“Your head chef is not a bitch because she is demanding, she is demanding because she is incredible, just like I expect you to be!”
If I have to explain that to one more young cook in my life it will be one more too many — but I will — as I won’t allow the learning moment to pass.
I know I am not the right person to necessarily take this topic on, but I certainly am the one that can afford to. While as a white man and successful restaurateur from a comfortable upbringing, I may lack the credibility and life experience to preach on the topic of gender equity or equity of any kind in the kitchen, I do have the luxury of a position of power to risk voicing an unpopular opinion.
If my years of trying to be a leader in the local culinary industry have earned me the platform to do so, well then frankly it’s my responsibility to use it.
Have I always embodied equitable values? No. But I have grown and challenged myself to be better. Recognizing that toxic masculinity can take many forms was a big step for me; how easily and naturally “good guys” can dive in head first is important to acknowledge. Think you’re a “good guy?” Let’s take away that “I’ve never grabbed an ass in the workplace” badge of honour you wear because I can bet dollars to donuts you’ve called someone a “pussy” for crying while chopping onions, or a “housewife” for peeling potatoes the wrong way.
This culture makes women reluctant when considering a career in the kitchen. Proclaiming “I’m happy to work alongside chicks in the kitchen” does not make you open minded it makes you a “bro” and leads to a seriously hostile work environment for everyone else, especially women. The necessary need to comment on your co-workers gender creates a gender division; my whole point is that that division doesn’t need to exist.
Not only is this gross and unfair, it can be dangerous and lead to unsafe situations for women and LGBTQ+ folks in the workplace.
My wife and I operate a restaurant group born from our mom-and-pop-shop many moons ago, it seems. In that time the industry has changed; gone are the days of the spotless celebrity chef.
Some of those seemingly cheerful, cultured and revered chefs have perpetuated rape culture in the back of kitchens and in their personal lives. News of this exposed a dark and disgusting reality of kitchen culture. If this didn’t cause every restaurant owner, chef and manager to do a review of their own practices and work environments — what would?
I found a few industry peers happy to defend chefs like Batali and Besh, or restaurants like Weslodge — all of which were accused of sexual assault or misconduct — preaching the classic “innocent until proven guilty” cliché (and yes it needs to be called a cliché.)
From that moment on it’s been easy for me to see that faults of this industry, the faults of our “good guys” and easy to advocate for a better future.
We have changed a lot too within our own bubble, our first staff party had 16 people attend, we now work with over 200 employees. I am extremely proud that our gender gap is non existent.
Our management team in 70 per cent women and 30 per cent men. How and why has this happened in our little enclave of this industry? Who knows really — random luck, location, it could be anything.
It’s not because we made a mandate to hire women over men; the only mandate we made was a personal commitment to provide a fair, equal and a truly inclusive work environment. One where anyone could work, feel safe, welcome, included and encouraged to flourish. We simply made a real commitment to protect the right to a fair and inclusive work environment for all, not just half the applicants that walked in the door.
If there was ever an easier leap to take, it is that one. If there was ever a more comfortable perch to take it from its mine, the successful chef who is a white man. I have the opportunity to take the high road here and teach a younger generation a better way and encourage other restaurateurs to continue to do the same.
As I look across the street at my fellow chefs and restaurateurs, I see lots of great things that encourage me to think times are changing. I see women in high positions in kitchens around the city and its great the think the health of the hospitality industry and kitchen culture is headed in the right direction, albeit embarrassing it needed correction at all.
Here’s an amazing recipe from the women who taught me to cook, and be the person I am today: my Mom’s Beef Rouladen.
Nick Benninger is a local chef and restaurant owner.
Bonnie’s Bitch’n Beef Rouladen
2-3 oz tenderized round steak (ask your butcher)
-Spread the flat cuts out on a clean surface and sprinkle with salt and pepper and garlic powder.
-Schmear each piece with Dijon mustard.
-Place a slice of bacon the length of each cut.
-Place a spear of Strubs kosher dill (my favourite) at end of cut and roll up. Fasten with 2 toothpicks.
-In a hot pan, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter and proceed to sear each roll on all side till just browned. Do in batches so that you don’t crowd the pan. Remove the rolls to a roasting pan and arrange in single layer.
-While still hot, deglaze the pan with a cup of red wine or two, depending on how many rolls you’ve made. Reduce for a couple of minutes to cook off alcohol.
-Add a couple of bay leaves.
-Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste.
-Add enough beef broth to the pan to submerge the rolls half way up (probably 2-4 cups again depending on small batch or large).
-Cover and bake in oven for 1.5 hours at 350.
-When done, remove the rolls from pan and remove the bay leaves. Thicken the liquid with a slurry of 2 tablespoons of cornstarch and 3 tablespoons of water mixed.
-Taste and adjust salt and pepper to your preference.
-Return rolls to gravy and serve with mashed potatoes.