I was one of 5 or 6 women in my class and I had no female culinary instructors, let alone mentors or role models. One day as I was driving to school, it dawned on me that here I was, living 45 minutes from school (as that was all I could afford), working full time, (I was paying for my education), and learning how to learn (since it was a skill I'd never acquired) all so that I could pursue a career in the kitchen. The irony was that for years I would go crazy if anyone spoke the dreaded words, "a woman's place is in the kitchen" and here I was, saving all my money, working day and night, giving up night after night of sleep, all so that I could find a place in the culinary world-- in the kitchen. This was a place that I loved - that held all my passion and one that would eventually become my life.

My career took me through many twists and turns. I eventually graduated with honors, having made my mark as an outspoken, hardworking, independent cook. I did my extended externship at The Royal Sonesta in New Orleans and was the only woman on the hot line, but I lived with a black woman who worked in the pantry and in whose home, cooking was woman's work. I went on to take my first job as a cook with Holland America Cruise lines; I was one of the first women on their ships. I went from there to my first Executive chef, position at a restaurant in Colorado at age 26. My next job took me to The Radisson chain, where I was the first female Executive Chef with the chain and the first female Executive Chef in the state of Virginia. After a two year stint I went back to Colorado to become Executive Chef for The Telluride Ski Resort, become the town's first major event caterer, first through the ski resort and eventually with my own company and finally to most young chef's dream -- opening my own restaurant.

During most of my professional life, there were few other women. Every so often I would think about why one of the few traditionally woman's arena's, one of the few traditionally woman's roles, was excluding women. Why were there only men in the kitchens and why was being on the hot line and being a chef a male career? After a while, this was starting to obsess me, yet I didn't really know what to do with it. Finally, I decided to tell the story.

In 1990 I accepted an Executive Chef position with The Putney Inn, in Putney, VT, a position which I hold to this day. I also joined a number of culinary organizations and met more women there, and as I met all of these women, and as I spent more time in the industry I found the story starting to come alive.

There's a place in the professional kitchen for women, and this is our story. The story is in three parts: the past, present and future of women in the industry. The first part focuses on the history of women's roles in cooking and kitchens throughout the ages (chapter 1); the second part speaks to what's in our hearts, the choices we've made, sacrifices that we have extolled, the lives we've led and continue to lead (chapters 2-6). The last part of this story focuses on the future of our industry and how can we make it an acceptable arena for women so that they can pursue their passion and love of food while they also live their lives outside of the kitchen (chapters 7 and 8). This story is about the evolutionary cycle of women in the kitchen--where they started and how they worked their way back.

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