My name is Emma, but no one at my first kitchen job called me that. I was a stage for the summer, mid-college, which is to say: I worked for free. It was an Italian restaurant with unlimited bread, good Bolognese, BYO wine.
Instead of Emma, my coworkers called me: My love. My girlfriend. My wife. The mother of my children. “No, no, no!” one shouted. “She’s the mother of my children!”
I would ignore them or smile or laugh. Sometimes I’d say, “I have a boyfriend,” as if that had anything to do with it. And I didn’t tell my then-boyfriend about any of this.
Actually, I didn’t tell anyone. Or I didn’t think it was a big deal. Or I didn’t want to admit that, despite my eagerness to learn, the cooks didn’t take me seriously.
Well, two did. The first was the pastry chef, a smart, kind woman who taught me how to dock focaccia with my fingertips, bake soufflés to order, and whip zabaglione—a sweet Marsala custard that we served with fresh berries—until it fluffed into a cloud.
The other was one of the chefs who ran the main kitchen. He was older and, while the other guys called me sweetie, he had me pounding chicken breasts and rolling arancini, fried risotto balls stuffed with meat sauce and green peas.
I cut myself two times that summer: The first, I was chopping onions and snagged the tip of my finger. One of the chefs saw and said, “Go home.” The second, I was washing knives and sliced my palm open. The older chef bandaged my hand, gave me a latex glove, and told me to get back on the line.
As summer got hotter and hotter, I spent more time with him. He asked about my education, what I wanted to learn during my apprenticeship, how I hoped this would inform my career.
Then he started asking about my boyfriend. How does he treat you? Good? Good. He should treat you good. Does he love you? Yeah? He should love you. Think you’ll stay together? Yeah? Well, who’s to say. You’re so young. And what do you think about older men, anyway? Yeah, like dating them. To me, age is just a number. To me, anyone can be with anyone. Don’t you think?
At the start of every shift, the front-of-house guys would take coffee orders for the back-of-house guys. These men memorized orders for a living, but they’d insist on the same schtick every day. It’d go something like:
“No thanks,” I’d say.
“No sugar?” the older chef would smile at me. “Aren’t you a sweetheart? Aren’t you a sweet girl?”
“Yes,” I would laugh. I’m a sweet girl.
What to do when your boss is starting to creep you out, but he’s your boss:
At this one job, I got promoted from garde manger to sauté cook. It was a two-person line with those two positions, so it was kind of a big deal. This was an open kitchen, with the cold station facing the customers, and the stove facing the wall.
One lunch service, I was juggling this stir-fry, that soup, and I heard a couple of the female servers giggling behind me. I turned and smiled, expecting something about an order. Instead, one of them said, “Emma! You’ve got a booty!”
At this other job, I had this boss who was a few years older than I was, but way more seasoned in the kitchen. In a past life, he was a history teacher, and he told me all about how he wanted to apply that experience to me.
In fairness, he did teach me a lot. Like how to properly dress a salad. And peel ginger. And julienne a whole case of carrots. He also taught me that what I say doesn’t matter, not in his kitchen.
Like when he rated our female guests on a scale of one to 10 (“Seven!” he’d whisper as someone walked in the door), I said, “Please stop,” and he wouldn’t. Or when he made jokes about my sex life, I said, “Please stop,” and he wouldn’t. Or when he ranted about us getting “raped” during lunch service, I said, “Please stop,” and he screamed at me across the kitchen:
“Have you ever been raped before?”
I stared at him.
What to do when your boss does that:
If people are the problem in kitchens, then all you have to do is find a kitchen where there are no people. This is easier than you’d think.
When I was a baker, I worked many of my shifts solo—starting in the middle of the night, working into sunrise, then crossing over with the line cooks for a couple hours before heading home.
In theory, this should have fixed everything. Because if I was in the kitchen by myself, no one could ask about my love life, and I could focus on my work instead.
It was a 30-minute drive to the bakery, almost entirely on the highway. I wasn’t as scared of getting into an accident as I was scared of after getting into an accident.
