The seed that was planted in me was a grenade.
The day I finished my pastry chef training, my favorite teacher, a man—they were all men—told me: you’re too sensitive for this job. I wish I was one of those people for whom a comment like this becomes the fire under their rocket and fuels them to do better, just to prove others wrong. As a sensitive soul, these opinions—especially when coming from people I admire—act more like water, slowly eroding my foundations. They’re not effective immediately, rather, they make me question myself over and over, until I’ve sabotaged myself enough to believe that perhaps, yes, I am too sensitive.
But what are cooks and bakers, if not extremely sensitive people who love to play with food? How can you be a great cook and not be in touch with your senses? The dichotomy that hospitality creates is that the work is so intense and demanding that you have to strip yourself of some of that sensitivity in order to be able to function. You’re forced to grow a second skin.
I've been in conflict with this industry for years. It's one of the reasons why I've slipped in and out of it so many times since I became a pastry chef. I have taken breaks and even left it thinking I wouldn’t go back. But I always do. I think hosting and feeding people is second nature to me, not only as a highly sensitive and empathetic person, but as an Italian. I equate food with wellbeing—which, I admit, can have its drawbacks—, with love and comfort.
I’m still willing to find a balance. One where we don’t need to ignore our bodies, strip ourselves of our humanity at work to be able to power through, one where wages are fair in relation to the experience and the amount of work we bring. One where schedules allow us to do work we enjoy, while also having a life.
The amount of hours a hospitality employee works is often not equal to the pay they get. This is usually shrugged off as normal. Since it's always been this way, and it's true everywhere, we keep saying "that's the way it is". But why?
Gone are the days of neurotic male chefs who yelled their way through the kitchen—sort of. Their mindset hasn’t left us completely. We need to reshape our approach to find new ways of thinking about food, about the spaces and the systems in which we make it, and about how we consume it. If we want to have our cake and eat it too, perhaps it’s time to rethink paradigms, instead of conforming to what is.
Couldn't it be, on the one hand, that as customers we have been spoiled, and are used to paying little in exchange for decent food and no effort? If, as consumers, we understood what lies behind our plate, how long the supply chain is, how many hours of labor there are behind it, wouldn’t we be willing to pay a bit more? Maybe eat out less, but eat better? And know that the people who are making our food are taken care of.
On the other hand lies something that is not directly up to us, small business owners or employees, but that I hope with the current crisis might be considered more seriously on a global scale: universal basic income. Introducing UBI could mean less strain on small businesses and a better opportunity to survive, not only hard times but overall. Even successful food businesses live under constant stress of not being able to sustain themselves. Businesses with sustainability and equality as foundational goals should have the opportunity to thrive, without being crushed by massive, less conscious companies focusing solely on profit.
It is not enough to be/identify as female/non-binary/gender non conforming and be in a leading position in the kitchen to change this patriarchal system. This paradigm was created by men and for men, and it won’t serve us as long as we keep doing things the same way.
Jill Soloway, creator of shows like Transparent and I Love Dick, discusses in this keynote speech the concept of “the female gaze” (as opposed to Laura Mulvey’s male gaze). She proposes a new way of creating visual narratives that is rooted in the body and aligned with emotions, rather than from a linear, rational perspective. I’d like to propose a similar approach to cooking. This is not to say that the feminine is emotional and the masculine is rational, or that one is better than the other. Of course not. But patriarchal structures have notably detached us from our bodies and caged us in our minds, and this imbalance is evident.
If, when we prepare food, we are infusing physical elements with our own energy—anyone who’s made bread frequently knows what I mean—, wouldn’t it be noticeably better if that energy was charged with love instead of fear? In my opinion, a new, more inclusive and holistic approach to anything these days, has to include the body as much as the mind. If not more, since the latter has already gained so much momentum.
Food made with love is better. Corny, but universally true.
As I write this, I fear that I’ll be judged for being too emotional—for not addressing specific problems or providing a clear list with bullet points and concrete solutions. But precisely herein lies the issue. We first need to be comfortable in the discomfort of our own feelings, and in our inevitable judgment of them (that is, the feelings about our feelings: our meta-emotions).
We have been trained to judge negative emotions. We’ve been raised to think that feeling anything too much, but particularly fear or sadness, is a bad thing. When truly, feelings need to exist fully in order to be released. So, right now, the most radical thing we can do is let them surface, and simply be. Solutions will emerge.
This message doesn’t contain a solution. Rather, it’s a letter with open questions. It’s a sauce, simmering slowly to develop deep, complex flavors. As any good recipe, time is key. But so is diversity, so I’d like to know what you think. How can we make this industry better for everyone?
Happy International Workers' Day. Get some rest and take care of yourselves.
This piece was published on May 1st 2020 on Fiamma Aleottis blog Cookies and Blowjobs.