Earning Her Place in the Kitchen

The old adage might be that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, but that hasn’t been the case in commercial kitchens. In the restaurant world, the top spot is usually occupied by a man. Maybe even the top two or three spots.

Not so in Executive Chef Rachel Bennett’s kitchen at one of St. Pete’s new restaurants, The Library, on the campus of Johns Hopkins’ All Children’s Hospital in the heart of downtown.

Chef Bennett has been working in the service industry since she was just 16, starting at a coffee beanery, then joining the team at Tampa fixture Bern’s during her time in Hillsborough County College’s culinary program. Now 32, she has earned her spot at the top, moving from the seafood station shucking oysters to the sauté line building appetizers and on to the grill.

“Being in an all-male environment is something I’m used to,” Bennett says. “I even played on a boys’ soccer team as a kid. You get back the energy you put out, so I’ve never felt discriminated against.”   

She does credit Executive Chef Habteab Hamde, a.k.a. “Chef Hab,” at Bern’s for creating an equal opportunity environment and mentoring her. But she also mentions persistence and hard work.

“Once I got in that kitchen, I worked really hard to learn and to get the chance to learn. I’d hang out behind the sauté line, offer to take out their trash, whatever, just to get to watch and learn. Finally, I was so annoying that the guys said, ‘Chef, let her on the line.’” And she spent three years working her way down the line—and up the ranks in the Bern’s kitchen.

Looking back, Chef Bennett says she realizes now that her go-getter personality and professional ambition sometimes outstripped her actual skills at the moment, but, she says, “After a while you realize everything happens for a reason and so I’m glad the universe put me in each position it did and made me the person I am today.”

She also credits former Bern’s colleague and fellow James Beard semifinalist Chef Jeannie Pierola with mentoring and preparing her for the top spot in her own kitchen: “Chef Hab taught me how to be respected and get things done. [Chef Pierola] taught me the most about food, flavors, and ways to put things together. I know I’m good in strategy and procedure, but she gave me the confidence that I can do it from the food/flavor side, as well.”

Bennett doesn’t go out of her way to hire women in her kitchens, though she is seeing more women in the field and she has had an all-female line. “It’s not that I denied men; it’s just that’s who was coming into my kitchen.”

About the male-domination of the field she says, “It shouldn’t be that way, but it is, and so you deal with it and maneuver your best way around. You’re going to have to fight for it. You have to work harder and faster than the boys. What you put out is what you get back. Don’t be afraid to work hard; hard work pays off, even if you don’t see it right away.”

What she puts out in her own kitchen is leadership by example. “I don’t walk around like, ‘I’m the chef; you have to do this.’ I get in the trenches. I clean the kitchen and scrub the floors, too.” And empowerment. She tells her team, “Figure it out.” “That’s how I’ve lived my life; there’s always an answer, always a path. You can always figure something out.”

What she gets back is an empowered, unified team: “When we’re super busy but the whole line is working together and in sync, I call an order out and the whole line responds ‘Heard!’ I feel like a conductor; it’s a beautiful moment.”

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