Composite image by Arthur Bovino
"Keep your station clear or I WILL KILL YOU!" bellows the lovely raven-haired but hard-edged Colette Tatou, the only female cook on the line at Gusteau’s, the restaurant in the Pixar film Ratatouille. Tatou may be a caricature, but she’s drawn from a mold of real-life badass female chefs who are making their presence felt in today’s restaurant world.
Since we’re talking about badasses here — the kind of folks who do exactly what they want to do exactly when they want to do it without regard for the petty concerns of lesser individuals — let’s get right to it: Why single out on female chefs for a list of the toughest cooks in the country? Because the kitchen is still largely a man’s world, a male-dominated environment with a culture built on harassment, extreme physical and psychic endurance, and unpredictable 14-hour days. Pastry chef Melissa Rodriquez, for instance, has recently filed suit against Eric Hara, her former boss at the Plaza Hotel's Oak Room, for physical and sexual harassment including pouring chocolate sauce in her hair and stuffing her in a garbage can. (Read about that and other chef lawsuits here.)
Women who want to cook professionally, then, often have to be tougher, meaner, and stronger than their male counterparts. If they have "attitude," it's usually just so that they can do their jobs. The chefs here are women who slog through the grueling restaurant scene day in and day out, and do it with a style and flare all their own. And the good news is that according to the Culinary Institute of America, enrollment of women in the last 20 years has doubled, from 21 percent in 1980 to 41 percent in 2007. So the badass club is only going to grow in number.