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From pastries to pasta

by Archives March 8, 2006

Traditionally, a woman’s place was thought to be “in the kitchen.” But that stereotype has drastically changed over the years, and the gender balance has evened out to include men in the culinary craft. In fact, when it comes to professional cooking, most people expect to find men in the restaurant kitchen whipping up their gourmet meal. The female chef has been something of a novelty in the past. This too, is now changing.

Women are making a return appearance in the kitchen, and this time they’re getting paid for it. These days women can be found in most professional kitchens, working in a variety of positions. Whether they’re preparing desserts or running the show, women are active participants in the wide world of food.

Anna Hunt is a young cook working at a trendy west-end restaurant. She was recently promoted to the position of pasta cook, but Hunt started out knowing very little about food preparation and all that the job entails.

Hunt moved to Montreal from Victoria, B.C., when she was 18. She didn’t speak any French, but knew she needed to get a job. After responding to an ad she saw in the paper, Hunt found herself working in the kitchen of a busy restaurant with high standards and a constant flow of clientele. The ad had said “no experience necessary,” so Hunt figured it would be a good place for her to start out. She had never worked in a kitchen before, and hadn’t set out to jump-start a career working with food.

“I didn’t even know that I liked it,” Hunt said. “I just needed a job.”

Hunt started out working garde-manger for the daytime shift, and was in charge of salads, appetizers, and dessert preparation. She found the worked suited her, and was very pleased when she was offered a promotion to work full-time nights at the restaurant.

“I loved it instantly,” Hunt said. “I like the fact that you’re behind the wall and you don’t have to pretend to be in a good mood when you’re not in a good mood; and you don’t have to, you know, fake nice to people that you don’t want to be nice to.”

Before getting the promotion Hunt had decided to attend pastry school in Montreal. She felt working as a pastry chef might have been an ideal position because most of the work had to be done early in the morning, before anyone else was in the kitchen.

“I thought it would be nice to be alone,” Hunt said. “In the morning, nobody’s telling you what to do. You just do your own thing and you leave before it gets hairy.”

Hunt was working nights at the restaurant while she attended pastry school. Working busy night shifts made her realize the solitary work environment of pastry-making wasn’t for her.

“It was the adrenaline I needed,” she said. “And not being alone. I need the rush of service.”

While working as garde-manger Hunt had little say in how the dishes were prepared. The daily soups, however, were Hunt’s domain and she was able to use her creativity to make different soups each night. “That was my creative outlet,” Hunt said.

Now working as the pasta cook, Hunt has more weighty responsibilities on her shoulders. She comes up with new ideas for pasta specials each night and has to find ways to keep her creations different and interesting. When asked where she finds ideas for her pasta creations Hunt said, “You just sort of pair flavours.”

“Think of things that you want to eat,” she said. “I mean, it’s just food.”

Hunt said each restaurant kitchen has a few basic rules that are laid out by the head chef in terms of what can and can’t be done. For the rest, Hunt said, she uses her instincts.

“It’s like bacon and brussel sprouts,” she said. “It’s the best. You couldn’t serve brussel sprouts without bacon in a pasta. It’s just things that you think taste good together.”

In terms of cooking techniques, Hunt attributes everything she’s learned to the head chef and sous-chef at the restaurant where she works. “[They] both have just nurtured any curiosity I have,” Hunt said.

Hunt said she’s found that, over the years, she’s been able to pick up a lot just from paying attention to the experienced chefs she works with.

“There’s no shortage of knowledge,” Hunt said. ” I learn something new every single day, even just listening to [them] talking about this and that.”

Hunt said she does have aspirations to attend cooking school in the future, but that she will most likely decide to study abroad when the time comes to hone her craft. The majority of cooking schools in Quebec, Hunt said, are subsidized by the government and therefore require a minimal amount of experience, or even serious interest in the course. Hunt said she paid $235 for the registration fee to attend pastry school for a year. She found the quality of the course suffered from the fact the classes were so cheap.

“Because it’s government subsidized there are a lot of people in the classes that are.slowing it down and holding you back a bit,” Hunt said.

Hunt found she was one of a small group in the class who actually wanted to pursue a career working with food. Other students attending the pastry school had more casual aspirations. Hunt said there were a lot of mothers who took the class because they wanted to cook better food for their children. “It’s not necessarily for professional training,” she said.

In the future Hunt hopes to study cooking in either France, or Italy, where she feels the technique, and the art of cooking will be taken more seriously. “I think that there’s a lot more to learn when you’re surrounded by professionals,” Hunt said.

For now, Hunt feels lucky to be learning first hand from some very talented chefs at her work. Because the head chef likes to experiment with new dishes and blends of ingredients, Hunt said she’s never bored in the kitchen. “There’s always something interesting going on,” she said.

As for the vocabulary that is specific to food and its preparation, Hunt said she is, ironically, more familiar with the French terms than the English ones. Working in Quebec, she’s picked up the terminology used in kitchens here and is sometimes not understood

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