Grind and Bear It No More
#86this: Main Menu
By Irvianne Torremoro
After graduating from culinary school in Las Vegas, I dove deep into the kitchen scene on The Strip. Mind you, Las Vegas is a town built on excess, so working in kitchens wasn’t any different. Not only were some of the kitchens a bit of a boys’ club, but some of the comments from certain coworkers were completely unnecessary. Yet, it was the name of the game, as I was told by multiple people.
Drinking and drugs flowed in the glow of the neon lights off The Strip. You could find both the front and back of house teams drinking until the sun came up and everyone was sleeping with each other. I, on the other hand, fell in love with a fellow Le Cordon Bleu graduate, and we spent our nights cuddled on the couch, playing cards, and drinking tea. The incestuous partying life wasn’t for me.
Or at least I thought it wasn’t. Eventually that relationship crumbled and I found myself blithely going into the kitchen with a broken heart. I found drinking after hours comforting and the flirtatious comments between co-workers fun and innocent.
Until it wasn’t. Until I found myself at the house of one of my boss’s one night, drinking and watching movies. Eventually, the night progressed into his bedroom. The next day at work, I avoided him as much as I could. He made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone what happened between us and I obliged. He then proceeded to hurl derogatory comments at me in the kitchen that made me feel uncomfortable, knowing I wouldn’t dare tell anyone.
Here’s the thing about the kitchen, especially with Las Vegas kitchens: everyone knows your business and it’s hard to keep secrets when everyone is your friend. I held onto mine for a long time, only telling a few close friends what had happened. At the time, it was hard to decipher whether or not I should have brought this issue up with his superiors because I felt like he'd crossed the line. After I told a few close girlfriends who worked with me, they confirmed that my feelings weren’t absurd and that I should speak to someone about it.
I never did though. I didn’t want to lose the respect I’d gained in the kitchen. I worked my way up through all the stations in the kitchen, only to be looked at as a tattletale? That was my theory, that’s the way I looked at it. And that feeling didn’t go away after I left Las Vegas to work in Austin, Texas.
I thought things would be different after I moved to Austin. I worked in a kitchen for six months, only to hear the same derogatory comments I used to hear in the Vegas kitchens. I thought that moving from the kitchen into serving would help my situation. In some ways it became worse. Being a cocktail server at a prominent hotel made for unnecessary attention, from co-workers and guests alike. It was a little-known fact to me that working as a cocktail server came with the consequences of being groped by regulars. The managers knew about it and did nothing. “Oh, that’s just what Mr. _____ does, he’s always been like that.” Doctors, lawyers, businessmen of all sorts thought they could talk to female servers any way they felt like. I’ve been pulled onto couches by drunkards asking me to spend the night with them and I had to ready myself for this type of behavior. We’re taught to grind and bear it, by our peers, superiors, and even employers. But why do women need to deal with anything of this sort?
So many women have quietly held onto these stories, not realizing they represent an arsenal of truth they now have the courage to use.
So, where do we go from here? “You’ve got to realize that you have to be vocal, you have to be open, and you have to be willing to stand up for yourself,” says Marie Yonge, who worked as an executive pastry chef in Vegas. “Because if you don’t, no one else will.”
Even women who own their businesses struggle with what to do for themselves and their employees. But Deepa Shridhar, chef and owner of the Puli-Ra food truck in Austin, has some ideas. “I’ll go ahead and say it: Having women in power will help because we know what [harassment] feels like. We understand the subtlety of it and the overtness of it.”
One of my biggest inspirations in the industry has been Yana Gilbuena, the traveling chef behind Salo Series. She shares her love for Filipino food and culture with people all over the world through her pop-up dinner series. She and I have collaborated on several dinners and talked about the ever-changing food and beverage scene. Her take on the men in the industry who have been called out and the problems revealed? “I think we glorify men in certain positions and we need to put things in perspective,” she says. “Yes, you can admire their craft and admire their passion, but they can’t do whatever they want because they’re in the position of power. Knowing your worth, dignity, and your place is important. You don’t have to take any shit from anyone, man or woman.”
Diane Chang, the owner of Po-Po’s, the Brooklyn baking and catering business, sees progress. “I really like what’s happening, specifically with Chef Angela Dimayuga [formerly of Mission Chinese Food] regarding her career and how cool she is. We’re hoisting up people who are normally marginalized and would not usually receive attention. It’s great to celebrate female queer chefs doing things their own way.”
Although there isn’t a definitive answer about what needs to be done, we at least now have a platform to speak from and that’s where we can start. One thing is for certain, change is underway. Let’s call it a slow burn, one that will light the way for the new generation of cooks and leaders in the restaurant industry.
Irvianne Torremoro’s time spent helping her grandmother cook created a deep love for and connection to the kitchen. After culinary school and stints at various restaurant in Las Vegas, she decided to return home to Texas—mainly for breakfast tacos and Topo Chico. Her love of food and words led her to start the blog Flavor and Bounty, where she documents the journeys of those in the food and beverage industries.