I’m a big fan of Eater. For years it has been my go-to guide to the dining scene both at home in Boston and when I’m off traveling. That’s why I was excited to discovered that in addition to their great website, they now have an associated podcast: Eater Upsell. I, of course, immediately subscribed to the pod and started listening.
So far I love it. The show, led by Editor-in-Chief Amanda Kludt and producer Daniel Geenan, builds on Eater’s written offerings with a mix of extensions of Eater feature stories, interviews with restaurant and food writing experts, and the hosts own take on the latest happenings in the food industry.
Always Eat Your Dessert
One of the February episodes, "Never, Ever Skip Dessert," included an interview with Eater senior editor Daniela Galarza, who presented a compelling argument on the importance of ordering dessert. Her argument, in a nutshell, is that if you want amazing pastries and desserts to be available, you need to support the “pastry arts”! (This term makes me smile every time I think about it.)
The bottom line is this: Investing in a pastry chef is a big investment for a restaurant, so if diners aren’t ordering dessert and supporting that position, it’s likely to be eliminated.
“If you’re going to a place that’s not a tasting menu restaurant and you’re not ordering dessert, you’re really crushing the dreams of that pastry chef,” says Daniela.
In the episode, Daniela describes her habit of going to restaurants and ordering the ENTIRE dessert menu. This is something I’ve often been tempted to do, and honestly I was encouraged to know that there are other people out there who are leading the change in this practice.
Asked when she started doing this, Daniela traced it to her time working under chef David Burke at his eponymous David Burke Townhouse. When the chef’s friends would come into the restaurant, he would order the whole dessert menu for them, come into the kitchen, flicker the lights on and off, and yell “Dessert storm!!!!” as the staff ran around prepping desserts. While this may be maniacal, I can’t help but love the image—the excitement and panic that this must have promoted in the kitchen.
To order dessert?
“A restaurant is meant to give you an experience from beg to end, and you want to experience every element of that succession of food,” says Daniela. “I think dessert leaves you with the most important memory, and if they’re not doing dessert right, you’ve gotta rethink the whole meal.”
One of the most interesting part of the episode was Daniela’s advice about when you should and should not order dessert.
Or not order dessert?
Daniela points out what seems to be an obvious point—if you had a terrible time at the restaurant (or truly are not enjoying your company), don’t get dessert. In these cases, do yourself a favor and beeline it home to your sweatpants and dog/partner/Netflix.
According to Daniela, you also shouldn’t feel bad not ordering dessert at a restaurant that doesn’t actually employ a pastry chef. She also had some great advice—which I’ve already found to be useful. It’s actually surprisingly easy to tell whether a restaurant actually employs a specialized pastry chef: The menu will tell you!
For example, if the menu has just a few items on the menu—often relatively simple choices like panna cotta, bread pudding, and some ice cream or gelato—this is a sign. Desserts like these can be easily purchased from another vendor and plated to serve individually or they can be made in big batches without much thought.
Daniela also recommended her mother’s favorite hack:
If you’re too full for dessert, order it to go and eat it for breakfast. Love it!
I was surprised how actionable this advice was. After a recent decadent meal at a trendy restaurant in Tribeca, the waiter (of course) offered me dessert, and I (as always) was tempted. When he brought the menu, I glanced over it and immediately saw that they didn’t employ a pastry chef—the sparse dessert menu included an olive oil cake (that did sound delicious), a black sesame cake, and a combination of ice creams and sorbets. Some of the items sounded delicious, but nothing to brag about. I had a similar experience the following night at a trendy restaurant on the Lower East Side. Again, some tasty sounding desserts, but clearly they don’t employ a pastry chef.
I love a good life-hacking tip—especially if it enhances my foodie leanings. Thank you, Daniela!
Dessert as a Feminist Issue
Daniela made another point I found incredibility compelling—eating dessert is, in a way, a feminist issue. Anecdotally, she says, many of the people working in pastry are women. I was a bit surprised to hear this, but the bit of research I did seems to support this observation. Over the last 15 years, for example, the winners in the Outstanding Pastry Chef category of the James Beard Awards have included 10 women and 6 men (one year included a pair). A New York Times article from 2014 by Julia Moskin on the changing gender dynamics in the restaurant industry referred to the pastry department as the “pink ghetto”, a place where women often got trapped and struggled to move beyond. Moskin also notes that “women have long made up the majority in pastry courses” at pastry schools, but notes this trend is starting to shift as women enter general culinary courses in greater numbers.
Like many of my fellow ladies, I haven’t really been surprised by the cascade of sexual assault and harassment coming to light in the #metoo movement—we’ve all experienced it as professional women. What has been more surprising to me, however, has been realizing how entrenched the power structures that give men the upper hand are. These systems are in place not merely in the industries we think of as centers of power, but across practically every industry. And restaurants are no different, on both the culinary side and the business side.
A McKinsey report from late 2017 found that while men and women enter the restaurant industry in equal numbers for entry level jobs, the proportion of women present shrinks as you move up with corporate ladder—only 33% of employees at the manager level are women and at the C-suite level they make up less than 25%. In many high-end kitchens the numbers are similar.
These dynamics are deeply entrenched, according to Moskin: “For decades, chefs of both sexes believed that inequality was inevitable. The same stereotypes used to keep women out of armed combat, off the judicial bench and out of medical school were invoked to explain why women didn’t stick it out in the kitchen. The work, it was said, is too physically demanding and psychologically grueling; the hours were too incompatible with family life.”
And like many other industries, Eater notes that women in culinary arts are paid less: “A new study from pay transparency web site Glassdoor finds female chefs make 28.3 percent less in base pay than their male colleagues. That's the second-highest "adjusted" percentage among the careers included in the study.”
Signs of Hope
While prestigious kitchens have long been places hostile to women, there are promising signs of change. Many restaurant groups, particularly those helmed by women balancing the demands of parenthood and work, are working to make restaurant work more compatible with normal life by doing things like setting more flexible hours, providing health insurance and offering parental leave. An upcoming crop of young female chefs is also pushing for change, challenging long held norms in an industry clearly in need of that.
While these signs are encouraging, until we’ve reached real gender parity in the industry I’m going to be sure to continue supporting the pastry arts.
Particularly because, Daniela pointed out on Eater Upsell, dessert is an essential part of any good restaurant experience. Without dessert, she says, “You’re missing a whole other element of the dining experience. It’s kind of like going and not ordering a drink, or a main course even.”
For now, more dessert, please.
On Being a Female Chef - by Dana Cree, former pastry chef at Blackbird, Chicago, owner of Hello, My Name is Ice Cream. Dana is a James Beard Outstanding Pastry nominee. In this blog post, she shares some interesting perspective on what it's really like to be a female chef.