The Bookmongers Book Review: Skirt Steak

christina tosi
Christina Tosi in the Momofuku Milk Bar kitchen. Photo: Gabriele Stabile

Skirt Steak: Women Chefs Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen (Chronicle Books, 2012), by Charlotte Druckman

No. This is not a book of success stories from women chefs with their recipes.

Neither is it a photo journal of hot girl chefs and their crazy tattoos. Nor is this Bourdain for chicks. Skirt Steak: Women Chefs Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen, is best described as a modern, curated version of Studs Terkel’s Working. Terkel’s iconic book makes its living by quoting from men and women in every field of work, talking about all aspects of their jobs, sans commentary.

Charlotte Druckman, a journalist and exacting food writer for the Wall Street Journal and Bon Appetit, among others, takes Terkel’s premise and applies it to today’s professional female chefs; she stuffs her fascinating book with chapters of quotes about working with men, owning restaurants, having families, being pastry chefs, television fame, etc. The women interviewed rarely come to a consensus about their subject, and bravo to Druckman for not trying to force them to. Answers to her questions vary wildly from chef to chef, and this makes the book much deeper than it would have been if the author had tried to create some sort of unifying thesis about being a woman chef.

Male chauvinist cooks are like dull cleavers to women chefs but Christina Tosi (pastry chef at Momofuku and top dog at Momofuku Milk Bar in NYC) takes it in stride: “I don’t feel like it affects my experience at all …. Also, you live in NYC, your feelings are going to get hurt so many times, and if you’re just counting, like putting ticks every time somebody says something mean to you or whatever, you probably shouldn’t leave your apartment in the morning….”

On the other hand, Beth Aretsky (aka “The Grill Bitch” in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential), tells this story of bravery on her first job, at her father’s restaurant, The 21 Club in New York: “I worked with the saucier, who was named Abdul …. I’ll never forget, because he cornered me in the walk-in [cooler] one day, and he knew who I was … and [he] said, ‘Tell your father I want to fuck the shit out of you,’ and I was eighteen at the time. And I said, ‘Really? Well, how many camels are you going to give him?’ … I learned there that you really need to have some cojones if you want to be in the kitchen with mostly guys.” San Francisco pastry chef Emily Luchetti’s opposing opinion? “Sometimes, over the last few years, people will come to me … they’ll say, ‘I’m a woman, I work for this guy, and he’s an asshole.’ It’s like, ‘Well, go somewhere else; quit!’ This isn’t like New York or France thirty years ago where you had to put up with that stuff. There are so many options out there.” Druckman goes a step beyond Terkel, by making her book at once journalistic and highly personal. She fleshes out chapters by inserting her personal views, theories, questions and, yes, neuroses (whether expressing anxiety about meeting an aloof chef or raving about the best affogato in New York). While one wishes her editor might have limited the (astonishing) number of parentheticals, Druckman’s voice ends up being the peanut butter in this jam sandwich; it helps the various quotes from chefs all over the country coalesce into one delicious book.

skirt steak cover