More Highlights from Our Conversation with the Author of Skirt Steak
Happy Friday, everybody!
Here’s part 2 of my conversation with fellow scribe Charlotte Druckman, whose new book Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen, debuted this week. Part 1 can be found here.
TOQUELAND: How did Skirt Steak come about? Do you remember the moment when the idea popped into your head?
DRUCKMAN: I wrote an article for Gastronomica, which was something I had been thinking about. .. there is a famous essay that art historian Linda Nochlin wrote at the end of the ‘70s called “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” And it’s rhetorical. It’s supposed to get you annoyed. And it was sort-of the anti‑feminist’s feminist’s art-historical essay, because she kind of said, “Let’s stop looking at the differences between how men and women paint, and let’s look instead at what our institutions are doing to present a story of men or women, and in history what opportunities have been opened to women.”
I worked at Food & Wine, and I really loved working there. .. I remember how much care went into picking the Best New Chefs but how there was always [just] one woman on the cover, possibly two [out of 10]. And you know, you’re in this office with these incredibly smart women who would like to support women, so why aren’t these chefs being found? And I started to think, “What if you took that approach that Linda Nochlin used and stop thinking about it as, ‘who cooks better,’ but ‘let’s think about what the underpinnings are.’”
TOQUELAND: That’s interesting.
DRUCKMAN: I thought it would be awesome to talk to women chefs about this, but to do it in that same way where it’s not like everyone’s going to give you a sob story. There are going to be some great epic moments of sexual harassment, obviously, but it’s not going to be about that. Because I don’t think that’s the real problem at the end of the day.
TOQUELAND: Without getting too specific about it, was it easy to sell it?
DRUCKMAN: No. It was really hard to sell it because no one had heard of what I was trying to do, which was to write a communal memoir, if you will, that has a strong narrative voice but isn’t about me. Everyone now wants—especially if you’re a food writer—for it to either be about you or wants it to be about one person dishing.
TOQUELAND: Was it was easy to get interviews?
DRUCKMAN: Once I got the book deal, I thought I would be lucky to get 40 women to say yes; I ended up having 73. This is so embarrassing and corny, but there were certain chefs who would say “yes” and I would actually tear up because I never thought they would have done it.
TOQUELAND: Can you give me an example, or would you rather not?
DRUCKMAN: Alice Waters. Or [Zuni Café’s] Judy Rodgers. When [former Arcadia and Lobster Club chef] Anne Rosenzweig said she would do it, I think I cried. .. when I wrote my proposal, one of the people I knew straight up that I wanted in the book was — do you remember Tony Bourdain talking about the Grill Bitch in Kitchen Confidential?
DRUCKMAN: The whole point of this book is to find out what happened to people like the Grill Bitch. I want the Grill Bitch to tell her story.
TOQUELAND: Where is she now?
DRUCKMAN: She’s not doing food anymore, and I think she misses it. . . but it wasn’t just that she said “yes.” She was, like, “I’ve been wanting to do this myself and I haven’t had time. This is so great. And if there’s anyone you want to talk to, I have a whole bunch of friends who would do it.” What I realized as I was going through the process was that no one really had asked these women to have this particular conversation.
TOQUELAND: How did Cooking Without Borders, your collaboration with Anita Lo, come about?
DRUCKMAN: I had never thought that I wanted to write a book in my life. When I was younger, I thought I would want to write a novel, then I thought, “I can’t write a novel.” I never thought I had a book in me to write.. . [an agent] and I met and she said, “You should really do a book.” I said, “I really don’t think I want to do a book, but I would do a collaboration.” I really wanted to write about food and I thought I’d really like to do a book with a chef.
TOQUELAND: It’s funny to me that you say that because for a lot of people, collaborating is just a path to this other thing.
DRUCKMAN: I will contradict my own book thing: I think it’s a little bit the girl side of me; I kind of like being part of a collaboration. I don’t necessarily like being the person at the forefront.
DRUCKMAN: I also thought I could learn a lot, because I wanted to write more about food. I just wanted to do it. We met a few chefs .. . and then she said, “Do you know Anita Lo?” I said, “No, but I’ve been to Annisa and I love her food and I really love that she’s still in her kitchen every night.” I think for my own selfish learning experience, that was important to me.
I was very nervous about meeting her because I got the sense that she does not mess around. But once you know her, she is the sweetest, funniest person.. . I also had this sense from her food that there is something intellectual going on, but in a good, welcoming way. I crave the food. And as soon as I started talking to her and she started discussing how she’d been trying to write a cookbook for ten years and that no one would let her write the cookbook she wanted to because they kept pigeonholing her, either saying, “Oh, you should do quick and easy cooking,” because she’s a woman, or “You should do fun Asian street food,” as though her food is Asian, which it is not, and completely missing it. As soon as we started talking about it, I really wanted to work with her. I felt like I could help her realize something. But also, she was going to want to have the kind of conversations that I like having. And I really connect with her food.
And now, I think of her as such a great friend and kind of a mentor, too, even though I’m obviously not a chef.
TOQUELAND: I think that’s a natural and very desirable thing to have happen. You get a better book and you should become friends when you go through such an intimate process.
DRUCKMAN: I think it’s because I’m a Gemini. I really feel like I want to keep just doing completely different things. But when I was reading the post that you wrote about your process .. .
TOQUELAND: The proposal process?
DRUCKMAN: Yeah, the proposal, but also how you spend so much time. Actually, it’s almost like method acting, the equivalent of that, but as a writer.
TOQUELAND: Did that seem weird?
DRUCKMAN: No, but I was thinking about it because I thought that’s what I tried to do with Anita’s book. Then I was thinking how different chefs lend themselves to different processes in a way. That’s how I work, or how I thought I worked, but it’s also how I worked that one time. If I wanted to do a totally different book, I think my process would have to change, too, just so I can match that chef.
TOQUELAND: Well, people do books for all kinds of reasons, right?
DRUCKMAN: Oh, of course. But once you commit, you need to understand that you have to promote yourself, or you have to find the thing about yourself that you’re going to promote. I think that there’s this idea now that every cookbook has to be personal, but it doesn’t.
DRUCKMAN: You are always drawing things out of people, but sometimes you’re going to be working with someone where maybe it’s just about their talent and not about all that stuff.
TOQUELAND: I think each project finds its own place organically.
TOQUELAND: What was the biggest surprise you had while researching and writing Skirt Steak?
DRUCKMAN: I don’t think that there was one surprise. Individual people surprised me in ways that I hadn’t been expecting maybe anyone to surprise me, or maybe I had pre‑conceived notions of them, or I didn’t have any notions of them. I guess I was pleasantly surprised by how many more women chefs there are out there. If I wanted to I think I could write some major survey book and just look at statistics. I think I could have talked to many more women chefs. And of course there are still so many more men than women. I don’t want to get the ratio twisted, but it’s also more than I think we collectively realize.
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.