NICE WORK, BOYS!
CHAPTER 1 — A WOMAN’S PLACE
Out of all the places I could be on a holiday weekend night, why here? I thought,
as I squeeze-bottled lines of red pepper sauce over a seafood tagliarini dish (Oh, squeeze bottles, what would we cooks ever do without them?). I couldn’t think about how weeded I was, or the heat, or the fresh burn bubbles going all the way up my arm. In restaurant speak, “weeded” or “being in the weeds” means slammed, way behind, struggling to stay on top of the rush. Imagine you’re juggling, but people keep throwing you balls, and you have to keep juggling all of them. Then the balls catch fire, but you can’t stop. And people keep telling you, “I need that ball now! How long before you’re done?”
I glanced over to the corner of the kitchen, where a server was rolling silverware and chatting up a storm. She seemed so tranquil, a cool cucumber compared to the madness of the line. In the less than half a second I spent in silverware Zen-land with the server, I thought, What I’d do right now to be there, with not a care in the world except rolling silverware. I shifted my focus back. I couldn’t focus on how weeded I was; I just had to keep cooking. Next pickup: three sea bass, two seafood pasta, a cowboy steak special, and three airline chicken. Focusing on that next pickup was the small thread I hung on to, to keep from drowning in a sea of paper tickets.
Women are expected to cook at home for their family, not in a tough, physically arduous, mentally exhausting, balls-to-the-wall-paced, no-screw-ups-allowed, male-dominated restaurant kitchen.
Why do the people who say “A woman’s place is the kitchen” usually think this is true unless it’s a professional kitchen, where, instead of cooking for a few friends and family members, she’s cooking for hundreds, maybe even a thousand paying customers with high standards?
Where, instead of having plenty of time to cook one big casserole for everyone, she’s cooking to order big-ticket entrées, and has only fifteen minutes to cook each dish?
Where she might be the only woman and may even be in charge of leading a team through a dinner rush?
If a woman can cook, they call her “wifey material.” If she cooks at a restaurant, they say, “You’re too pretty to work back there. You should be taking my order.”
“So, you’re like a prep helper or a cake decorator, right?”
“You should work cold stations and dessert. You wouldn’t want to get burns from working the grill.”
“Can you make sure it’s a man who cooks my steak?”
“That’s nice, sweetie, but can I talk to the chef?”
“Women can’t put in the same hours men can.”
These are all real quotes, by the way, that I collected from other female cooks and chefs.
“I bet you make great tips there as a waitress,” they say, after I’ve told them where I work as a cook and have just finished a busy holiday weekend. It stings a little harder when you are at a place that does not tip out the kitchen, which is quite common.
That night I found myself in the weeds, plating up seafood pastas and trying to keep my focus away from the server in silverware land, was one of those busy holidays. I was covering for the main sauté cook over Labor Day weekend while he was out for a few weeks for an unavoidable family situation. Every station in the kitchen has its own hardships, but sauté was definitely the most intricate, and only a few cooks could work it. Just when I thought I was holding it down pretty well, the orders coming in at a decent pace, the ticket printer started rattling off like a machine gun and didn’t stop for three hours.
Early on in that rush, I hastily and carelessly dropped a skin-on airline chicken breast into smoking-hot oil in a pan and it splashed everywhere. I knew oil splattered all over my arm, but I didn’t feel any burns; that’s the kind of adrenaline you’re on during a four-hundred-cover night (covers meaning how many people came through the restaurant, in this case between 5 and 10 p.m. Four hundred butts in the chairs. Four hundred people ordering appetizers, main courses, and desserts). I was cranking out sea bass entrée after sea bass entrée—having five to seven of those working at any given time throughout the night. I was plating up prime rib sides and seafood pasta dishes to the tune of whirring hood vents, crashing dishes, and the chef yelling out our next pickup.
I had all twelve stove burners on and both ovens full. I didn’t have time for pain. And the heat? I wasn’t even thinking about the heat, even though it was a late-summer evening, cooped up in a windowless, stainless-steel dungeon, reaching into a 450-degree oven every five minutes. At 10 p.m., when the rush calmed down, I showed a server my burns. His jaw hit the floor.
“A grease splash? You look like you pinned your whole arm to the grill!”
I still have the scars as I write this.
So yes, please keep telling me that cooking is a “woman’s job,” or that a man who can cook is displaying “feminine” qualities. Please keep telling me that my place is the kitchen, because it is. But if you’re going to use it as an insult or some sort of way to assert dominance as a man, I dare you to find the busiest restaurant in your city on a day when the line is out the door, peek into the
kitchen, and watch. You might not even see a woman, and if you do, you better believe she’s tough as nails.
Hanalei Souza started as a line cook in 2018 and has proudly owned her place in the kitchen ever since. She first decided to write "Nice Work, Boys!" after receiving her first promotion at the age of 21 as the only woman in a large department in the ski industry. She now cooks full-time at a restaurant, makes dank memes for her kitchen humor Instagram page, and writes in her kitchen life blog (links below).