One of the first questions I get asked when someone learns that I am an Army vet is, “Were you a chef in the Army?” I was not a chef in the Army; I was many things but chef was not one of them. The job that the Army trained me to do was that of a special electronics repairer. I repaired highly sensitive government equipment like night vision goggles and computer hardware. I installed and operated many pieces of equipment like communication radios, fiber optic wires, and the blue force tracker which is the Army’s version of a GPS system. The job as an Army chef, also known as a culinary specialist, is a difficult one. Culinary specialists have to get up earlier than everyone else because they are literally feeding an Army. Of all the hats that I wore in the Army chef was not one of them.
The story of why I became a chef is not different than many of the students I teach. Ironically enough my mother was a cook in the Army National Guard and I learned how to cook from her. I also loved being in the kitchen cooking with my grandma. Grandmothers just know how to cook home-cooked meals, many of which are made without recipes. I was also always the student that would bring food in for a school project. I grew up loving to cook and being in the kitchen cooking meals for my family of six.
My journey from veteran to chef was actually an easy transition as the two professions mirror each other in how they operate. The military has a chain of command and the culinary industry has a brigade system which are both similarly aligned hierarchical systems. In the military you have your battle buddies who always have your back and as a chef you have the cooks who you are “in the trenches” with to survive a dinner service. Unfortunately, people in both industries are known to turn to substance abuse to wind down after a long day’s work. One of the biggest similarities between these two industries, though, is that they are both male-dominated.
Working in male-dominated industries as both a female soldier and female chef, are, unfortunately, tough environments to survive and thrive in. Both environments have gender inequality and diversity issues that require necessary change. I feel that I was better prepared to take on the challenges faced by women in these industries as I grew up with three brothers and had to learn how to hold my own. However, even as equipped as I was from my upbringing, I still had to work twice as hard as my male counterparts to be recognized or taken seriously. In the military, I was always one of the first ones to arrive in the morning and one of the last ones to leave at the end of the day. I worked hard to maintain my physical conditioning so that I could perform well on the PT test. I achieved a higher weapons qualification at the range than most of my male counterparts. I studied day and night to be selected as soldier of the month by a selection committee of my battalion Command Sergeant Major and company First Sergeants, who were all males. So why did I keep getting overlooked for promotion?
Technically, the Army promotes based on a promotion point system in which soldiers are promoted by the needs of the Army and how many points in the system a soldier has achieved. One of the requirements for promotion was passing the warrior leader course (WLC) that I was constantly not selected for but watched as my male counterparts were selected ahead of me. The nail in the coffin of my Army career occured when an opportunity arose for a field promotion. This was a promotion in which my chain of command could select a soldier to be promoted and bypass the promotion point system; I was once again overlooked as I watched my male counterparts receive promotions. This is one of the reasons I got out of the Army and changed careers. Unfortunately, I went into the same kind of environment where gender inequality is a major issue. Again, as a female chef, I still push myself to work hard and hold my own against my male counterparts. Fortunately, I work with an amazing group of culinarians who look at me as an equal, but many women in the industry do not get the same luxury.
As an educator and mentor of young female students going into the culinary industry, I represent a strong female role model for them to emulate when they get out into the industry. I try to prepare my female students for the “kitchen culture” that they may encounter in this industry. It is a really sad conversation when I say “look, this is the type of misogynistic behavior and double standards that you are going to encounter in the industry. As a female in this industry nothing will be ‘handed’ to you. As a female you will have to fight for equal pay but always know your value and be willing to stand up and fight for your equality.”
As an educator and a mentor, it is my mission to help each student find their “kitchen voice” with an emphasis on the strong female presence. The progress towards gender equality and racial and ethnic diversity in the culinary industry is long overdue. Creating a workplace with a more diverse atmosphere of gender equality and cultural/ethnic backgrounds makes for a well-rounded environment. With a recent focus on diversity and inclusion, plus movements like #MeToo, kitchen culture is headed in the right direction but still has a long way to go. She deserves every bit of your respect; her name is Chef!