Standing the heat: Why being a high level chef and a woman in NYC is still surprisingly rare

Februrary 2016; reported at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

Sitting in the empty dining room of Okiway, a relatively new izakaya restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn, before the weekly dinner service, Sara Antes had partially stuffed her auburn curls into a grey knit hat, adorned with the Momofuku peach logo. “It’s the only hat I could find,” she explained. Before her appointment as executive chef at Okiway, Antes had worked as sous chef at Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village, where she said chef David Chang’s kitchen was “very high octane.” She nursed a mug of green tea. That afternoon, Antes was under the weather, but as an executive chef, she isn’t one to take sick days.

As she chatted, Antes periodically paused mid-sentence, cocking her ear toward the kitchen to make sure her staff was prepping properly for the evening, calling out a question, an instruction, or greeting the hostess and delivery staff as they filtered in.

If her presence was required in the kitchen, she gestured for me to follow, installing me safely in the small spaces between prep stations. Despite the interruptions, the conversation was unbroken as she checked on the mis en places, or deftly cleaved the length of a whole pork belly into neat portions.

“What are we listening to today?” she asked the dish washer, crouching down near his ear buds as she handed him the knife after portioning the pork belly. Then cheerfully, “Ah, something very angry.”

Antes is stern but intimate with her staff. There is a clear set of rules to follow in the back of the house, she explained, including never making a move without letting everyone else know. This means our conversation is punctuated with regular warnings of “behind,” or “passing through,” as she moves between stations in the narrow space, with something like a dancer’s grace and a general’s discipline. 

The cuisine Antes whips up at Okiway is elevated Japanese street food, heavy on cultural hybrids like miso clam chowder and wasabi guacamole. The menu seems to appeal to Bushwick’s affluent hipster crowd, who sit on bright colored stools to dine among Anime figurines in an otherwise minimalist setting.

Antes poured batter onto a smoking griddle as she whipped up a classic okonomiyaki, Okiway’s specialty dish. “Each one of these comes from a different region or city in Japan,” she explained. “This one is from Hiroshima.” The dish, which translates to “grilled as you like it,” is made of two crepe-thin round omelets, holding layers of noodles, scallions and a thick slice of the pork belly that Antes had portioned up earlier.

As a female executive chef in an all-male kitchen, Antes is well aware of the challenges of her profession. Indeed, in her level of seniority, she is used to being a woman in a largely male industry. She’s done the hard work, and commands respect, but she’s had to work hard to prove herself.

The back world of the restaurant business is notoriously hardcore, physically draining, and extreme – what Antes calls “contractive and expansive,” prompting its workforce to burn out often and rely on alcohol and other substances to unwind, or to keep going. In the back of the house, you work hard, and often party harder.

“I’ve done it all,” said Antes, referring to the more debaucherous side of the chef’s world. Getting into the business in her twenties, she used to party heavily, and she kept up with the boys. But eventually she found her immune system couldn’t take it, and was constantly falling sick. She has suffered from food allergies and a weak immune system for most of her life, she said, and finally decided to switch to a clean food diet and a strict exercise regime to keep herself healthy.

She is now in the midst of training to compete in a women’s body building contest – “It’s called the bikini category,” she said, wincing a little at the title – and said that beyond tasting her dishes to make sure they are made correctly, she steers clear of the greasy cheese, pork and mayonnaise-heavy fare of Okiway.

In high school, Antes was a dancer. A decade or so later, Antes exudes a playful guile – she likes to call people “cutie” and “sweetie” – but it’s combined with a level of authority and discipline that has taken years to develop.

When Antes graduated from high school in Rockland County, New York, at 17, she briefly attended SUNY Buffalo. “I was so young, I wasn’t focused, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. She dropped out after one semester. For several years she worked a series of retail jobs, including a stint in food distribution at Hunts Point in the Bronx.

In 2010, when she was 25, Antes decided to draw on her dancing background, and enrolled in a yoga teacher-training program in Costa Rica. She was “young and broke,” so she worked out a barter and cooked for the participants in exchange for attending the course. Returning to New York six months later, she enrolled in the Natural Gourmet Institute, an accelerated culinary program focusing on nutrition-conscious cooking.

