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Chefs and sex in the city

Layla Mitchner is a twenty-eight-year-old Cordon Bleu graduate trying to carve out a space for herself in the fast-paced, high-pressure world of Manhattan’s top restaurant kitchens. She knows she’s got the talent to be a great chef, but there she is slaving for a misogynistic boss who’d sooner promote the dishwasher than give a woman the chance to prove her sous-chef mettle. Her romantic pro
/ Source: TODAY

Layla Mitchner is a twenty-eight-year-old Cordon Bleu graduate trying to carve out a space for herself in the fast-paced, high-pressure world of Manhattan’s top restaurant kitchens. She knows she’s got the talent to be a great chef, but there she is slaving for a misogynistic boss who’d sooner promote the dishwasher than give a woman the chance to prove her sous-chef mettle. Her romantic prospects seem no brighter. She gets set up with a nice enough guy, but his tassel loafers and corporate demeanor reek of the WASP aristocracy she’s determined to leave behind. Read an excerpt of Hannah McCouch’s “Girl Cook”, for Cinderella story of love, sex, chefs, and the city.

I've been tossing mesclun greens in the garde-manger at Tacoma for the past five months, and I’m about to lose my shit. I’ve been begging the chef to let me give the Caesar salads and cold beet couscous specials a rest and actually cook something for once. I’ve tried every tactic in the book, starting out by politely inquiring what Noel, the chef, thought the time frame might be on my giving sauté a try. He said that if I demonstrated I was capable of keeping the cinnamon ice-cream boules from melting in the cramped dessert space (six inches to the right of the 500-degree oven), then I could work up some calluses at the grill station. Then, and only then, would he consider putting me on sauté.

Now, no one likes to grill more than I do. But everyone in the business knows there’s a huge difference between grill and sauté. Grill guys — and by no means would I want to imply that grilling isn’t an art — but grill guys tend to be the cavemen of the kitchen. The guys who don’t possess much in the way of artistic flair but can give you a perfectly pink tenderloin of venison after sprinkling it with salt and pepper, searing it, and poking it a couple of times. These are not the men for delicate seasonings and sauce making. They stick to the meat, mostly. And they can take a lot of heat.

Sautéing is the highest station in the kitchen, below the sous chef and chef. And I, for one, goddammit, have piled enough skyscraper salads to be given some consideration. I’m not working my way up the kitchen ladder for my goddamn health. I know all too well the sting of vinegar in an open cut. Oh yes, that salad you’re eating as a light appetizer? My bare hands have massaged dressing into every leaf. Lettuce loves me.

But I’ve got ambition and, I don’t mind saying, a decent palate. I believe I’m capable of executing the finer sauce nuances. I want to start my own place. I want to be The Chef. And the only way to do this (aside from buying a place outright) is by becoming the greatest cook I can be. Which means kicking ass on the line, not just salads and desserts. These are my hopes. These are my dreams.

So I’m working dessert and the garde-manger and doing mise en place for the grill guy — butchering and portioning out his New York strips and baking the corn bread that accompanies his stewed goat. This is a good sign. It means I’m in training for the grill station. And what does that prick Noel do? Gets Javier, the dishwasher, to step in and take over. He’s priming Javier for the position! Which is a real slap in the face of this Cordon Bleu graduate, I can tell you.

Not that spending a year in Paris learning how to cook from the great maestros makes me an expert — not at all. In no way would I want to imply that the Cordon Bleu was a rigorous or demanding école de cuisine, because it wasn’t. Out of the thirty or so people in my graduating class, I would say that maybe five intended to pursue cooking as a career, and I was one of them. The majority were wealthy South American girls learning how to cook for their future husbands. Nonetheless, the Cordon Bleu gave me a sense of what was what. I’m willing to concede that a French education may have given me a higher opinion of my cooking abilities than was warranted. But I’m certainly no slouch in a kitchen.

No, this thing with Noel is more a battle of the egos than anything else. Cooking is a very emotional thing. If you have any food confidence or passion at all, you’re liable to have a few opinions and theories. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe learning how to eat shit is part of the hard-knock lesson Noel feels obligated to teach me.

So I go out of my way to help the new dishwasher stack plates when my station’s not busy. My counter space is a testament to anal retention — everything wiped down and neatly in place. I scoop out perfect miniature rock-hard balls of praline and pumpkin ice cream with Pablo, my garde-manger compadre, and manage not to break the wafer-thin chocolate star cookies that perch lightly on top. I work quickly enough to ensure that the ice cream makes it to the customer’s table with its structural integrity intact, not slurping around in a big creamy pool.

