Earlier, Alex Raij of Txikito and El Quinto Pino talked about her contribution to a new tapas cookbook (appropriately called The Book of Tapas), what it’s like to work alongside her husband in the kitchen, and how the couple may further expand their tiny tapas empire. Now, in Part Dos, she discusses sexism, cooking at home, and representing the U.S. in an international tapas competition taking place in Madrid this weekend.
It seems like the issue of sexism in the kitchen won’t go away. Care to weigh in on the subject?
I don’t feel ignored. I was just thinking about this the other day. I’m not trying to be diplomatic, but I don’t feel under-recognized or under-celebrated. It’s just difficult, given the number of restaurants in this town. We work hard to deliver people’s expectations and I think we succeed. I will say, though, that I feel like many women chefs I know live by their own rules and have carved out careers in this industry, whereas men tend to bounce around from restaurant to restaurant to find a good fit.
So men chase and women nurture?
Even men who own their own restaurant: Many are partners and the percentage of the partnership is something that would make me far less happy. Given the way cooks work, to give so much to a bunch of investors … Women maybe don’t get as many awards, but they can have more quality in their lives in many other ways. But I will say this: There are men who don’t delve [into their work] as consistently as most women I know, but they still get recognition for sloppy work. I see that a lot.
Does it make you angry or is it just annoying?
It doesn’t make me feel like I need more recognition. It just makes me feel like they’re over-recognized. I think they get sexed up. Being a male chef is a sexy occupation and to be a woman chef is not. I have no idea why that is. I’ve seen women try to embrace that “oh-so-sexy” image and I always find it distasteful. I don’t believe eating is a sensual experience, but I do think that people who cook well are sensualists. Sensual, not sexual.
Yes, that’s a good distinction.
It’s a career that’s slower-going for women. The women I know are closer to my age, in their late 30s or just out of them. You don’t see super-young girls and I think it’s probably a promotion thing. I spent a lot of time in the pantry wishing I could become a proper line cook, but not really being given many opportunities. The women who push through become masculine in their style, for better or worse. And I know a lot of men who are really good cooks because they think that cooking brings out their feminine side.
Did you ever get into tweeting the way so many chefs have these days?
Never. I tried to follow my friend who runs a restaurant in North Carolina, but I’m kind of stupid about technology. She’s interesting and I’d like to know what’s she’s doing at any given moment, but I never hear from her. So I must not have signed up right. It’s funny because I see people tweeting from my restaurant and that makes me happy. They’ll be like, “Four o’clock and I’m at El Quinto Pino.” And I’m like, “Oh good, someone’s there.”
But you have a Twitter account.
We opened up all those accounts — the Facebook, the Twitter — mostly to tell people about these guest chefs that come, but I can’t say that I’ve really exhausted the possibilities. The immediacy of it is interesting. Like, we have people who come for the pig or want to know the whole fish of the day, [so it works for them]. But I’m not into blasting. What are some of your favorite places to eat when you’re not at your own restaurants?
I really like this pho noodle place on Allen and Hester Street. They have the most remarkable broth. It’s pitch-perfect. I like Fuleen for spicy clams. I eat a lot of ethnic food. I like Taïm for falafel on Waverly Place. And the last place I really liked for a meal was Torrisi. I did their four-course dinner and thought it was very special. I also recently went to this place on 103rd and Lexington called El Paso. I liked it because it was an overview of all the iconic dishes of Mexico, like michoacanas. And the restaurant was really pretty.
Do you cook a lot at home?
Not really. I cook for my daughter because I want her to eat healthy things. That means a lot of purées. We’ll make minestrone, add the salt later, and purée it without the salt for her. Or I make her meaty Bolognese sauce. We tend to eat together more late at night. We’re not amazing at having meals together at home. I used to enjoy sitting around the table with my family, but I regret that my daughter probably won’t grow up like that.
Would you want her to go into the restaurant business?
I don’t know. I think parents are always like, “Don’t pick up the spatula!” But I would like it if she really enjoyed food. And so far she does. I don’t really care what she does as long as it makes her happy. I would advise against [this business], although I don’t think it would matter much because it’s really one of those professions that sucks you in.
Is there a trend you’re sick of seeing restaurants?
I’m not so much into the Greenmarket restaurant. Not that I don’t believe in it. I just think there’s shopping and there’s cooking. And how you shop is important, but you still need to do some cooking. It’s not that I’m against the Greenmarket. Of course we go there. It’s just that, for me, it’s not a point of view. It’s a precondition of good cooking. I like a restaurant to tell a story so that I can be drawn in. In that way, I’m really easy to please.
What else do you have coming up?
We’re going to Madrid to compete in the international tapas competition June 6. I think we’re the only ones from the U.S. You represent your restaurant against all the finalists from all the regional competitions in Spain, like Valladolid and Pais Vasco, to compete for bragging rights. This is the first international one.
Do you know what you’re going to make?
I have a couple things in mind, but that’s the really hard part. I really want to make stuff we’re known for here. I don’t want to invent something for the competition. The cost is very limited — you have to be able to make your tapa for less than one euro. So I keep checking the exchange rate.
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