Sunday, November 1, 2009

Enter The "Y" Chromosome

I grew up in Estrogen Central. Our family of seven consisted of six females…and my dad.

Still, when it came time to choose a career, I ended up in the world of the commercial kitchen—dominated by sharp knives, gigantic appliances, acres of stainless steel, and MEN. (Come to think of it, what career field was NOT male-dominated back in the seventies?)

Working with men is really pretty simple. They are selfish and competitive. They try to dominate all aspects of a project; their idea of teamwork is to hog every opportunity to shine and let someone else have the ball only when they drop it; “delegation” is the handing off of unglamorous scutwork to lesser minions. Men tend to establish a clear pecking order in a kitchen, dishing out verbal and even physical abuse to new-comers. If you prove you can “take it”—for an unspecified period of time—then you earn the right to be treated like a human being.

But I could be a hard guy. I gave as good as I got. I busted my butt, worked hard and didn’t challenge anybody (much) so I got respect. After awhile, I had myself convinced that I worked much better with men than with women. Women were wimpy, over-emotional, passive/aggressive pains in the ass. Since there were not too many girls there in the back of the house rubbing elbows with me, what did I know? It served me, for many years, to make believe I was just one of the guys.

Eventually, after more years stuck in middle management than any man would have had to endure, I finally attained Hefe status. And I found that managing men gradually lost its appeal. I was the boss. I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody (at least not to anyone with whom I shared a prep table.) The “hazing” mentality so prevalent in the industry was loathsome, and I was not going to tolerate it in my kitchen. I knew management-sanctioned abuse was no way to attract and retain quality employees. And, let’s face it—five foot three inch dynamo that I was, I nevertheless found that getting any male to do my bidding was more trouble than it was worth. So I discovered, wonder of wonders, that I preferred managing my own kind.

Women, in addition to being passive/aggressive pains in the ass, are much more collaborative and team-oriented than men. Women are motivated by being needed; they want to feel helpful and necessary. And, oddly enough, I’ve found that women are much more adept than men at multi-tasking. Perhaps it’s because men are always at least partly engaged in plotting how much farther up the ladder successful completion of a given assignment is going to take them. It takes away from their ability to focus on multiple tasks.

And, of course, one cannot discount the fact that women don’t usually find it impossible to take orders from another woman. So, over time, I’ve become somewhat of a master at managing the Estrogen-Powered Workplace. Not that this skill has become simple or formulaic…but at least it’s a matter of dealing with the Devil I Know.

Enter my newest hire—California Chef.

Even the selection process that brought him on board was a painstaking exercise in looking beyond stereotypes and prejudices built upon thirty-plus years in this business. The final decision was between California Chef and a female candidate with plenty of experience and ties to the community. The choice became clear when California Chef brought ideas and research to the final interview, and Local Chef brought…herself. I could not see myself opting for the lesser candidate based on what amounted to reverse discrimination. Still, I had to physically put aside my trepidation about introducing a male into our female-infested kitchen—especially in a supervisory capacity. California Chef got the job.

Would that I could say that all my worry was for naught. But we know better than that, don’t we? It has indeed been a challenge to optimize my male chef’s effectiveness, surrounded as he is by our rag-tag crew of ladies—including myself—with less-than-gourmet-dinner-house experience. He is frustrated that we don’t know anything, which makes us feel more than slightly disrespected. It’s not that we “don’t know anything;” we may not have some of his skills and experience, but that doesn’t mean we don’t respect his expertise and aren’t willing to acquire those skills. But we want to feel respected in the process. It’s been a difficult and particularly thread-like tightrope for us all to walk.

California Chef is talented, he’s smart, his work ethic is a throwback to my own generation, or even my parents’. And he is really a genuinely nice person. Yet he’s having the devil’s own time figuring out how to communicate with and motivate his staff. I can’t teach him how to cook, but I sure as hell have a store of knowledge about management and the maintenance of inter-personal relationships involved that he would do well to acquire if he aspires to an effective career as head of his own kitchen. If only I can figure out how to make him understand this.

He seems to think that he has but to come up with recipes and methods, write them down or show someone once how they are done, and that should be that. There’s no room for error or mistakes or personalities. If someone fails it’s because she is lazy or stupid or insubordinate. It’s not incumbent upon him to evaluate each member of his staff as an individual, identify her strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to play to her strong side. No...he should be able to bark “Jump!” and her only input should be to ask, “How high?”

So. Typically. Male.

Yet I don’t think he even really believes this nonsense himself. It’s just that he’s been indoctrinated into this way of thinking. Poisoned, if you will, by the environments in which he has, up ‘til now, developed his talent. Male-dominated kitchens, all, where testosterone dictated the pecking order and “my way or the highway” was a legitimate management technique. He’s young…this is all he knows. But he seems to think it’s all there is.

My job is to open his mind to other possibilities, alternate methods. The methods that are going to work on a kitchen full of women. The things he needs to know and I need to teach him if our association is going to go anywhere besides up in spectacular flames. What a learning and growth experience this could be—for both of us—if we can make it happen.



  1. Oh Yeah. Thinking that what one knows is all there is.

    You would know your business. But in the world at large, I'd say it might be more about age than gender.

  2. There is a bit of an age factor...but, don't forget, I've been incarcerated with women his age for the past three years. They may be way younger than I, but they still think, act, and react like women. Which I naturally take into account in dealing with them.

    Whereas California Chef thinks, for example, that when someone cries (as women will do when sad, angry, or frustrated) it's a deliberate effort to manipulate him rather than just a natural emotional reaction.

  3. Hell yes, women evolved multitasking. Gathering the herbs, making sure that mushroom isn't one of the many that could leave half the camp unpleasantly dead, keeping the hut up, keeping the fire going, keeping the rug rats out of said fire, making sure the big kids were keeping track of the little kids and keeping the lap baby topped off.

    And listening to the guys boast about the three prides of lions they had to fight off to bring back one scrawny, undersized wilde beast.

    It's a miracle we made it off the savanah. ;-)

  4. Well, as you define your "job" with this young man, I'd say you definitely have your work cut out for you. As with most things you take on, the road may be bumpy...but I'm confident you can reign this kid in. It sounds like he's worth the effort.

  5. Oh, I don't envy you working with first his gender and second, his youth.

    I, sadly, have become the 'house mother' and just yesterday the realization that age does matter smacked me between the eyes and almost caused brain-freeze type pain.

    But you will get through to him because you do know how. It's just going to take time. ;)