Chatting With Patricia Williams: Industry Sexism, Her Biggest Kitchen Mistake, and the Beauty of Spoons

Yesterday, we spoke with Patricia Williams about her latest gig at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club. Today, the veteran chef, who had a previous career as a ballet dancer, shares her views on topics ranging from industry sexism to her biggest kitchen mistake to the simple beauty of spoons.

In the wake of this year's James Beard Awards, there was talk flying around about industry sexism and why so few female chefs win the awards. Do you have any particular views on the subject?

I have quite a few views on it. I don't believe there may be more male chefs out there -- they get more play. A lot of it has to do with many of the women who write about young men, who are the hotties. And many women are not as aggressive in their PR as the young guys with the tattoos all over the place. [A publication] called me the other day to ask if I had any tattoos. I'm like, [incredulously] "No." It's gotten to the point where they have so much ink it's like, When do you have time to cook?

In the food business, actually, there have really gotten to be less women than when I started cooking. Susan Weaver [the executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel], Patricia Yeo, Anita Lo, Debra Ponzek [Montrachet's exec chef] -- there were quite a few high-end chefs and we were very close-knit. We still are, but they've spread out to other cities because it is a bit easier to get investment. Many of the male chefs have big bucks behind them and PR firms. People don't realize that most of these chefs have a particular PR person besides the restaurant's PR, plus a personal assistant. Most of the women run smaller restaurants, so we have to get on the phone, write the recipes, make sure the deliveries are there -- that doesn't allow much time for PR ...

... The way that [female chefs] are looked at is very one-sided. I had a female [restaurant] owner who was in a professional organization of women chefs I belonged to, and [at one of the meetings] she said she would never hire a female chef because they might get pregnant, and they have families. A bunch of us were looking at each other like, "We're over 50, it's not going to happen." There were 20 female chefs looking at her. I just started laughing, and said, "I have to love you, but here we are, women's emancipation happened years ago, we're doing what we do and belong to an organization that supports women, and that's your opinion?" And she said yes.

What did you say to that?

What do you say? You're never going to change those thoughts. But it's incredible that despite all of the great women chefs out there, a lot of people haven't changed.

There was an article recently that said, "Maybe they can't carry the same weight [as male chefs]." Let me tell you, there's not a sous or a chef that carries any more than a woman in a kitchen. You figure out ways to do it. You really think there are fewer female chefs than there were 20-odd years ago? It seems that there are a lot more women working in kitchens now.

Not at a high-end level the way there used to be. They couldn't raise as much money -- look at Patricia Yeo, who just left, or Susan Weaver, who left to work more in culinary development. Debra Ponzek has a beautiful take-out store in Connecticut, and Diane Forley [the chef-owner of Verbena] and her husband are running a bakery up in Scarsdale. ... When a man leaves, it's not an exodus for him. But for a woman, it becomes an exodus; people say she just couldn't handle it.

 

Speaking of topics that have been making the rounds lately, what's your view on food blogging?

I'm not a huge blogger. I think it's really watered down the truth and the opinions of what the food industry really is. It's because there's no face to what they're doing -- they're not facing the person they're talking about. They can say anything without any repercussions. People think they know more about restaurants than they used to, but I don't think they know more about food than they used to.

What's the biggest mistake you've ever made in the kitchen?

Disagreeing with my boss. Really, truthfully, it was allowing things I knew were not correct to continue to go on. It hurt the restaurant and it caused me to leave. This was at a particular restaurant?

Yes. I'd rather not say which one. Where do you like to eat on your day off?

I have some really favorite places. I think Danny Meyer is one of the greatest restaurateurs, so I spend time at his restaurants. At Eleven Madison Park, a two-course lunch is $26, which is affordable. I also like Boqueria, and any time I go to the ballet, it's Bar Boulud. [Also] in Hell's Kitchen, where I live, there's Hanci, a Turkish restaurant on Tenth Avenue, which is very reasonably priced. It's run by a man and his wife, and has a small kitchen, but the food is delicious. And on Ninth Avenue, Gazala Place -- [the chef] is Israeli, and the food is very good.

Favorite kitchen tool?

I love spoons. All kinds. It's the way they feel in your hand -- it's just spectacular. I love my fish spatula. And I have these new whisks that are flexible; old whisks, you'd end up with all of these bubbles and things. The new whisks literally go along the entire bottom. They don't create the bubbles and you get a much smoother sauce.

Most overrated ingredient?

Foie gras is totally overrated. I love it, but it's so darn expensive and so many people do it so badly if they don't understand it. One of the most beautiful things is to have a perfect terrine -- you can't get anything better than that, but you have to have the technique.

Most underrated?

Salt. There's so many different types, and they all taste different. Maldon sea salt, sel gris, fleur de sel ...

Bureaucrats love to cast salt as such a bad guy. But it seems that they're also more intent on micromanaging restaurants now than they were when you started out.

It always has to do with taxation and money -- a few years ago, [the Health Department] collected $27 million from restaurants in fines. They make up things you need -- you need a test kit for your sanitzer now.

So what do you think of the restaurant letter-grading system?

I think it's a bad idea because most of the violations have nothing to do with the food -- they have to do with the building code. People don't understand that it wasn't that you had this, that, and the other. The rules really are changing all the time. We have a service called Food Consulting Service that once a month goes through everything to make sure we know the new things and there are no violations ... but it's all financially motivated. With the soda tax, they're financially motivated. I don't think people care if there are fat kids running around.


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