A few years ago, a semi truck’s tire came loose, spun across a highway, and flew into my friend’s car, stranding her on the side of the road. Someone saw the accident and pulled over: “Come here,” he said. “I want to hug you.”
I thought about him a lot on my commute to the bakery. I thought about people driving the wrong way, about someone swerving into me, about deer. But also about my engine malfunctioning, running out of gas, a flat tire. And how I didn’t know how to change a tire. And how I was going to protect myself on a pitch-black highway, with no one around for miles and miles, save for some guy who wants to hug me.
A few weeks after starting the job, I got a can of pepper spray, a pink one that benefited breast cancer research. I was talking to my dad about it one day, how I was less afraid and more empowered, going from the apartment to the car, from the car to the bakery. He asked me if I’d used it before.
“You mean like on someone?” I asked.
“I mean like practice,” he said. “Do you know how to use it?”
I had no idea how to use it. So I went outside, stood in front of a tree, and fired. It was bright red like hot sauce.
A couple months later, I was in New Orleans. My best friend and I were in a restaurant bathroom and the pepper spray came up and she asked me how it worked and I said, “Do you want me to show you?” and she said, “Yeah, show me.” I sprayed it into the sink and we coughed for the rest of dinner.
There was a parking lot in front of the bakery. You’d be hard-pressed to find a spot during a lunch break, but in the middle of the night: no competition. I could pull right up to the ground-level perimeter, where the bakery doorway was less than 100 feet away. I just had to scurry up a few-step staircase, across a cobblestone road, and get to the door. I would look left, look right, open my pepper spray, and dash.
After a while, I started to recognize people. The parking lot employee. The guys who worked at the hotel around the corner, throwing out the trash. The homeless person rooting through the trash. The five or six women who all got into the same white van. They were my favorite. On a good night, they were getting into their van at the same time I was getting out of my car. This made me feel completely safe—as if they would spring out the van, like superheroes, and save me if something happened.
What to do if there’s someone between you and the bakery and your next coworker doesn’t get in for over four hours:
On Fridays, we made baguettes. That was our big bake of the week. The kitchen was overflowing with pies, cookies, and little cakes, so whomever was shaping baguettes did so at the front bench, which looked out onto the street.
The funny thing about nighttime is, you can’t see anything from inside, but anyone outside can see you. One shift, we found out that a nearby restaurant had to install a curtain to cover its mostly-window storefront, just like ours, because there was a woman who worked a night shift, just like us, and someone kept standing outside, whacking off to her kneading bread dough.
Every time I shaped baguettes, I thought about that.
What to do if you’re a woman in a bakery, by yourself, and someone would like to join you:
I wasn’t scared all the time. After the sun came up, the bakery was the best kitchen job I ever had. We had a female owner whom I looked up to and a female front-of-house manager who always had my back. We had tampons in the first-aid kid. Sure, the back of house was mostly dudes who called each other “Dude!” But they also called me “Dude!”
I want to be clear that I didn’t have it that bad. That my own story is nothing compared to so many other stories. Which is why, a lot of days, I convinced myself that I should be grateful.
I’d tell myself, It could be worse. Until eventually, the biggest feeling I got from working in kitchens wasn’t frustration or disappointment or fear—it was guilt. Guilt for feeling frustrated or disappointed or scared when others have it so much worse.
I told myself: My boss hits on me but doesn’t hit me. My coworkers talk about my butt but don’t grab my butt. My boss shouts at me about getting raped but doesn’t rape me. And that makes me lucky.
Part of me wishes I could go back and speak up every time something happened. Defend myself. Make a difference. But the other part of me remembers why I kept quiet: Because I was scared I’d lose my job or, at the very least, that everyone would hate me.
And I didn’t want to be known as Emma, the girl who got fired. Or Emma, the girl who got so-and-so fired. Or Emma, the mother of my children.
I wanted to be known as Emma, the line cook who always shows up early, keeps a clean station, and makes the best fried eggs in town.