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Women Who Can Take The Heat

March 15, 1987|RUTH REICHL

The first chef Elka Gilmore worked for was so infuriated at having a woman invade his domain that when she cut her finger he stuck it into a bucket of salt. "He was only trying to rattle me," she says. He didn't know who he was dealing with.

On her first day as the lone woman in a professional kitchen, Mary Sue Milliken was asked to make 80 quarts of hollandaise--by hand. "I discovered," she says, "that the trick was to put a smile on your face and pretend that your arm didn't hurt."

The first chef Anne Rosenzweig worked for "only took me on to prove to me that I couldn't do it." Her inaugural assignment was to clean 25 pounds of squid. "I finished them up, smiled and said, 'That was fun. You mean you guys get paid to do this?' "

"Whenever anybody said, 'You're too small,' 'You're not strong enough' or 'You don't have the stamina,' I became more determined," says Rosenzweig. Lydia Shire was so intent on being successful "that I came in earlier than anybody else and I left later. I did things nobody asked me to do. I never complained." Adds Cindy Black: "Women chefs are pretty tough; they work harder than their male equals."

And suddenly they have a lot to show for it.

"The feeling for women in the kitchen is so different than it was six years ago," says Rosenzweig. Back then, women had to prove that they could stand up to hard physical labor and long hours. They had to survive rituals that make fraternity hazing look tame. But women refused to get out of the kitchen; they showed that they could take the heat. Now they are entering restaurants in record numbers. Last December, when the Los Angeles-based Woman's Culinary Alliance had its first meeting, the primary order of business was how to limit the membership to serious chefs.

"Four years ago," says Alliance chairman Elka Gilmore, "I only had two things to say to the media: I was young and I was a woman. Today I'm not so young--and being a woman is not much of an issue. Women have proved themselves."

And now they are starting all over again. Having conquered the kitchen, women are moving out from the back of the stove, making the leap from hands-on cook to executive chef, from creative artist to major manager. Next month, when the two most eagerly awaited new restaurants in Los Angeles and New York open their doors, each a multimillion-dollar venture with an enormous staff, women will be running the show.

Did you read that newspaper article? There was that one comment I really loved that said that hiring Rosenzweig to redo 21 was like hiring the designer of a small Madison Avenue boutique to redo a wing at the Met. I've gotten that sort of stuff from the beginning, and I've come to expect it. I just want to go out and show 'em, you know, I can do it.

--Anne Rosenzweig, 21, New York

Anne Rosenzweig always liked to cook, but she was never meant to be a chef. A graduate of Juilliard and Columbia, this tiny (she is five feet tall) but intense New Yorker was happily doing field work in ethnomusicology. And then one day it occurred to her that what she really wanted to do was work in a kitchen.

Rosenzweig tends to act on her ideas. She came back from Nepal to search for a teacher. "I considered going to school, but that way you just end up spending thousands of dollars and running a little restaurant that belongs to them. I thought it would make more sense to apprentice myself to someone."

The man she picked as a teacher was contemptuous of the idea--but reluctant to turn down free labor. "You are a woman," the chef would shout at her, "and you don't have the concentration and stamina for a kitchen like this." But, says Rosenzweig, "he saw that I was determined and very good. Then he got excited and really started teaching."

Three months later, the prep cook left and Rosenzweig moved into the job. In a year and a half, she had worked her way through the kitchen, hitting every station. Her mentor then helped get her a job as brunch and pastry chef at another restaurant. The first review said that brunch was the best meal at the restaurant--and that the pastries were excellent. The owners did the obvious; they fired the chef and hired Rosenzweig. She had been cooking for less than two years.

"I was not really prepared," she says now, "but that's the sort of thing that makes me work that much harder." Talking to her, you get a sense of enormous intelligence and icy determination. "Being a line cook," she says, "isn't like being a chef. You need certain qualities to run all those people, take the pressure, manage it. There are people who aren't great cooks who make great chefs. But I'm the sort of person who, when I see a hole, I sort of tend to take over."

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