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Colorado Springs female chefs talk about challenges for their gender in professional kitchens

July 12, 2017 Updated: July 12, 2017 at 9:56 pm
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photo - Liz Rosenbaum poses for a portrait at her restaurant 'Her Story' on Wednesday July 5, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).
Liz Rosenbaum poses for a portrait at her restaurant 'Her Story' on Wednesday July 5, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

It's no secret that restaurateurs face many challenges - from long, demanding hours and employees who call in sick right before dinner service to inebriated customers and no-shows on busy waitlists.

It's almost enough to make you wonder why anyone would fall in love with food service. But many do, and increasingly it's women who are running the show as owners, managers and chefs, navigating a rough-and-tumble world often filled with respect issues and language that would make a sailor blush.

We asked three women who have carved out successful careers how they maintained a professional style to get where they are today.

We also talked to a young lady on her way up the career path.

Supansa Banker, executive chef, at 2South Food + Wine Bar preps food for a party of forty guests on Thursday June 29, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

Supansa Banker, executive chef at 2South Food and Wine Bar

This award-winning chef has worked in professional kitchens since 2010. A soft-spoken young woman with a heart-melting Madonna-like smile and Thai calm about her, she would seem the most unlikely person to stand the heat of a restaurant kitchen. But those pleasant qualities have worked in her favor. Her biggest mountain to climb was not the hours or hard work of being a chef.

"My most challenging hurdle has been dealing with older male kitchen employees," she said, "who still see women as the weaker sex and refuse to follow direction or believe that a woman can teach them or show them better. I've found that because of my dedication and strong work ethic, the real male chefs, the ones who have talent, they have accepted me as a chef. They could care less about my gender."

As for the, um, word choices bandied about at work, she said, "I don't believe in using coarse language in the kitchen. I find it to be disrespectful not only to me, but to the rest of the staff. Since I have been the executive chef here (at 2South), I do not tolerate or allow my staff to use that type of language. In the past, prior to being in charge of the kitchen, I think I would handle it by blocking it out and not giving it any attention."

It wasn't all fun and games for Banker to get where she is today.

"When I was working in Michigan, I worked for a very talented chef," she said. "But he wasn't very nice. He was verbally abusive. One day when we had an event and we were very busy at the restaurant, he lost it. He was yelling and slamming his hand down on the counter in front of me. At the end of the night I asked if I could speak to him. I explained that I really wanted to learn from him, but his constant yelling was making the environment uncomfortable."

The chef agreed to tone it down but was back to his old style two days later. Banker took the high road. She gave her two weeks' notice and moved on.

Liz Rosenbaum, owner and "culinary anthropologist" of Her Story Café

Rosenbaum has been in the food business off and on since 1992 and has owned her "woman-themed café" for eight years. Her menu honors women heroines with dishes such as the Sally Ride sandwich, Jane Goodall Banana Pudding and Calamity Jane chocolate-chip cookies - "because we are feminists who want equal rights, and we are honoring intelligent women," she said. Her challenges have ranged from finding like-minded business owners willing to network to dealing with unenlightened customers.

As for other business owners, she seeks "People willing to share all their nitty-gritty and vice versa," she said. "I'm happy to have friends in the same field, and we can share our joys and frustrations with each other in confidence."

As for the tone of conversation at work, "The only coarse language in my café is how coarsely we chop our food for recipes," she said. "I hire professionals and motivated people who are willing to work hard, converse in a professional manner, and be willing to inspire and work together with other team members."

When it comes to some of her customers, it's another story.

"Several times a week, we have to deal with individuals coming into my café who are rude and immature," she said. "I've had grown, adult men come in, not order anything, and say profanities to us because we have a woman-themed café. ... Sometimes it's so bizarre, it leaves us shaking our heads. ... It's the reason I do what I do. When I started my company eight years ago, it never crossed my mind I would have to teach and inform my employees of scenarios like this. Yet this is something we encounter."

Alison West posed for a portrait at 25Prime Steakhouse Friday June 30, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

Alison West, general manager at Prime25 Steakhouse

West has been in the restaurant business for 20 years, starting as a bartender. She's seen about everything that goes on in a bustling bar, café or upscale eatery. In her management positions, gaining trust and respect seemed to take longer than she expected.

"The lack of the owners or bosses letting me execute the decisions quickly has been my biggest hurdle," she said. "In a male-dominated world, I'm not sure if that qualifies. With the exception of two bosses, all the others have been men. Some have trusted me, and others have micromanaged or said no . then agreed in time."

And along the way, she's heard an earful.

"The language and tone have been inappropriate at times, harsh, HR-worthy, and condescending," she said. "I am accepting to a limit, when I know passion is fueling the reaction. I like to have fun and keep things lively. I invite silly, lighthearted and comic shifts. In turn, I believe those of us who lead in the business have a trusted circle and know how to communicate and how to be communicated to."

Living a healthy lifestyle - eating well, not smoking or drinking too much - can be personally difficult in stressful businesses. When West is on the lead team of a restaurant that is opening, she puts rules in place and sticks with them.

"Smoking is prohibited from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.," she said. "Prime25 is a dry house. I do not allow anyone to drink here (during a work shift). If the leader is healthy, the culture can be, too. Dylan (Montanio, executive chef) is a really healthy eater, so that helps us too."

Montanio also has been an inspiration for Madison Thomas, 19, a line cook at Prime25. She started working at the upscale steakhouse in December, just before it opened, after working in a fast-food eatery and a sandwich shop. She plans to attend the International Culinary Center in New York City next spring and is thrilled to be working with a supportive, talented executive chef.

"Dylan continues to teach me so much every day," she said. "Working in this environment, for me, would be just the same no matter who I was surrounded by because a good reputation is developed through respect and hard work, not what gender you are."

This career path is a love affair for her.

"Working in a professional kitchen continues to make me feel madly in love with life," Thomas said. "My passion is providing a magical experience for people, and working in a kitchen, being creative, reminds me that I'm on the right path."

The other three chefs likely would agree.

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