I do these things above and beyond my normal duties. Which include but are not limited to: blendering up batches of balsamic and Caesar salad dressing; julienning daikon, carrots, and scallions; washing and chopping parsley, basil, and cilantro; assembling the goat cheese, chorizo, and black bean terrine; slicing aged Parmesan; dicing pears; toasting walnuts; peeling and concasseing tomatoes, cucumbers, ancho chilis, and beets.

When Noel told me he was going to be interviewing people for the sauté position, I asked him to consider me. This is the way it goes when you’re a woman in the kitchen — you have to beg for everything you get. Write out your speech beforehand. Take a meeting. Most male chefs aren’t going to promote you to a station like grill or sauté when they’re perfectly happy to keep you in the garde-manger, elbow-deep in greens, making teepees out of black beans. It’s been this way in every place I’ve worked. It’s like “You’re a woman? I’ve got a position open in the garde-manger. Take it or leave it.”

They want someone dependable (which I am) and ultimately naïve enough (which I suppose I have been) to believe she can work every station in the kitchen, thus training for more prestigious positions. But they don’t actually intend to give a girl that kind of a shot.

The most infuriating thing is, Noel’s not even a good cook. When pressed, he can cook. But nowhere has a starched white chef’s uniform substituted so blatantly for an utter lack of talent. Like me, he graduated from a four-year liberal arts institution, so he’s not one of those “I was born with a pair of tongs in my hand” kind of guys. Presentation’s his forte. A real Jackson Pollock he is, giving the plate an artistic drizzle here, a purposeful zigzag there, and voilà! The master is finished! His head is so big, I swear he has trouble balancing it on his fat little neck. The fact that he’s a year younger than I am doesn’t make it easier to swallow. But after some psychologizing, I’ve come to the forgiving conclusion that Noel’s ego is just a mask for knowing he sucks, and possibly has a very small penis. Tobe fair, he’s anal. A quality not to be underestimated in the kitchen.

It’s kind of a bummer for me though, because really, what can you learn from a chef who can’t cook? I just want him to give me a shot on the line. Jesus, you should see some of the incompetents working grill and sauté stations all over this city! It’s not a question of whether or not I can handle it. It’s that I’m a woman, pure and simple. I know I’ve got plenty to learn. I just want to be given a chance.

Jamie’s standing by the sink reading the metro section of the Times when I come into the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee. “Well, look who’s up,” she says, which pisses me off because she’s always jabbing me about getting up late, like I don’t work my ass off until one o’clock in the morning.

“Morning,” I say, and slide past her to get to the kettle on the stove. As per usual, she only heated up enough water for her herbal tea.

“Sorry, I didn’t think you’d be up, and I’m kind of in a rush this morning.”

“No problem,” I say. But, like, how hard is it to add another cup of water so I don’t have to add it cold and reheat the entire deal? I’m totally useless until I’ve had a cup of coffee, and Jamie knows this but chooses to make me suffer. I think it secretly satisfies her.

“I left the phone and electric bills out on top of the TV. It’s all broken down. Just write me a check,” she says, taking a dainty bite of a rice cake and throwing the rest in the garbage. She’s one of those anorexically thin girls who’s always making a big public deal about her enormous appetite and constant milk shake consumptions. I have a bad habit of checking out her ass every time her back is turned. Where is the cellulite? Where?

The paper filter is in the brown two-cup Melitta cone, a quart of whole milk and my heat-saver mug at the ready. The minute that water boils, my life can begin. I don’t want to think about money right now. I started buying cans of El Pico because it cost less than half of the Starbucks French Roast I love. I’ve got nothing saved, and the way things are going at Tacoma lately, it looks like I might not have a job for much longer. Which means I’m going to have to hustle. Which makes me head into the five-by-ten “living area” in search of the Camel Lights.

“You’re smoking?” Jamie calls out after me.

“That a problem?”

“In the morning? Yucky.”

I don’t say anything because I’m too tired to fight. Working in kitchens, some smartass is always taking me under his wing and showing me “the right way” to bake pumpkin or boil carrots, and I don’t need my roommate jumping all over me for smoking a cigarette in the morning. Especially since she’s a smoker. Admittedly, one of those smoking hypocrites who refuses to smoke until after five, during cocktails and after meals.

“I thought I might drop in tonight with a couple of people from work. Think you could hook us up with some little nibblies?”

This is the way Jamie talks. She is the friend of a college friend who I’d always thought was cool until I started living with Jamie. Then I wondered how anyone I got along with so well could also get along with Jamie. She’s got a stick up her ass about three miles long.

Excerpted from “Girl Cook,” by Hannah McCouch. Copyright © 2003 by Hannah McCouch. Published by Villard Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.