I first fell into culinary work through baking. All of my early experience was with European-style pastries and breads, and my first teacher was a self-proclaimed 20th Century Wilderness Woman, whose approach baking was more of an ode to the work of women than that of a food-service worker, like a Druidic priestess performing a well-rehearsed ritual (in fact, she had waist-length red hair and could occasionally be found riding naked on horseback through the woods, but enough about her).
Even later in my career, my considerable baking experience led to opportunities in similar capacities; I would be put in charge of the breads and pastries of whatever restaurant I was working at, thereby creating a niche for myself which was often somewhat separated from the other kitchen staff and the atmosphere in which they worked.
You might say I was pigeon-holed, but I wouldn't. My specialization immersed me into a time-honored trade and was never lacking in new skills and techniques to learn and apply. From there, I was indoctrinated into the rest of the kitchen, until over time I became as well-rounded as any chef, but with fondness for my creative roots, which were more like an apprenticeship than boot camp.
My father's last words to me were to remind me that I could do whatever I wanted in life, and reminded me when I was young that most chefs were men. He, however, rarely even set foot in the kitchen, except to pour his morning cuppa-joe. It was my mother who first educated me on the joy of cooking, and my father's mother who first introduced me to baking.
The modern professional kitchen is usually modeled on the old European brigade system, where each cook is a soldier and has a specified job to do. That is where the double-breasted chef's coat comes from, and the high chef's hat. The bigger the hat, the higher-ranking the chef, so that the soldier-cook can locate his captains among the platoon of workers. Each cook has a specific job to do, and are regularly reminded of the limits to their autonomy. They vie for esteem in a sometimes hostile environment, each double-breasted white-jacketed, puffy-hatted (or worse, paper-hatted), checkered-pants-wearing soldier doing his own chore, mindful of the sphere of control of the next chef, and especially respectful of the range of power of those chefs who rank above him, the executive chef and the sous chef, i.e. the chief and the second chief.
Testosterone, in my experience, abounds in the kitchen. The stereotypical cook is male, and the women who go into the trade are often seen as strong and independent, but not necessarily feminine. The professional kitchen has a distinctive patriarchal, martial feel. Add to this atmosphere hot and sharp objects, and it is easy to see why cooks often raise their voices and bark commands and warnings at one another. It can be stressful to cook in a restaurant.
One might argue that the brigade system is genderless, that men and women are equals and are no different in the kitchen, and to this I would agree; women are not discriminated against in this environment, so long as they, like everyone else, conform to their assigned role and perform their duties well. But the brigade system is inherently masculine in design, a battalion, a regiment. Historically women were not allowed to join their ranks, and the fact that they do now and perform well should be seen more as a testament to their ability to hack it in an infantryman's environment than be viewed as a sign that the brigade system has become somehow feminized.
Cooks can often be found hollering kitchen jargon at one another as they attempt, with varying degrees of success, to work as a team. Each plate they make is unique to a particular patron, and so thusly each task they perform as individuals-sharing-space. Cooks must make each plate as the customer orders it, when and how they want it.
Of course, once a cook has attained a certain skill level, he becomes the artist-chef, almost a clichÃ© at this point in our culture. The artist-chef is beyond reproach, a living legend in his own eyes.
When the workload has been large enough to call for the joined efforts of more than one baker, I have seen them perform more as a hive of insects than as a brigade of soldiers, all of the bakers working together on the same task, often in meditative silence, performing repetitive physical movements. Large quantities of dough or batter will be mixed, then formed, then baked, then prepared for sale and display. It is not uncommon for bakers to have music playing on a small, flour-dusted radio while all of them form loaves or bread or cut scones with their hands, chatting leisurely with one another while their bodies perform Herculean tasks, or wordless.
One of the difficulties isolated to baking is that each recipe is a formula, with exact measurements and exacting procedures required for success. This is true. But like all repeated actions, the body will remember, and eventually, with practice, baking becomes second nature. You Zen it.
There is something primal about baking. Although an advanced pastry chef can create culinary works of art, she begins with very basic ingredients: flour, water, butter, salt, sugar. And yeast. A bakerâ€™s medium is often alive, growing and changing, at least part of the time she works with it.
Bakers use their bare hands. Dough collects under their nails, and spices in the creases of their knuckles.
Also, bakers keep odd hours, and work only in the back, where their interaction with the clientele equals zero. In fact, a baker's product will be bought and consumed anonymously, as far as the baker is concerned, and the customer never meets her, or observes her at work.
Bakers, often, for some reason, a hodgepodge of characters straight out of literature, come together to create a harmonious working environment, to create one confederated bakery out of their combined personalities. Ironically, many bakers, who work so uniformly, are social oddballs.
The distinction I am making between the baker and the cook is not so big a rift as that between the front of the house and the back of the house, i.e. wait staff and kitchen personnel. Rather, it is a more subtle distinction: the back of the house vs. the very back of the house. But the implications run deep like still water. It involves two diametrically opposed worlds in which food and its preparation take on two totally independent functions. It may be where man and woman parted ways at the beginning of time. The chef borrows elements of comfort food every day, and has developed its production into a well-oiled machine, and it makes him pretty good money, but it was his mom who first put joy and nourishment on the table.