What does it take to get to the top -- without losing your center? Our “Making It Work” series profiles successful, dynamic women who are standouts in their fields, peeling back the "hows" of their work and their life, taking away lessons we can all apply to our own.
Jamie Malone, chef de cuisine at Minneapolis restaurant Sea Change, was named one of Food & Wine's "Best New Chefs" this year, but she only got her position because she fought for it. "When [chef Erik Anderson] left, I was the sous-chef and they were looking to hire another chef, so I was running the kitchen in the interim," Malone, 30, says. "I kept asking for the job, and they kept saying no. I didn't have any experience as a head chef, only as sous. After three months, they gave me the job. I just acted like the kitchen was mine until it finally was."
Why do you do the work you do?
I love food. When I was 17, I just knew I wanted to work in restaurants. Cooking’s perfect for me 'cause I like to do stuff with my hands. I like constantly learning. Restaurants are often places that we mark important moments in our lives -- anniversaries, graduations, etc. They are also a place that provides an oasis from normal life, in which you can escape a little and spend sometime with those you love.
What work would you do if not this?
I would do something super-laid-back, like be a yoga instructor or pet dogs. I live with two dogs, Pork Chop and Ellie.
Abalone, asparagus, bone marrow, yuzu and chili.
Do women have a responsibility to help other women at work?
I don’t think about gender in that way. I think I have a responsibility to all the cooks in my kitchen and in my community -- we all help each other. And I treat each cook specific to their personalities. Some people you need to be a little more direct with. Some people you need to be more soft and gentle with. So maybe I tend to be a little more gentle with the girls. I don’t know. But as far as the responsibility toward helping them along, I don’t know -- the girls in my kitchen are so awesome. They don’t need any extra help.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently at the start of your career?
I have a recipe book, and pretty much every night, I go home and I write in it -- whatever I did that day, anything I learned. And I wish I would have been a little more consistent early on because I’ll look back and think, “I wish I remembered a recipe” -- you always think you’re gonna remember.
What is your definition of “success”?
I feel successful if I make incremental progress -- whether it’s organization in the kitchen or helping a cook learn to do something better or learning something better myself.
What is your definition of “happiness”?
I’m happy when I’m learning or when I’m making something.
Heirloom tomato salad with peaches, black olives and basil.
Do you keep your phone next to your bed?
Do you check it before you brush your teeth in the morning?
I check it like three times in the middle of the night when I wake up.
Do you get enough sleep?
I do. I get like six or seven hours a night. I make that a priority. If I don’t sleep, the day is lost.
Do you get enough exercise?
I try to do yoga six or seven days a week. If I don’t do that, I’m just like worthless. I’ve done yoga for probably six years, but in the past two years, I’ve really decided to make it a priority. Just to keep me calm and focused.
Sablefish, langostine, fava, peas, coconut and tapioca.
Describe an average day at work vs. a really good day at work.
An average at work, things just kind of click along. What defines a good day at work -- having a great service where all the cooks are in good moods and we’re really prepared and we’re all really enjoying what we’re doing. It’s kind of cliché, but put a little love into it instead of just getting through it. A really good day is when I make a big improvement, put a new system in place and I start to see the outcome. That’s really rewarding.
Tell me about an average day off vs. the perfect day off.
[Laughs.] I haven’t had a day off in a really long time. It’s been a few months since I’ve just had a day off to do laundry. It’s rough. But it’s not always like that. It’s just summertime. But a perfect day off would be getting up early and going to yoga and then probably going to the dog park and eating dinner for like five hours.
Does your mother understand why you work the way you do?
She’s super-understanding. I’m lucky. She’s really cute -- she’ll leave a message and say, “Don’t feel like you have to call me back!”
Malone with sous chef Ryan Cook and pastry chef Niki Francioli.
Is your to-do list electronic or on paper?
How long is it right now?
Well, it’s in about four different places, and the one that’s in my lap right now is about seven pages.
Do you have a work persona and a non-work persona?
I try to keep my personal life really far away from work. I think I am myself and my sense of humor is the same and my temperament is the same, but I try to keep work just about work. And I’m a lot more serious about things at work than I am in my personal life. I try to stress the importance of everything we do in the kitchen and in the restaurant, so I try to personify that as much as I can.
Malone at the Food and Wine Best New Chef event in 2013.
When was the most recent time you thought about quitting?
Like 15 minutes ago. Since I got back from [the Food & Wine Classic in] Aspen, we’ve been really, really busy. And just all these weird incidents have happened. I had a cook -- he just found out he has MS. It’s just awful. Another cook got hit by a car. And then being super-busy with all these dinners and opportunities and traveling. I just had a moment of being overwhelmed. But I’m better now.
What was it like being named one of Food & Wine's "Best New Chefs"?
It was just like super-, super-, super-exciting and surreal. And it was really humbling. But it’s getting to the point now where it’s hard because I need to make so many decisions about what’s best for the kitchen and the restaurant. What do we take advantage of? What do we pass up? How do we kind of regroup and keep moving forward? The Cooking Channel and Food Network call a lot, and that’s just nothing I’d ever really be interested in. So that’s easy to say no to. I started working in kitchens because I like to cook. I want to be in my kitchen. But then there are collaborative dinners with other chefs or events around town -- charities, opportunities to travel or do endorsements. There’s benefits to doing all of them, and you just have to decide.
Do you feel that you are paid what you’re worth?
I don’t think about the work I do in terms of money. I just don’t make that correlation ever in my mind. I feel like I just get paid, and that’s like separate for some reason.
So what do you think about in terms of a job?
I just think about feeling accomplished and feeling good at what I do, feeling like I’m getting better every day at what I do. It’s just a process. There is no “Oh, I’m successful now” or “Oh, I’m happy now.”
Is there a woman you know who is Making It Work? We’d love to include her in our series. Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview has been edited and condensed.