My Staff Skews Female. Can You Handle That?
#86this: Main Menu
By Zoë Cousineau
Fortune stands between a vaguely sketchy massage parlour and a hair salon that produces clouds of hair-burning chemical smoke. It’s on the far less glitzy stretch of what is arguably Montreal’s most romanticized street and you sort of have to know it’s there to find it. At 500 square feet, and 27 seats, it seems to inspire the feeling of being in on a secret. Some clients make it a habit of introducing their friends to Fortune, always recounting how they discovered it. Others blatantly tell us they don’t want anyone else to know about Fortune and get visibly annoyed when they wander in on a Friday night and discover they have to wait for a table.
We began conceiving of Fortune with small, intimate spaces in mind. Our reference points were tiny spots you come across in unfamiliar cities when you’ve gotten yourself completely lost. We wanted a menu and cocktail list that were small and precise with room for now-till-it’s-gone additions, and service that was attentive and considered. Kim, Fortune’s co-owner, and I spent many hours pulling apart our respective memories of diners we ate at as children, bars visited by accident, roadside chip shacks and stumbled-upon restaurants that you’ll never find again but think of often. We tried to pinpoint what we loved about these places, distill whatever details made them so memorable, and fit them into this small space on a shitty block.
The idea of Fortune as a secret discovered by the discerning customer is peculiar to me. In spite of all the attention to detail and our teasing apart of references, the person “discovering” is positioned as the authority, capable of naming what we are accidentally or naively producing. It never seems to occur to the guy calling me “Darlin’” while praising the “cute little restaurant” that we intentionally designed the experience. Underlying the many compliments and expressions of praise is an insinuation that we, owners and/or staff, could not possibly know what we’re doing.
In the early days of ripping out carpeting and negotiating our way through zoning bylaws, we talked about crappy jobs, belittling bosses, and work experiences that were horrible yet common. We weren’t talking about how to be the cool guy boss, permissive but ineffective, and in denial about his role. It was more how experienced restaurant, bar, and customer service workers are seen as infinitely replaceable by those above them, and how much of their labor and skill are invisible to those they’re serving. I shared stories about my former boss who told me to “dance for the men” if I wanted better tips, the co-worker who would follow me into the walk-in to give me unwanted gifts, the bosses who couldn’t do my job, but acted as if there was some essential difference between those who owned businesses and those who staffed them. This solidified, if informally, a respect for the labor involved in these types of jobs. While many of the stories told during the months of renovations and menu testing were dependent on working while female, any explicit consideration of gender was overshadowed by an allegiance to a class of work.
Prior to Fortune I had opened a bar, a partnership that went heartbreakingly bad and left me with a few solid months of lawyers’ appointments, too much time to contemplate what had gone wrong, and pick-up shifts in a semi-basement prep-kitchen. Of the many things I think I should have done differently in that messy story, it was the trading in of kitchen work for management. I came to view this as the moment it went bad. This sense of having inadvertently created a significant divide between staff and owners, and, in doing so, losing some of the ability to shape the work environment. The kitchen, the part I had cared most about, was now largely dominated by a particular breed of slacker-sometimes-dj-line-cook bro. There were some incredibly hard working, talented women in both the kitchen and the bar as a whole, but they were often left to do the cleaning, the maintenance, the work that holds a kitchen together, but that doesn’t involve heat, knives, and yelling out orders. It became a cliche that they all seemed too young to be enacting so perfectly. Or perhaps it was just most kitchens everywhere. Somehow, though, I managed to think of it as a question of work ethic, of my own failure of having chosen to move out of the kitchen, where I was happier and more effective, to managing at arms’ length. My distance allowed the kitchen to become many of the things I hated about kitchen culture.
The size of Fortune, besides lending itself to all the intimacy and specificity we were aiming for, meant a small staff and that I could continue doing kitchen shifts. In October of 2014, we opened and had unintentionally hired no men. This changed quickly, but did seem to set in motion a perception of Fortune that has pushed my gender and the gender presentations of those who work there to prominence in our daily experience in the restaurant.
Fortune has an open kitchen that allows those seated at the bar to talk to at least one of the cooks and to see everyone working. Early on, a local food blogger seemed to take particular issue with what the “girls in the kitchen” were wearing. It was an odd detour in food writing to critique the degree of hipster snobbery denoted by the cooks’ choice of headwear, rather than the food they were sending out.
A constant that first year of Fortune seemed to be customers coming over to the kitchen, leaning in across the bar, and commenting, “That meal was great. Did you come up with the recipes all by yourself ?” It was almost amusing the first few times, but at a certain point, it became hard not to answer, “No. I Googled ‘taco party’ and found some tasty looking options on Pinterest.”
We continued to hire based on all the normal criteria: experience, gut feeling, a sense that the person in question could handle a kitchen that demands a lot. The kitchen at Fortune is so lacking in storage space that it has to be almost completely re-stocked daily. Often, the entire menu has to be prepped during opening hours by one, sometimes two people. The dinner service in our busiest seasons pushes the limits of what should come out of that kitchen. There is little margin for not pulling your weight, lazy prep, or hiding behind your co-workers. Those who have survived long term, who have stayed and become extremely good at their jobs, are mostly women and so our kitchen has often been staffed by a female majority.
This fact seems to have led to many theories about the restaurant, some amusing, some vaguely insulting, often in the form of a compliment, followed by an undermining of the work and skill these women put in. It comes from customers, new staff, applicants for job openings, and the neighborhood angry, threatening guy. We have a couple of regulars who seem to really enjoy the restaurant, but they cannot let go of the idea that we must be some sort of feminist collective. It’s as though there is no other framework for them to understand what they are seeing. Similarly, while interviewing someone for a kitchen position, I had the applicant tell me at length how great it was that Fortune had a non-hierarchical kitchen, something which has never been true.
The angry guy likes to stop by on occasion to call us “whores” and “dykes” and has threatened to kill me on more than a couple of occasions for ruining his neighborhood.
Cooks come in recounting some version of being told by their peers that they must have it easy in that “girl kitchen” that just makes tacos. Is it the belief that any food not coming from a white European tradition is just thoughtless crap thrown on a plate that informs these comments, or is it that “girls” are making it, so it must be easy? If women make up a large portion of both the service and kitchen staff, the entire operation must be functioning according to an alternative power structure or business model more suited to the delicate female constitution, right?
It’s been interesting to watch a particular breed of male cook try to navigate Fortune. They generally come in with mile-long résumés filled with sometimes impressive, often un-notable kitchens. They give some indication of thinking it’s going to be easy and almost immediately, before they’ve even learned to produce usable prep, start to tell their co-workers “better” ways of doing things. They assume all of their female co-workers have far less experience or skill than they do, which is almost always laughably far from the truth. When they realize no one is impressed, it is usually the point at which an unease sets in. They either try to align themselves with or become obsessively competitive with their male co-workers. When they find no ally, very limited patience, and no praise for their obviously exceptional level of talent/experience/badassness/expertise, it’s the beginning of the end. Simply taking away a default presumption of authority and being in an environment that does not require the women they work with to adjust themselves to perpetuate this presumption seems intolerable. They always leave.
Zoë Cousineau traded in art school for kitchens, but still thinks of restaurants as durational performances in an elaborate installation. She is the chef and co-owner of Fortune in Montreal, Quebec.