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Heat's on women in the kitchen

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Honestly, when eating out, I never think about whether my food was prepared by a female or male chef — until now.

I knew things could be rough and tumbly back in the kitchen.

I've had clients working as line cooks with hopes of being a chef someday.

They came to our meetings with nasty burns on their wrists and barely able to stay awake.

Sometimes I park myself at that counter where a restaurant lets you eat inches from the comings and goings of food making and observe the chaotic rhythm of sautéing, grilling, frying, passing, placing, dripping, dropping and shouting.

It's intense.

But thanks to Charlotte Druckman's new book “Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen,” I have a deeper appreciation for the work overall and how women chefs prevail in this cutthroat, male-dominated industry.

She examines the stages of and influences on a chef's career through the experiences of 73 women. Think of it as 73 unfettered informational interviews.

What does it take to make it?

The traits are fascination with food and the desire to communicate through this particular medium, the author says.

“It takes a very strong physicality (and) a strong mind to be able to work the hours and get pummeled physically in the way that you do,” Chef Liza Shaw says.

Chef Ann Cashion points out that “most of the women who thrived in her kitchen were those who had played team sports, excelled athletically, or possessed physical confidence,” Druckman writes. The idea “that they are physically capable of enduring so much” made them “better equipped to handle life in the galley.”

“I've given up everything to become a chef and do what I do ... holidays ... family ... to know and live food, and to be able to now, somewhat, create freely,” Chef Waylynn Lucas says.

What used to bother chef Gina DePalma most was always feeling “like I had to sacrifice my femininity,” such as nurturing. “You have to buy into the whole ‘pretend to be one of the boys.' ”

To get along in a galley, women cooks frequently have had to choose between “acting like a man (renouncing all vestiges of femaleness) or becoming invisible,” the author says.

It's “hard to sleep at night when you actually do get the hours to sleep,” chef Melissa Perello says. You never stop thinking of how your food is presented and how customers and peers receive it.

Partially, she says that's “related to being a woman in the industry and being surrounded by other male chefs.”

Chef Shuna Lydon recalls this piece of advice from a female line cook:

“Just know this: You're going to work twice as hard for half the respect.”

“There's a lot of offensive stuff said in the kitchen,” chef Stephanie Izard says. “That's what seems to trip most women up.”

“Doors for professional kitchens are now slightly open to women,” says food writer and author Jennifer Rubell, in an AOL On Food video. But, “Restaurant cooking is still basically the province of men.”

Pastry chef Heather Bertinetti says the only way to survive “is if I know I can go toe to toe” with the men to stick up for myself and make my mark.”

Email andrea@andreakay.com.

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