Have you eaten at Milktooth yet, Fletcher Place's wave-making brunch joint that made its home in a rehabbed car garage? Why not?! Milktooth's chef, Jonathan Brooks, has been profiled by everyone from Bon Appetite to Food & Wine (and yes, even your own humble, hometown NUVO). But we've been neglectful of their pastry chef, Zoe Taylor, which we claim, fully and wholly, as our bad. She's been an impressive force on the pastry side of things down at Milktooth, and she's been a powerhouse of pastry talent, putting herself on the map as much under her own steam as Milktooth's.
Her story mirrors a lot of stories for women trying to make it big in the world of professional kitchens, in that women have historically found much more success as pastry chefs than head chefs. The reason is a lot more complex than the tired, sexist reason that "girls aren't tough enough."
"You find yourself kind of transforming, and you find yourself putting on this strange mask. It's sad that you have to do it, but the conversations and the comments that happen, and you find yourself just not stooping to the level of communication that's common in kitchens," Taylor said. "Instead of adapting that behavior, you just learn to kind of shut your ears off."
Pastry chefs get another benefit, too: they're in and out before everyone and spend the least amount of time interacting with the kitchen crew.
"One of my favorite things is I am usually here alone in the morning, and having Milktooth to myself, it's heaven on earth."
Her tip for making it work? Avoid it when you can, and grimace and bear it when you can't. "You're aware of it and you feel it, and you feel the looks and you hear the comments made. I don't know. You just find ways — I just found ways to work when people weren't around. You just make it as comfortable as possible, because no matter what you do or say, it's not going to get much better. Not that [speaking up] isn't worth doing, but then you just become the bitch," she said.
Though she's quick to point out that she's never really had many issues at her current post, due in part to the leadership and the open kitchen concept.
"It was harder in the past, but at Milktooth, people see how much trust and faith [head chef Jonathan Brooks] has in me, they're going to follow whatever he does. So the fact that he lets me do whatever I want and trusts me wholeheartedly, people see that and respect me because of that, even if I hadn't proved my worth before. It's been a lot easier at Milktooth. You know, I'm here every day, I'm here [when we're closed]. I see everything that goes on, and I want things done right. So there's been some hiccups where...it was like, 'There's some clout.'"
Along with psychologically making your food taste better (Google it), open kitchens like Milktooth's means there's not a lot of places to yell down the line about tits or ass without the customers hearing it three feet away at the counter. But to chalk it up to mere architecture would be a gross disservice to the atmosphere created by Brooks.
Taylor says that Brooks' penchant for wise delegation is something that he offers to be earned. The airy shop's transformation into a place of innovation, then, is not a big surprise.
"He does a great job of respecting and trusting everyone from the dishwasher to me to the wait staff. He gives credit where credit is due, which is so rare. He's so ready to dish out responsibility to people that want it." Which is also why you probably won't find anyone as geeked out on cocktails, coffee, and food as Milktooth's baristas, bartenders, wait staff and cooks.
This balance of respect and creativity makes for a relaxed but professional work environment, much to Taylor's relief. One where few comments are said in the first place, and even then, Taylor feels empowered to point out that it's unlikely Brooks would be called a bitch for being a stickler about technique or presentation.
"In the past, I would close my ears and try not to be affected by it. Now that I'm in a very open and respected environment, I'm just as vocal as I can be. And I think that while I was afraid of coming off as the bitch in the beginning, I don't [anymore]. You know, no one would ever say that to Jon. And I've pointed that out to people in the past, and they've said, "Oh yeah, good point."
So there's no clear answer, besides, as Taylor points out, putting up with it until you have enough power that you don't have to just put up with it anymore. It's not the answer a lot of people want to hear (and it's not really an answer, at that).
Next week, we'll hear from R Bistro's Erin Kem, who made her way up to exec at Regina Mehallick's restaurant. In the meantime, chefs who happen to not have a dick, keep your head up and your headphones in, if you have the option.
Profile: Zoe Taylor
Where: Milktooth, 534 Virginia Ave.