I knew blogging had its perks, but who knew I would get to talk to some really cool chefs as a result of writing for an LGBTQ blog? Yesterday I interviewed Zoi Antonitsas of Bravo's Top Chef. It was really inspiring to talk to her about the challenges women in the culinary industry face. Today I'm talking shop with Zoi's partner Jennifer Bietsy, also from TC Season 4. Jen is fierce. It was an honor to get a few minutes of her time.
SERENA: When did you know that you wanted to be a chef?
JEN: I knew at a pretty young age. I worked at a restaurant when I was a junior in high school, busing tables. My attention was always drawn to the kitchen. The following year I was working there again and by accident I ended up filling in for someone in the prep area. I really enjoyed it and the chefs kind of took me under their wing. And then I decided to go to culinary school after I graduated high school.
S: Why did you decide to try out for Top Chef?
J: I was flying to New York to visit family. I was on Jet Blue and they have those little TVs in the seats. I watched a marathon of Top Chef. I had seen the show before, but I'm not really a TV watcher. I was watching Season 2 on the plane and I just got sucked in. I thought, "I could do this." I think it's the first show of its kind. It's unique to group together all of these talented chefs and have them compete against each other.
S: What's your favorite thing to cook?
J: I love to cook seafood. In San Francisco we have these really great local sardines, squid, and prawns. I a huge fan of slow braising the tougher cuts of meat, like lamb shanks or oxtails, in a one-pot savory dish. I guess it depends on the season.
S: Who are some of your role models and inspirations as a chef?
J: Marco Pierre White was making a name for himself as a strong, determined, young chef at the time I was in culinary school. He kind of has this rock and roll image and shows no mercy in the kitchen. A cookbook writer who has inspired me is Richard Olney, who is linked with the Chez Panisse people. Some of the women I really admire are Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of The River Café.
S: What projects are you currently working on?
J: I'm opening a restaurant in San Francisco with 2 people who I have worked with before in the industry. I don't know if I want to be tied in as a partner or just do consulting work. But it's a great project. It's going to be really fun for the people who eat there. The food is going to be great and it will be moderately priced.
S: Do you think being on Top Chef has affected your relationship with Zoi?
J: Of course. It's hard to be a contestant on the show and it's hard to come back to reality. We had an advantage because we could speak to each other. Part of the contract says that you can't speak to anyone. And being on the show together, we can commiserate with the stress or the challenges. If another contestant, like Valerie, comes home, she can talk to her boyfriend or her mom about it, but they won't understand because they weren't there. So it was helpful to be on the show together because it is a lot to process alone.
S: Do you feel that your being on Top Chef has helped increase the visibility for women in the culinary field?
J: I really hope so. I think so, based on the response I've received from women across the country, and from women chefs. Zoi and I being on the show together has definitely effected the lesbian community. We've gotten responses from women who aren't out in their jobs and they've been so thankful. I live in San Francisco so I never really think about that. It's been eye opening. But for women chefs, I hope so, because we're still a minority in the industry.
S: Do you think this is the year that a woman will finally win Top Chef?
S: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about going into the culinary industry?
J: Cooking and being a chef is a lot like being a musician or an athlete. It's innate and you do it because you love it. You have to make sacrifices to get to a high position and it takes a lot of drive. More so, I think, for women than for men. If I apply for a job and a man applies who is at the same level as me, he will most likely get the job. And if I get the job, I will get paid less money. It's sad, but it's still a part of the industry. There's not a lot of equality in restaurants. But I would hate to see a woman stop doing what she loves because of the fear of being in a male-dominated industry.