As told by Jenn Walker…
I was nine and in kitchens assisting my mother with preparing canapés and crudités for private parties. My mother was an accountant by day and a self-taught chef on nights and weekends. Eventually, she quit her desk job to purchase a Bed and Breakfast, opening a forty-seat Bistro on the first floor of the Inn.
Throughout the years, I was her prep cook, server, bartender, dishwasher, and every other job in between.
My first “real” restaurant job was shortly after I graduated high school, working as a hostess at Sweetwaters American Bistro in Vermont. I liked dressing up, greeting people, smiling as I carefully placed menus on veneer tabletops. I liked it so much that I quickly want more responsibility and more money. Within six months, I was promoted to server. I ran “Day 1, Night 1” shifts, working as Floor Captain. My studies at UVM (the real reason why I was in Vermont) steadily took a backseat to “real life work” and all that comes with it. You know, the developing friendships, the late night libations, the post-work commiseration.
Camaraderie in the restaurant scene is potent.
One afternoon, at the end of my shift, our General Manager, Pat, announced that I would be training behind the bar. I was scared. Being bartender is a huge deal, reserved for veterans and rock stars.
I was an eighteen-year-old student, not a seasoned pro. Becoming a bartender turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life’s work.
Soon, I was creating cocktail specials and lining my pockets with cash. Shortly after, I quit school, traveled the world, and worked my way up the ranks of many amazing restaurants.
After spending an illustrious six years at several high-profile restaurants in Boston, my husband and I moved to Connecticut with our growing family to “slow the pace” (ha!). I was longing to get back to work but, with two children and a husband also in the industry, I didn’t know how.
I felt a deep fear that I would never be enough for my family. A fifty-year old bartender? Managing restaurants and closing shifts at 3am? Becoming old and irrelevant? I was plagued with these thoughts.
So, I set out to find a way to apply my talents and experience without working in a restaurant anymore.
Initially, my position wasn’t formal. They needed someone who could bring process and organization to their list of restaurants and I seemed to be that person. I was determined to be that person. And that’s exactly who I became…and more.
I was so grateful to be in their corporate office that I said yes to every project, every spreadsheet, every fatiguing trip. No demand was unreasonable as I fought to prove to myself and to them that I belonged.
My first restaurant opening assignment was in Washington, D.C. On opening day, I received a call that the small-wares order came in light. There was barely enough silverware to set the tables let alone enough for a full turn. A colleague and I went to our closest existing restaurant location, filled our suitcases with 90 pounds of silverware and hopped on a flight after missing our train and heading to the wrong airport. When we arrived, I felt like a hero. That was quickly squashed as the Chef walked up and simply said, “So, this is the new chick?” There was no hello. There was no thank you.
Years flashed by in a haze of travel, deadlines, meetings, and concept developments. I rapidly opened restaurants alongside other women who would become my best friends. We were a small tour de force, endlessly pushing the horizons of logistics, planning, and creative organization. We laid our lives on the line, yearning for mentorship and positive feedback.
We were hungry for that seat at “the big boy table”.
A few years later, I requested a sit-down with our CEO. Feeling disheartened with my current work, I wanted to understand the next steps towards promotion. I had spent the past five years training to become COO of the company. The subsequent conversation left me reeling. In short, I lacked “a certain quality”. Was it male genitalia? My question was answered with the statement,
“Motherhood will prevent you from truly reaching your goal.”
Are you fucking kidding me?
In the five years of working for Barteca, I had never once missed a meeting, called in sick, or not answered a phone call at random hours of the night. I had, however, missed birthdays and recitals and family gatherings to be at the company’s beck and call.
I grappled often (especially when traveling) with the insurmountable guilt of being a career mom but I never once let it degrade my ability to work.
My position was eliminated after the company was acquired earlier this year. This gave me a lot of time to reflect. Confidence is a funny thing when you feel undermined. You throw it around so people believe you but you never believe in it yourself. Not to imply that my time was all bad; it wasn’t. But I was never fully valued for the insanely hard work I put in every single day.
I have spoken with many women, both in and out of the restaurant industry (including the founder and editor of Un-Plated), who tell tales not so different from mine. I consider this to be a tragedy.
In order for us to make it to the top, it seems we have to play the game of disavowing other women, sacrificing our integrity, closing our mouths, and allowing our ideas to be appropriated by those above us.
We are often labeled as bitchy, bossy, aggressive, annoying, loud-mouthed, and soon become a prisoner to these illegitimate labels. We change who we are to fit the perception of that “certain quality”. We become clouded with self-doubt. We become lost.
For a resilient few, like myself, we are able to rise from the ashes of our confidence to build something for ourselves. It’s not just for us, here and now, but for future generations of women.
The call has occurred—to support each other for unceasing success—but the drum must continuously beat on, deep and resounding. Our scars are profound. I hope, together, we can heal.