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Women Behind the Stove - Nicole Pederson, C-House

By Anthony Todd in Food on Dec 21, 2010 7:40PM

Headshot of Chef Nicole.JPG In the next installment of “women behind the stove,” we talk with Chef Nicole Pederson, Executive Chef of C-House. Nicole has been at the helm of the restaurant for a little over a year, and we talked to her about her background, the differences between men and women chefs, and why it’s a bad idea to screw around in her kitchen.

Chicagoist - How did you get started on your path to chefdom? Did your family have any connection to the restaurant world?

NP - My mom loved to cook, and cooked at home as much as a single mom could. My mom grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota, so everything was scratch cooking; we didn’t eat cans of Chef Boyardee growing up. If we had a quick easy meal, it was omelets, not something out of a box.

I went to France when I was 19, and fell in love with food and eating. I had two friends who were French exchange students in high school who invited me to come stay with them, so I spent 8 weeks in France. They were incredible eaters - that was all we did. They kept trying to give me ketchup - “Do you want ketchup?” they kept asking, “Because the other Americans always want ketchup for everything.” No, I didn’t want ketchup! I just wanted to eat everything they way they ate it. I think that opened my eyes to food.

Chicagoist - How did you end up in the kitchen?

NP - I was already working in the service industry, because I had done that since I was 16 at places like Perkins. I started working at Tulips, in St. Paul. The owner decided to hire a new chef halfway through the time that I was there. And the food that he [the new chef] was doing was really different from the food that had been done before (and the food after he left). But for this small window, he was doing some really interesting food and I was really blown away by it. He was always talking about the food, and I had all these notebooks full of every ingredient in every dish. I would stand in the back and watch them break down the fish and the tenderloins. One day, David [the chef] said to me “Why aren’t you in culinary school?” I said, “I have absolutely no interest in becoming a cook.” He said, “Yeah, you have interest. You have a notebook. You know as much about the food as the cooks - no other server cares that much.”

About six months later I started thinking about culinary school. I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Art - I was in the first graduating class. I was going to go to the CIA, but when the program opened, I realized I didn’t have to leave Minnesota!

Chicagoist - How was your experience as a woman in culinary school?

NP - When we first started, we were 8 and 8 - eight men and eight women. I think five of the girls graduated and only three of the guys. I don’t think any of the women were interested in being line cooks, except for one girl. They were more like R&D. One of them had thoughts of becoming a food stylist, another worked for grocery stores.

Chicagoist - What about your externships? You worked at the Loring Café, in Minneapolis.

NP - Talking about little challenges of being a woman and stuff… for the most part, I’m sort of a “put your head down” kind of person. If you work hard and you do just the same thing that the dudes do, no one should look at you any different. It’s the second you get teary eyed, or start screeching and screaming, that there gets to be a problem.

Patrick Antinelli at the Loring Café was a ball-busting French dude. We screamed at each other all day long; that was our normal voice, was yelling at each other. He never threw… well, he WOULD throw stacks of pans at me, but not like, viciously! But I screamed back, so it was fine.

After a visit to France and a few years working in Vail, Colorado, Pederson moved to New York to work at Gramercy Tavern.

NP - I don’t think I was very well liked in the kitchen at Gramercy. I moved through the stations really quickly, there were a lot of young kids in the kitchen, and I was already 28. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I wasn’t interested in partying, it was about putting my head down and getting the job done.

Chicagoist - Do you think that’s a difference between men and women?

NP - I definitely think girls have a tendency to be more focused. We mature faster than boys do. I think that young female chefs have a tendency to be more intense. We also feel like we have to prove ourselves - you don’t get to walk into a kitchen just because you have food knowledge, like guys do. You have to prove yourself - there are definitely men out there who will not hire women at all. Even some Chicago chefs aren’t great about working with women.

Chicagoist - Really? So you feel that some of these problems still exist?

NP - I was down in Mexico for this culinary festival. It was at this restaurant called Kaiser Maximillian, there were about 30 chefs from all over the world, and only 2 other women. It was funny, the guys who were in charge of it were super old-school, one was German, one Swiss and one French. One party we went to I didn’t wear my chef’s coat, and I felt totally invisible. So, I decided to wear my coat to the next party and huh, look at that, I’m STILL totally invisible. They were like, “Oh, cute honey you’re a chef.” I haven’t felt that in years!

After her stint at Gramercy, Nicole moved to Chicago. After a short time working at the Metropolitan club and Pastoral, she became sous-chef at Lula Café.

Chicagoist - How did you get your current job?

NP - A contact knew the general manager here [at C-House] and he called me and told me about the job, and told me I needed to do it. I didn’t want to, but he was very enthusiastic. “You need to go be an executive chef! “But I’m happy!” “Just send them your resume!” And it just went from there, with interviews and tastings. Cooking for Marcus [Samuelsson] was the most nerve-wracking thing I’d ever done. I flew in the midnight before, and my roommate was running around town buying things for me.

Chicagoist - Presumably it went well, since you have the job! How is C-House different from Lula, especially with the hotel angle?

NP - I don’t get interference from the hotel, because we are owned by different groups, but some chefs have no interest in doing room service or banquets - or breakfast or lunch for that matter! If you don’t want to do those things, you have no business in my kitchen. If you cannot put the same kind of love and heart into making those entrees - it’s all food, quit being such a snob. We ran into that at Lula a lot - people would be all persnickety about making turkey sandwiches, they thought they were better than that. Um, if you’re too good to make a turkey sandwich, then you’re not good enough to work here. Cooks can be very arrogant - but they can kiss my ass. I worked at Gramercy Tavern, where is your resume? If I can make a turkey sandwich that is delicious, then you can do the same thing!

Chicagoist - Do you think your kitchen is any different with a woman at the helm?

NP - I really enjoy balance, I think it makes a really pleasant work environment. The ego and the testosterone get mellowed out. But, I’ve had a lot of women culinary students come through, and they sometimes don’t have the intensity - I think you need a certain fire in your eye. I definitely raise my voice. If you are doing something wrong, and we have had a conversation about it before and you aren’t doing it how I tell you, I’m going to tell you in a loud voice. I come from that environment - I believe some people learn better from that. I’ll show you how to do something. If you make a mistake, I’ll show you again. If you make another mistake, well, then I’m going to yell at you. And if you make that mistake again, then you’re not cut out for this kitchen.

Sometimes I think that I’m very emotional. For me, this is not a job. I’m very passionate about what I do - I don’t know if men feel the same way about their food that I do. But I manage with that style - if someone is mishandling the food I get angry because farmers I know grew this in a tiny hoop house in Michigan and drove it five hours to get here. I try to instill that kind of hippie dippy love in my kitchen. That’s probably the biggest difference between my kitchen and other kitchens - some people appreciate it, some don’t. It definitely affects who comes and works here.