Niki and Gayla are waiting for me as I arrive to open the bar. We open at 4 p.m., and day-shifters are punctual about their post-work beverages. It’s not uncommon to have some regulars sitting on the stoop at 3:45, smoking, checking their phones and waiting on bartenders who are consistently late. Niceties exchanged, I grab them a pint and a cocktail and start flipping on lights, pouring ice and slicing fruit as I eavesdrop on their conversation. (NOTE: Bartenders eavesdrop. We drop eaves.) They’re nice enough to include me in the conversation, though, so I commiserate while waiting for other customers to arrive.
The toughest women I ever encountered on ranches out west would find their match with Niki Farrington. Height notwithstanding, her presence evokes a toughness, a wherewithal. Gayla Maready posesses a fearsome charisma as well. They work well together — some friends can hit that zone at work and it just… clicks.
Niki and Gayla have a unique work situation. You might know Niki’s Pickles, their product, from seeing around town, and if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and track them down. They’re also the head chef and sous at Silo Bistro and Bar in Reynolda Village.
It’s one of the few restaurant kitchens in the Triad run by women.
You may have guessed, but most kitchens are staffed by men. From the dishwasher to the head chef, restaurant kitchens can be a testosterone fueled rage fest of thrown food and hurt feelings. I’ve seen plenty of women work back of house, but they’re generally in the minority.
Silo has six women and one man on the line, plus two male dishwashers. It’s an anomaly. And it works.
Now we’re talking about a discussion I had in the day, with a friend who told me that she had to quit her job at a food truck. She mentioned how hard it was for women who work in kitchens primarily staffed by men. I’d never really thought about that, what it meant. I brought up the subject to Niki and Gayla, and they proceeded to regale me with horror stories.
“It’s not just the dick jokes, those are whatever, it’s a kitchen, you hear that stuff,” Gayla said. “It’s the, ‘Girl, honey, baby.’ It’s the touching me on the small of my back, unnecessary things that make me uncomfortable.”
She’s not saying that touching has no place in a kitchen. Some kitchens are so small, a brush-up is inevitable. But in all my time in restaurant kitchens, I can’t remember a time when anyone has caressed the small of my back as they were passing by. It’s a curt, “Behind,” a pat on the shoulder or nothing at all.
Niki agreed. And elaborated.
“I’ve stood in rooms shoulder-to-shoulder with other chefs and listened to others go down the line acknowledging each of us: ‘Chef, Chef, Chef, Niki, Chef,’” she offers.
Niki’s been in the game 10 years now. She’s seen delivery people approach the dishwasher because he was the “only guy in there wearing a white coat.” The pay grade can be discriminatory as well. At one restaurant, Gayla had been in kitchens for five years and started at the same pay rate as a new male hire with no experience. Far from being happenstance, it’s indicative of the nature of a male dominated business.
Why the big difference in a kitchen run and staffed primarily by women? Niki takes a drag of her smoke and smiles.
“Let’s call it ‘emotional regulation,’” she says. “I’ve seen that women tend to diffuse tense situations better than men.” She’s got a point. I’ve seen meltdowns. I’ve seen owners and chefs barking orders at the expo on a busy lunch and making everyone in that kitchen get as tense as a chihuahua at a fireworks show.
“We don’t have that,” Gayla agreed.
There are quite a few women-owned and women-operated ventures in downtown Winston-Salem. Mary’s, Sweet Potatoes, Humble Bee Bakery, Alma Mexicana and Bulls Tavern (to name a few) are all popular staples with the local scene. Everybody says the same thing about these places and the women behind them: Powerful. Kind. Wonderful. Necessary. But they all experience similar cultural speedbumps in an industry littered with fragile male egos.
A female-run kitchen is a remarkable thing. It shouldn’t be. We are having this discussion because this is against the norm, and there’s still work to do. But there’s hope.
Niki and Gayla cash out and say their goodbyes.
I’ll catch them the next time they need a post-work shifty, and the powerful catharsis that comes with it.