I’ve always wanted to be a tomboy, the kind of girl who could keep up with the boys—and do them one better. So when I landed in the kitchen of an Applebee’s, reporting undercover for my book, The American Way of Eating, I felt like I was getting my chance to be a downmarket, female version of Anthony Bourdain. My workplace was a perfect setting for it.
The kitchen was big, a span of ruddy tile and stainless steel pulsing with heat from the grill, cooktops, and a line of deep fryers. During busy nights, the line was manned by six or eight men, typically at a ratio of one Caribbean to two Latins. My job was to expedite—to play traffic cop with the orders coming through the kitchen, to add sauces and lemon slices to plates, to make sure we substituted onion rings for French fries. At the peak of service I’d work in tandem with a manager, all of whom were male. I was the only woman working with the line, and usually the only white in the kitchen.
The raunchiness of cooks has always been legendary, but kitchen lit and reality TV have given it a glamorous sheen. I had a hankering to prove that I could hold my own. My co-workers tested me nonstop. When Geoff, a dark-skinned Caribbean cook asked me if I liked chocolate, and said he preferred vanilla, I rolled my eyes. When Christopher, born and raised in a rough part of the city, puffed up his chest, tapped me on the collarbone and said, “I’ma put my name right there, on a chain, ’round your neck,” I pursed my lips, said, “I would like to see you try, motherfucker,” and we both laughed. I learned that "culo" meant ass, and made sure to ask Joel, a cook, if there was a problem when I caught him eyeing mine.
The only comment I couldn’t handle came when I burned my hand during a rush of service. I yelped in pain and kept working. After things calmed down, vanilla-loving Geoff grabbed a handful of ice and came up behind me. “Which hand?” he asked, and when I said my right, he stepped close, grasped my hand in his, and began tenderly massaging it with the ice—but not in a medical sort of way “That’s enough, Geoff,” I said, retracting my hand and assuming a school-marm tone. “I’m a grown-ass woman.” Geoff didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, I can see that,” he told me evenly with bedroom eyes, pressing his palm against mine. I broke his gaze, unnerved and speechless: it’s one thing when people are chattering at you from across the line—that’s a public performance as much as communication. This was a direct and concrete challenge, coupled with physical touch. It was a couple seconds before I managed a retort: “Whatever.” It still bothers me that I didn’t have a better comeback.
It wasn’t all crass and lawless, though. The kitchen manager who had hired me, Freddie, kept things in check. He was a veteran of chain kitchens around town, though I never got a count on the years he had spent in the business. Early in my tenure, he heard the fry cook call me Mamí, and he rapped sharply on the station’s steel shelving. "Listen to me," he snapped in Spanish. "Her name is not Mami. Her name is Tracie. Do you understand me?" I tried to explain that I’d been called worse names than Mamí, that I didn’t think the cook meant anything by it, but Freddie shook his head. “Nah, it’s not cool. Let me handle this.”
I loved the work, and I wasn’t bad at it. By the end of my two months there, the managers were talking about my future with the company, should I want it. One told me that if he could clone me, he’d set up the whole line with Tracies. I could feel myself becoming part of the kitchen, appreciated for my hard work, my willingness to weather the raunch directed at me, and my increasing ability to give as good as I got. My last night, co-workers celebrated me at the end of service, setting a platter of fresh ceviche on the pass and handing me an iced shot of Mezcal. I was elated; I thought I’d become one of the boys.
And then I woke up in a near-stranger’s apartment, uncertain of how I’d gotten there or how my pants had ended up on the floor.
Everything was, and remains, fuzzy; it was weeks before I heard the full story. When the ceviche and Mezcal ran out, we moved the party to a co-worker’s apartment. Apparently Joel, a cook, had drugged my drink. A newer cook, Hector, told me later he had seen Joel do it, but didn’t tell anyone at the time. A girl from the prep kitchen who had come along, looked out for me and stepped in when Joel tried to take me home with him. But when I crawled into the apartment’s only bed and fell asleep, a friend of another colleague saw an opportunity and took it. So far as I can tell, I was molested, not raped. I filed a police report, and there was an initial arrest, but not enough evidence to pursue a case.
There are men of all classes, colors, and professions who drug and assault women, of course. But what happened to me was reflective of the industry in which I was working, because it’s the nastiest corner—an unspoken flipside, if you will—of the emerging genre of kitchen-pulp docudrama. These modern adventure stories traffic heavily in tales of kitchens as a boys-gone-wild world of sex, drugs, rock and food, where you’d best get a thick skin and learn to roll with the punches. In his new imprint at Ecco, Bourdain’s first titles—announced last week—drew the apt description of being “the dudeification of cooking,” for a lineup consisting of a man who knows Southern barbecue, one who knows Korean barbecue, and one who knows kickboxing. Last year’s Top Chef cast got run through a sexual-harassment training after tensions over the “boys' club” atmosphere in the shared house ran high. And at Mario Batali’s Babbo, wrote Bill Buford, a male cook tried to undercut a female cook’s suggestion of using a scale to determine portions by arguing, “Let’s call it a B-cup … all the boys know the feel of a B-cup.” Complaints about the sexism of another cook went nowhere. “This is New York,” Batali told the woman cook who complained. “Get used to it.”
Indeed, a recent national survey found vast discrimination against women in the restaurant industry, on pay, working conditions, and through sexual harassment. Just over 10 percent of 4,300 restaurant workers surveyed by the Restaurant Opportunities Center reported that they or a co-worker had experienced sexual harassment in their restaurant, according to “Tipped Over the Edge,” published this year by ROC, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and a coalition of women’s organizations. The numbers for women are likely far more grim. Even though only 7 percent of working women are employed in restaurants, those who do accounted for 37 percent of sexual harassment complaints filed by females for most of 2011, according to an MSNBC analysis of EEOC data.
Women who work in kitchens have little choice but to “get used to it”; their ascension in the ranks depends largely on men’s willingness to grant it to them. And so the adventure stories continue, alluring and unquestioned. It’s so pervasive that when excerpts from my Applebee’s reporting in The American Way of Eating went up on Slate, one thread of comments devolved into rhapsodizing daydreams of days gone by: ”Where’s the part about endless free snacking, smoking dope all day, drinking beer from the cooler and flirting with the waitresses?” asked one commenter, prompting a spate of admiring references to Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’s 2000 best-selling chef memoir that launched him into the national spotlight.
A few years ago, I would’ve nodded along, lured by the idea that I could work my way into the club of a rough-and-tumble kitchen. Now I know what I suspect Freddie had been trying to subtly teach me: I could never, by definition, be one of the boys.
NOTE: Names changed to protect privacy.