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Women Behind the Stove - Carol Wallack, Sola

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jan 21, 2011 4:20PM

caroll-9838.jpg For the latest in the “Women Behind the Stove” interview series, I sat down with Chef Carol Wallack. Chef Wallack is the Executive Chef and owner of Sola and the soon-to-open Ohana, and is possibly the most fun interview subject I have ever had the good fortune to drink coffee with. I would rouse rabble with her any day. Chef Wallack and I talked about surfing, the “lifestyle” of being a chef, and why no one should ever start screaming in her kitchen.

Chicagoist - How did you get started in this business?

CW - I was trying to make it in the world of surfing, and I wasn’t good enough. So I had to figure out something to do! I love surfing, I grew up in California at the beach. A lesson that my father always taught me was to measure my success not by how much money you have or how much fame you have, but how happy you are. What really made me happy was the pursuit of a sport. I love to surf, I grew up in the water! I tried to do that and I didn’t make it.

Chicagoist - That’s a strange career trajectory - often you hear the “My parents instilled my deep love of food in me through their from-scratch cooking” story.

CW - Not even close. My mother is a terrible cook. She’s a great baker - well, she was. She’s 85 now. But I don’t like sweets, so the pastry chef world never entered into my consiciousness. I just was trying to figure out what to do. I waited tables like everybody does when they are young, in Malibu at a place that had a shower outside so I could go surfing all day, take a shower, lock my board up in the cage (because we had a chicken-wire cage where everyone would lock their boards before they went to work).

Chicagoist - So, not an early passion - more a way to make money?

CW - I had to make a living! I remember working at Charthouse, which is at the bottom of Topanga canyon. I was working there, and the grill cook didn’t show. And I always liked to cook at home, but had no experience. The manager said, take the grill. I said… ok… and I grilled 400 steaks that night. It was brutal! But I loved it. So that’s how I fell into it. It was desperation. It was also going from the man’s world of surfing, and pushing my way into the man’s world of a kitchen.

Chicagoist - So you had already experienced a male-dominated environment?

CW - Oh yes. But can you explain to me why it’s male dominated? Who cooked your first meal? Who fed you your meal, after cooking it?

Chicagoist - Do you think that’s changing?

CW - Yes, but more slowly than other fields. Come on, it’s a male-dominated world. But certainly there are smart, talented, creative, incredible women that are pushing their way up everywhere. It was a tough battle.

Chicagoist - Did you always know you wanted to get to the top, running restaurants?

CW - I didn’t at all. I love my industry, I love being a chef, but I’m a beach girl at heart. I’m a chef because I do it for a living. And I think that’s where I differ from a lot of people in this business.

Chicagoist - It does tend to become a life more than a job, right?

CW - Yes, and that’s not a life I want. I love what I do, and I love the immediate gratification you get from people when you cook them something delicious or something interesting, or you turn them onto new flavors. I love that reaction, but the reality is that what really makes me happy is my feet in the sand and swimming in the ocean. I’m excited to do my restaurant downtown, and make a success of it. But, the end result is that I will retire to the beach. I have a home in Hawaii, so I’ll go there.

Chicagoist - How did you end up living in Chicago? Not exactly the best spot for someone who wants to be a chef on the beach.

CW - This is the best restaurant city in the world. I really think that - It keeps pulling me back here. LA is too fickle, too much celebrity bull. The biggest problem with the city is just the climate - because produce isn’t available. We’re very farm-to-table, and come winter, what do you do? You serve potatoes, parsnips, beets carrots, and a lot of grains. It’s very stifling.

Chicagoist - What was your first executive chef’s job like?

CW - I was totally unprepared - completely unprepared. But, I also had a drive in me that was instilled from my father, again, to just go for it and believe in myself. He raised my sister and I to be really confident in what we do. So, I felt like… I’m not prepared for this, but I won’t know until I try. And if I fall, big deal, I’ll just pick myself up. And I fell hard. I had no idea what I was doing.

It was a little neighborhood restaurant in LA. You know, I’ve given that advice to other people - Dale Levitsky was one, who is a very good friend, and I’ve helped him. He told me about a job, and I told him that I didn’t know if he was prepared, but he’d never know until he tried, so he should take it. And it didn’t quite pan out, but he learned a lot about himself. Those are life lessons, and it isn’t worth going through life a sure bet - if you never fall, you never grow.

Chicagoist - Do you think that’s a different philosophy than the younger generation of chefs? Who grew up on celebrity chefs and the food network and culinary school?

CW - I might be chastised or shot for saying this, but there is a generation now with a very pompous attitude that they know everything and they can do anything. I think that sometimes these young kids need a slap in the face and a taste of reality. You don’t just go to culinary school and graduate and become Bobby Flay, and they think they are going to and they expect it. And they are pissed off if it doesn’t happen.

I’ve seen it in my externs. But that’s not how it works. It’s a very low paying industry, long hours, no money, personalities are an issue, because you are in a tight space. I refer to it as a MASH unit, and you’ve got to all get along, and you have to work together - there isn’t room for that pompous attitutde. Pay your dues.

Chicagoist - What do you think is different about your kitchen, since it is run by a woman?

CW - The difference between men and women is that women are a lot more emotional. I’ve had to try to tone my chef de cuisine (a man) down. He’s eastern european, and he has a different kind of an attitude than even a French chef. He has been kinda tempremental, and I have guided him along a lot, and he’s very different now in terms of how he treats people.

Gone are the days of screaming and abusive kitchens. In my kitchen, that is gone. It’s not a myth, it’s old school. Gordon Ramsey might still do that. I think it is pathetic. You get respect by doing a good job and by teaching and you don’t get respect by yelling at people. That’s psycho and scary.

Chicagoist - Did you come up under chefs like that?

CW - I did. But I also came up under great chefs. I worked under Elka Gilmore, a talented woman, and I learned how important it was to give other women a chance. It absolutely changes my hiring. We have one woman in the kitchen right now, a culinary student who we kept on. I try to hire women, because I want to give them a chance that I might not have gotten.

A lot of the time, your boss is a very arrogant male chef and they make you sit in a prep room and peel baby carrots for a year. The men don’t have to do that. It’s frustrating.

I’ll always have “chef” before my name, but it’s not who I am. Who you are is way more important in life than what you do. I want to be kind, I want to treat people well, I want to be happy, I want to enjoy the people around me. I don’t want to bury myself in a kitchen 18 hours a day and see no light.

Chicagoist - Do you think that women have that perspective more?

CW - Absolutely, because they are the mothers of children. I’m an aunt to about 18 kids and I have 50 children as employees! They always come to you with “I need this, I cut myself, my dog ate my homework.” You’re kind of a mother, psychologist, dishwasher, toilet scrubber, everything - and you manage the money in the cookie jar.

Chicagoist - Do you ever have difficulty with chefs in the kitchen who don’t know how to handle working for a woman?

CW - Absolutely. I had a guy who wouldn’t stop screaming at the staff! I promoted from within, and he would scream and throw stuff. And I told him, you don’t do that in my kitchen, go somewhere else.

I’ve had one guy try to kiss me in the walk-in. [laughter] I was like, “really? You’re not even cute.” He cornered me in the walk in and tried to kiss me. Goodbye.

It all comes down to personalities. I think that there are times when I’m probably a little too emotionally involved in my business. That’s who I am. I take it personally, or I try to get personally involved. They are my children! Most of my employees have been with me for a long time.

Check out the previous entries in our series: Nicole Pederson and Heather Terhune