How one Lafayette kitchen is turning the macho tide
"She has her little step stool and climbs right up to help me," Jeremy Conner says of his young daughter, Cecile.
Conner has been executive chef at Village Café in River Ranch and its sister venture, POUR, for a little over a year now, yet his most finicky colleague can't even drive. At only 5 years old, Cecile already knows more about how to cook and order a steak ("I like it red, Daddy, lots of red!") than most adults. She helps him prepare everything he makes at home, clambering up to attempt to match her dad's height. To say he is used to women in the kitchen is an understatement - in his case, they are everywhere.
Photos by Robin May
Village Café Executive Chef Jeremy Conner, flanked by his all-female evening kitchen staff, from left are Mary Borden, Chanel Gaudé and Shani Garber.
Village Café stands unique as the only fine dining restaurant in Lafayette with an all-female staff. You know that old joke about "get back in the kitchen!" as a presumably humorous dismissal of a woman? The history of fine dining never got that joke.
The story of women in fine cuisine is short because it is so recent. Gourmet dining was long considered the realm of men. Professional kitchens are hot and dirty in every way. You can substitute "swearing like a chef" for "sailor" and the meaning is clear. Working in 115 degrees with orders barked from every direction has a way of making a person testy, and it was thought only someone strong of arms and fortitude could make it, so women, with the exceptions being small bistros that are usually family-run, were left out in the cold of the front of the house, if they were working there at all.
Not at Village Café. It is unusual because its evening kitchen staff is made up entirely of women, save the gentleman chef mentioned here. This wasn't on purpose. "It just so happened that women started working there almost all at once," says Conner, who joined the restaurant's kitchen four years ago as chef de cuisine before being promoted to executive chef.
All three women are tied to Louisiana by birth or family. Shani Garber is Conner's sous chef (in fine dining parlance that means she is second-in-command in the kitchen - Conner's right hand [wo]man who takes over in his absence). "She has worked in several restaurants around town," Conner says. "I hired her after she was done working at Café Vermilionville. She's very good and has been here about two years now."
Mary Borden works the line. She came back to Louisiana after attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York and went on to some of the best, most exclusive restaurants around the country before coming to work at Village Café.
Finally there is Chanel Gaudé who also works the line. "Of all the positions in most kitchens," says Conner, "the grill is the hottest, the most demanding, the most requiring of attention. Traditionally this is the most stereotypically male position, very, very high volume."
Jeremy equates this position to a barbecue pitmaster - that image most everyone gets of an old man at the grill.
He agrees it's been historically difficult for women in fine cuisine. "The type of person that is going to succeed in a professional kitchen has to be motivated, doesn't mind the heat, as long as they get to do what they dreamed of doing," Conner says. "That type of person gets rarer, and as that happens the gender means less and less."
Conner leans forward to tell me, without names, of the three good chef friends, all men, from around the country he contacted about his all-chick dinner staff. "One said, Great! You need some diversity so it's not a bunch of male egos battling each other.' One said, That's great, just be careful in case there are catfights.'" It is the last chef pal he consulted who summarizes nicely why Village Café's kitchen is unique. He told Conner quite simply and succinctly: "You're an idiot."
Consider that if you want to pretend it is not still a boy's club back there.
Despite this, Conner's take is the one we all have: "Can you work?" This is the only criterion that needs to be considered.
Heck, even Cecile knows that her place is in any kitchen - or any place she wants.