Latinas Forge Paths in Male-Dominated Kitchens

Maria Zavala, right, and her kitchen assistant, Adriana, have found their way into the male-dominated world of restaurant kitchens. (Photo via El Diario)

Many women rule their own kitchens at home, but professional kitchens have traditionally been unwelcoming places for women cooks. El Diario La Prensa spoke to two Latina cooks whose determination and passion helped them break through and find jobs in restaurant kitchens. The article is translated from Spanish below.

Although some restaurant owners only hire men, for their physical strength, to work in the city’s restaurant kitchens, Latinas are finding their own way in this tough environment, which many people consider suited “only for men.”

When María Minchala, originally from Ecuador, arrived in New York City five years ago, she faced the challenge of finding a job. With three sons and few options, the 42-year-old decided to direct her efforts toward what she knows best: the art of cooking.

Minchala recalled that she knocked on various doors, but the answer was always the same.

“Wherever I went, they told me that they only hired men with experience,” she said. “They asked me how I was going to carry a heavy pot, and how I would deal with kitchen assistants and preparers when they didn’t obey me.”

Despite the constant negativity, Minchala continued her search, confident that her experience and passion would bring her the opportunity she longed for — and she got it. A few years ago, she began working at the Ecuadorian restaurant La Azogueñita, in Corona, Queens.

“Fortunately, I came to a place where sexism is not an obstacle,” she said. As head chef, Minchala oversees kitchen assistants of both genders. “We have learned to work as a team and to respect each other as equals.”

Luís Apugno, the manager, remembered when Minchala applied for the job.

“She demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm by showing me her qualifications, and her fighting spirit was what convinced me,” he said.

To meet the challenge of carrying heavy objects, Minchala’s creativity made her an efficient problem-solver, Apugno said: “She simply divides the contents of one pot until she can lift it. It’s hard work, but there’s no reason not to hire a female cook.”

María Zabala, originally from Mexico and 50 years old, is another female cook who had to cope with the lack of opportunities for women when she decided to emigrate 13 years ago.

“I had to be younger,” she said. “In many restaurants, I was told that I couldn’t be a cook, much less a waitress. My own fellow Mexicans told me that I had to be young and thin to wait tables.”

Zabala took up other jobs, but a lack of income to help her to live with dignity was what prompted her to try a second time.

“I couldn’t understand, because I could cook in my own house, but in the workplace I was denied that opportunity,” she said.

Zabala, who now works at the restaurant México Lindo in El Barrio, Manhattan, encourages her boss to hire other women.

“We endure burns from hot frying pans and boiling oil, and we work hard in long shifts,” she said. “Women are just as capable of doing this work as men.”

José Garza, president of the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation, an organization that advocates for the creation and growth of small businesses, said that approximately 20 percent of the restaurants in El Barrio hire female cooks.

“An employer should hire someone based on their qualifications and their resume, not their gender,” he said. “Nevertheless, it’s necessary to develop equal work opportunities for men and women alike.”

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