Young chef Andrea Potter opts out of the kitchen
Chef Andrea Potter is just 26 and has already dropped out of the race to the top of the fine-dining world. It’s not just because it’s a boys’ club, she told the Georgia Straight in a Main Street coffee shop. The gender bias made the work uncomfortable at times, but it also made her fight harder.
She left, she said, because she discovered that working in fine dining is, at essence, a male pursuit, and she chooses to be authentically herself—which includes being a woman—in her approach to life and to food.
“Fine dining is like playing football,” said Potter, a bike-riding blond. “It’s competitive and fast-paced; there’s camaraderie and 12-hour days and drinking beer after work. It’s a lot like sports. It worked for me when I had more of a competitive streak. But now, nothing would make me want to do that.”
Potter’s career decision is consistent with her age group. As a member of Gen Y, she was raised with third-wave feminist ideology: the idea that making it in a man’s workplace—on men’s terms—isn’t necessarily the height of female empowerment. If her story is an indication of what happens when Gen Y women enter the world of fine dining, it could be decades before women reach equality in numbers in top restaurants.
While she attended culinary school at Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Potter apprenticed at an Italian restaurant. The chef didn’t want a woman in the kitchen, and she got stuck on garde-manger—making salads—so she left.
After working her way up in Edmonton, the U.K., and then Vancouver, she made it to Feenie’s—one of her goals, as she’d always wanted to work for an Iron Chef.
“It seemed like the women who had made it were pretty gruff,” she said. “I was getting a thicker skin. But it’s not how I prefer to work.”
By 22, she’d had enough of the competition and stress and took a job cooking at the vegan Radha Yoga & Eatery on Main Street. It was a totally female environment, she said. Decisions were made collectively; tips were shared equally. Even the kitchen stations were assigned on a daily basis. Within six months, she was the executive chef. Although she adored the respectful communication, she did have to implement some structure for the sake of efficiency.
What she really learned, she said, was the feminine relationship to food.
“Fine dining runs the way it runs because there’s a demand for that kind of food,” she said. A male-type chef, she explained, will smother food with his (or her) ego, processing it until it reflects something about him. A female-type chef, she said, will respect the food’s inherent goodness and let the food speak for itself.
Furthermore, she said, women are drawn to the sensuality of shopping for and preparing beautiful food—both experiences are missing in a restaurant setting. She also said women see food as an extension of caregiving, of health.
“We’re three and four generations away from cooking,” Potter noted. “Now we’re getting back in the kitchen as an empowering thing. I’m really excited about that.”
Now that she’s left Radha, her new cooking-class and consulting business, Rooted Nutrition, aims to connect people with their food in a respectful, even loving, way.
That, she said, is the future of truly fine dining.