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Food & Drink

On the Line: Finding female chefs in San Antonio

Photo: Photos by Josh Huskin, License: N/A

Photos by Josh Huskin

Brooke Smith runs a tight ship at the Esquire Tavern

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Jame Arias and Fanny Valdez with their 36-foot-long RV kitchen


Thick skin can only take you so far when you think of the amount of work running a kitchen requires. Nanez’s day-to-day schedule involves prepping for lunch, running service, going to meetings, menu planning for catering events, working with distributors and doing it all again for dinnertime.

“It’s tough to work in any kitchen.

It’s a rough job, it’s long hours, and if you’re trying to start a family, it’s hard on you. It’s a lot of dedication. You have to be in your kitchen 10-12 hours a day and it’s not an easy thing to do,” Nanez said.

She admits it’s rare to see females on the line and remembers hiring two female cooks in the past. She also mentions the tendency for females to work on the pantry line.

“(I think they’re) more inclined to measure and be more precise,” Nanez said during an interview at Bohanan’s, adding, “It’s not my thing. I’m making cookies right now and that’s a stretch for me.”

Many women choose to devote their talent to the pastry arts rather than other kitchen roles that traditionally lead to executive chef positions.

Some point to the artistic aspect of baking and the science behind breads. Others, like Cynthia De La Fuente, believe women are more detail-oriented and better multi-taskers.

De La Fuente, full-time pastry arts instructor at St. Philip’s College for more than a decade, spent some time in a commercial kitchen after receiving her degree from the school.

“I realized very quickly that I had to exert my position and boundaries right away. Other women didn’t last very long…they felt they were constantly being harassed,” De La Fuente said.

The solution she and her fellow instructors stress for their students is to be the consummate professional.

“Don’t give anybody a reason to think you’re of less quality. That’s what makes you promotable,” De La Fuente counseled.

Nanez wonders if gender is even that big an obstacle when it comes to females in commercial kitchens.

“I’ve never been a male in the kitchen, so I don’t know the other side. Some people might have had a hard time, but I’ve been fortunate not to,” Nanez insisted.

While Nanez, might not have encountered much flak on her way to being a head chef, there’s no denying the boys-club feel most cocinas possess.

Brooke Smith got her ass slapped at age 19 by a coworker at a restaurant she declines to name. After training under Mark Bliss, attending the New England Culinary Institute, and interning in prestigious restaurants in Portland, Ore. and Austin, Smith opened the kitchen at the Esquire Tavern as executive chef in 2011.

“You hear nightmares of sexual offenses all over town,” Smith said. “I think that if you’re a woman in the kitchen, the way you last is that you stand up for yourself and don’t take much bullshit from anybody.”

Smith dealt with her offender by turning around and letting the butt slapper know that wasn’t going to fly with her.

“Some women might not be able to take that, they might quit or might move into baking which is more female-dominant,” Smith said. “It’s not as hot, the hours are a little better. I admire people who can bake.”

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