Interview with Chef Ana Sortun of Oleana - Boston, MA

November 2007

Antoinette Bruno: Marco Pierre White recently said that he thought it was the physical nature and macho culture of the modern restaurant responsible for women being less likely to reach the top. He said “Restaurant kitchens are a man’s world. The work is physical and demanding. It is the men who rise to the top.” Do you agree with him?
Ana Sortun: Nice, wow. What does “make it to the top” really mean? I think there are fewer women in the business that make it to the top by being famous, sure, but everybody finds their own way.

AB: You have a successful restaurant, won a James Beard award, and published a cookbook.
AS: Yes, and that’s success to me. I’m not looking for a Food Network show or 3 Michelin stars. I believe anyone can do anything that they believe in. I mean, as a woman I’ve experienced the stereotypical sexual harassment stories while working in France. But the boys had disadvantages too: when they were called wankers. I was called honey bunny, my little shoe, my little rabbit but I never had anything seriously bad happen. I’ve never said damn I wish I wasn’t a woman.

AB: How do you juggle your family life?
AS: As a mother you are juggling everything. But all parents are — mothers and fathers. What’s weird now is that almost my entire staff is made up of women except for one dishwasher, one prep cook, and one sous chef. We’re a team of 3 men and 10 women!

AB: Let’s fast forward to your daughter going to school and getting home at 3pm. What are you going to do?
AS: It’s going to be another challenge. Big time. Right now she can adjust to my schedule, so I see her in the morning before I go to work. When she goes to school things will change. My husband is a farmer and he will take care of Sienna. My in-laws will pick her up from school and I will spend the weekends with her. That’s what we’ll have to do.

AB: But you will be making choice.
AS: I don’t think it’s a choice anymore — it’s the way it has to be. There are good things and bad things.

AB: What’s it like in a kitchen run by women?
AS: Too many women in a kitchen is not a good thing either. What it takes is ‘game.’ You’ve got to want to play ball. It is not about being physically stronger or tolerant. It’s about wanting to play bad enough. It’s a sport. It’s not macho. You have to be a team player, be able to shift gears, and challenge yourself physically and mentally. It’s actually quite Zen, focusing on the task at hand and just getting it done. Making it happen is the reward.

AB: How do you run your kitchen?
AS: I am not macho. I’m not a yeller or screamer.

AB: Another general stereotype circulating is that women chefs have “more soul” so to speak, and cook from the heart. It’s true that I can’t think of very many experimental female chefs, apart from Elena Arzak, but I’m not sure that it’s a fair generalization. How do you feel about it? Is the experimental kitchen more gendered than the regular professional kitchen?
AS: No because Barbara Lynch is doing a lot of that stuff: sous vide, liquid ravioli etc. But she has some men on her team and she hired Herve This to train her. She has game; she can play with the best of them. It’s all about mind over matter. If you can’t lift the 50 pound bag of flour, there is always somebody next to you that can. It’s about self confidence. The downside is women aren’t always as self confident. It’s the “I can do it, I can do it” attitude.

AB: How about raising money. Do men do it differently than women?
AS: It’s a confidence thing.

AB: How about access to capital?
AS: There are organizations specific for woman to get capital. When I watch other woman who are successful in this business, they are full of confidence. Barbara has a 3 or 4 year old and Suzanne Goin just had twins. Both their personalities are very determined. If someone really wanted to raise money they really could. It might take them time, 5 years, but they could. If you don’t succeed you keep trying. Some people are easily discouraged and distracted. That’s the world we live in—men and women.

AB: How did you plan out your career?
AS: I knew I was going to be in this business for the rest of my life so I worked hard in the beginning to set myself up and I had a family later. I worked my butt off preparing. When I was pregnant I worked even harder because I knew I would need to take a month off when the baby was born. Then I worked really hard to prepare my staff so they would work more independently. A month is a long time for a chef in a small business to take off.

AB: The stereotypical chef is a divorcee. The lifestyle challenges relationships like no other. What are your thoughts on this? How does it affect women differently from men?
AS: I’m living in a different world. I create what’s good for me. I know plenty of chefs who play as hard as they work.

AB: Who have your biggest mentors been? Men vs women?
AS: Most are women, but many are men. Alice Waters was the most influential.

AB: How is a kitchen run by a woman different from a kitchen run by a man?
AS: My guess is that they are more organized. But look at Daniel (Boulud) whose kitchen is the most organized. My kitchen is not this warm nurturing place. We are very focused, but it’s not crazy. It’s sane.