Nationally acclaimed pastry chef, restaurateur, teacher, television personality and cookbook author Gale Gand didn’t start out on a culinary path, but was hooked after her first shift in the kitchen. The founding pastry chef and partner of Chicago’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant Tru worked against the kitchen’s gender divide and made a name for herself through a mix of natural talent, a flexible mindset and a lot of grit. She shares some of that journey with us, what she thinks are the earmarks of a successful chef and the importance of choosing an employer by kitchen culture.
When you first entered the kitchen, you were on a completely different path.
None of this was part of the plan. I was a starving art student, working on my BFA as a silver- and goldsmithing major with a painting minor. Instead of trying to figure out how to sneak a meal without paying the check, I discovered if I got a job at a restaurant I’d get a paycheck and family meal every day. I entered the restaurant business for the free food. It’s definitely one of the upsides of this business! But it also offered a community, like a family, for me. I needed one of those at the time.
So, I was going to art school by day and waitressing by night, and I loved it. I would go back to waitressing again in a second! But one night I got thrown in the kitchen because a black hole opened up when someone didn’t show up for their shift.
My ambition was never to be cooking or in the kitchen, and I was terrified when that was proposed to me. But either I have some natural ability or a fairy godmother, because it turned out the kitchen was the right place for me. After five seconds of panic that first night, I started to feel comfortable. It felt like home, and I couldn’t wait to do it again the next day.
What do you think makes a successful chef?
A big part of being in the kitchen is being able to follow other people’s directions. You have to be able to blindly say, “Yes, Chef!” no matter what they’re asking of you. It doesn’t matter what the question is, the answer is always, “Yes, Chef!” This is important because you’re part of a team.
One behavior I want to foster more of in the kitchen is looking out for your fellow chefs. If you’ve got your prep list done, ask your neighbor if they need help. Nobody ever forgets the person who offers a helping hand first.
Becoming a team player is an important step to becoming comfortable as a leader. If you’re a leader too early, you don’t really know all the moving parts and players, and can’t lead effectively. And you won’t last very long in the kitchen.
Stamina is another big part of it. This is not an industry where you get every Tuesday off because you have a spin class. That’s not to say you can’t get a day off. When I interview new employees I always ask, “So, when’s the wedding you’re in?” They always look at me like I’m some kind of mind reader. Everyone has some wedding or family trip already planned in the next year and they’re scared to tell you. I always ask for that up front—not that I recommend offering that information up.
You have to be flexible and ready for change, and confident it’ll work out in the end. That attitude staves off panic when a party unexpectedly goes up by 50, or a server drops a tray of 18 desserts and you have to remake all of them. Panicking, getting angry and placing blame doesn’t help, because the secret is that it always works out in the end—one way or another. Being a problem solver is a huge part of what we do in the kitchens, and restaurants in general.
I think you know within two days of being in a kitchen environment if you like the energy, if you have the stamina, if you feel like you can thrive creatively and be motivated. It’s fire, knives, tempers, unpredictability and spontaneity—so it’s not for everybody.
There were fewer women in kitchen when you were coming up through the ranks. What was that like for you?
I was generally the only woman in the kitchen, and there were a lot of extra trials I had to deal with that, I’m glad to say, are much less common now.
Some were just physical and height issues. All the kitchens are built by men and designed for people who are 5’8” and taller. I’m 5 feet, and I always have a milk crate nearby so I can reach the shelves. It’s just one technique I learned to avoid needing help from others. I also learned how to kneel down and grab a 100-pound sack of flour, throw it over my shoulder, and stand and lift it to the counter using my knees to pour it into the bin.
I had to have a tougher side because I didn’t want to be the weak link in the kitchen. A big part of that was just adopting a confident attitude. “You’ll know when I need help” was a key phrase for me. If I don’t ask, I’m fine.
What advice would you give to women looking to enter the culinary field now?
Some of the kitchen razzing is natural human pecking order behavior, but harassment takes all forms—whether it’s by education, background, ethnicity or gender—and you have to be ready for it. There’s still harassment out there, but our kitchen culture is getting better, because there’s too much liability in having an unsafe work environment.
I mentor all kinds of people. Whether they are students who want to go to CIA, or homeless women or former addicts who are trying to restart their lives through cooking. I tell them that, as a woman, the kitchen staff is going to test you. They’re going to push and shove you. Even now, they might even grope you—sexual harassment is still a problem. One of my ladies from Floured Apron sent me a text after her first job, and she thanked me for warning her about the harassment, so she wasn’t caught off guard when it happened to her, and knew to stand tough.
It’s up to the head chef to create the kitchen’s culture, and that’s part of why choosing good mentors and workplaces is so important. It’s just like picking a college or falling in love. You’ll know the right fit when you see it. You’ll get in there and find a groove and realize this is somewhere you want to be.