Culinary School: 'He Told Me Women Can't Be Chefs'

I was thirty-three and going to culinary school in 1984. There were only a handful of girls in my school of three hundred students. Ninety-eight percent of the students were male and all of the instructors were male. The crème de la crème of the chefs were French. There were a couple of Germans and Swedes ... but they were mostly pastry instructors. The French chefs taught us about the business and fine dining. They were the kings.

I did not know what I was signing up for when I arrived at my culinary boot camp. So often I have found that ignorance is bliss. And just as a reminder, in 1984 there were no directors of human resources, no politically correct guidelines. You bought your ticket and you took the ride. "Do whatever the chef says," I was told as they cashed my tuition check. Just do as you are told.

Within a couple of days, I realized I was a second-class citizen assigned to the back of the culinary bus. It was not a comfortable seat for me to sit in. I had already been successful in two careers, supported my first husband through seven years of college and dental school, owned countless real estate investments and simply put, believed in my own power.

For the first and only time in my life, I truly had to do what I was told. Up until then I had just pretended (ask my family, any old boyfriend, supervisors or co-workers). I learned early to smile, wink and nod, even when I was thinking, "Not in your life time, jerk."

One hot, sweaty day in the kitchen, nine months into my servitude, I was gently simmering a stock pot full of galantines made by classmates and myself, tied with our own signature knots so we knew whose were whose. Chef Bernard, pressing over my shoulder and pinching my fanny, screamed, "Looking good!" (Bernard started his brandy at about 8 am, so by 1 pm the real floorshow was well underway.) Why Bernard decided to confide in me that day, I will never know. Mumbling and spitting, he started to tell me why women couldn't really work in kitchens, ever.

It seemed that if women were experiencing "their curse," Their hands were too hot to form the forcemeat, and the galantines would burst when simmering. Like a hammer hitting my brain, I was dazed and very concerned since it just so happened that I had "my monthly curse" and had forced my forcemeat, unknowingly. If my galantine blew-up, everyone would know it was mine.

I asked for clarification. When women have their periods, they ruin the food? Yep, that was it. And every Chef at school knew it. A few minutes later, Jean- Pierre, the Executive Chef of the kitchen, skated through Bernard's kitchen and when asked about women's hot hands, he replied, "Well yes, of course that is true, and don't forget women cannot touch the mayonnaise or Hollandaise either at that time."

Several of my male friends, asked, "Well, when are the girls supposed to come to school?" No answer.

My family has lived in San Francisco for almost a hundred years. I told one person, and they told another person and before I knew it, Herb Caen wrote about the whole experience in his San Francisco Chronicle column. People were outraged. I was outraged, angry, hurt and disappointed, but I realized that he was just a little man spouting out ugliness for whatever reason in hopes of controlling me, or hazing me, or belittling me, or trying to make me feel bad about myself so he could feel better about himself.

The scary part was, he believed it.

There are a lot of people who use every excuse in the world to try and belittle you. The ugliness poured on you is about power and discrimination. Nothing more.

If Rush Limbaugh loses enough sponsors, he'll lose his job. Without his job, he has no power. He has no platform, he has no galantine.

Women, let's continue to speak out for Sandra. Sign petitions and tell Rush we're not going to do what we're told.

Denise Vivaldo has written a memoir of 25 years of cooking in the Hollywood trenches. She is interviewing for a smart publisher.