“I’m an extreme person,” Antes explained. “I like things to be fast and difficult.” This seems to fit; Antes has worked in about five kitchens in the New York City area in as many years, moving from pastries and salads, to line cook, to head of the kitchen. But she also acknowledges that the most frustrating challenges of her career involve her identity as a woman, rather than the hard work she puts in daily.

The icon of the female chef and culinary master isn’t that new. We have Julia Childs, Martha Stewart; more recently, Nigella Lawson and Rachel Ray. But these women operate in a home kitchen, exuding the gracious hostess persona rather than the fast-paced world of commercial kitchens. More recently, the Anthony Bourdain movement, with shows like Parts Unknown, Mind of a Chef, and more recently Chef’s Table, has made both female and male chefs more visible. But the commercial kitchen is still something of a hidden frontier. In the absence of cameras and good lighting, and good script writing, the gender barrier for women who want to rise to the top is a very real thing, as evidenced by a Bloomberg report that said 6.3 percent, or 10 out of 160 chefs at top tier US restaurants are women.

“This industry is so slow to catch up,” Antes said. “It’s very male dominated. With its hierarchy and chain of command, it’s like the military.”

“When I was coming up, I wish that there had been more of us, to look up to,” Antes continued, referring to her own small circle of friends in the industry, made of three or four young female chefs, although only one is at the executive level like herself, who have faced similar challenges.

“There are just so many road blocks and obstacles” for women, Antes said, “which I believe is why more women don’t move from line cook to executive chef. There is not a lot of communication or support.”

And that’s putting it mildly. In recent years, the press has taken note of the persistent gender gap in commercial kitchens, along with sometimes brutal challenges and routine sexual harassment that women regularly face in commercial kitchens. Thrillist published an article on “the horrors and degradations” experienced by New York City’s female chefs, from being called “sugar” and “honey” rather than “chef,” to being confined to the “pink dungeon” of the pastry station, while less qualified male colleagues moved up the chain. Author Tracie McMillan shared the dangers of sexual violence in an Applebee’s kitchen with the Daily Beast a few years ago, and NPR ran a story on how the industry is slow to change in women’s favor.

“It’s great to be young, attractive, etc. But, if you don’t show up in your chef’s coat, if you’re just trying to kick it, you’re not going to earn respect,” Antes said.

“Being a lady chef, I have to show the men that yes, I can carry that 50 lb bag of flour without help. So when I tell you to carry it, you know it’s because I’m your superior, not that I’m asking you to do it because I don’t want to, or think a girl shouldn’t have to.”

As with many things in the industry, being a woman in a position of authority has her walking a fine line. “I always have room for asking people about their day, developing personal relationships, just acting like I give a shit – because I do,” she said. But, she added, “It’s not a motherly thing.” That’s a common label her employers stick her with. “As girl chefs, we get ‘mean mommy’ a lot. Like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go be mean mommy now.’ Which, as a concept – I don’t think you would call a male chef your dad.”

The pitfalls of being understanding while commanding respect are everywhere, Antes acknowledged. “It’s not a friendship” – she is the boss, after all – “but an understanding. Having a safe place in a stressful environment is very important to me.”

For the past eight months, as executive chef at Okiway, Antes has worked a minimal 70 hours a week, six days a week, on her feet. “I do have to watch my temper all the time,” she admitted, “because I’m tired, all the time.”

At a quarter to six, it was time for Antes to get back to the kitchen in earnest. The tables were set, the stereo tuned to an appropriate electro indie tune, and the lights dimmed. Antes emerged from the basement, having traded her pink sweatshirt for a loose-fitting black chef’s coat, hair pulled back in a strict French braid. There were piles of radishes and leafy greens to chop, sashimi to prepare, a specials menu to finalize. Antes’ knife nearly whirred as she got to work on the vegetation, hardly slowing as she thanked me for stopping by, and turned to the night’s cooking in earnest.