Nicole Bayani, Executive Chef of Presidio, grew up in what she describes as “the most suburby-suburb you could live in” in San Diego. Her maternal grandfather, who passed away before she was born, was a professional chef and left her family with a very well-equipped kitchen and an extensive collection of cookbooks. Nicole’s mother had a soft spot for the cookbooks which was inherited by Nicole.
“I had a wide range of information available at a young age and consumed it all the time. If there was a cooking show on, I’d be watching it. I was never the kid watching MTV or whatever. Always food stuff.”
Not content to be the observer, Nicole taught herself to cook at a very young age. At eight years old, she was making dinners for her family. Being in the kitchen was always something she wanted to do. Which is why it was surprising when, come time for college, she chose to go to a private, four-year university in the midwest.
“I wanted a college experience. I knew the [culinary] industry overworked and underpaid people. It wasn’t ever going to be a for-sure thing as an adult. I knew all the reasons why you need to navigate through this industry very carefully. I made a very conscious decision.”
Despite the caution, Nicole found herself armed with a degree she didn’t want to use and soon enrolled in the Kendall College program for college graduates. Upon attending her first class, she noted that her fellow students were adults attempting to learn the basics of cooking. “I withdrew, canceled my loans, and got a job at a sandwich shop.”
“You have to be insane to want to do this kind of work”
“This industry is one of the only industries where your degree or pedigree doesn’t matter. You’re not going to make more money as a line cook just because you went to a good culinary school or trained under the best chef of all time…I didn’t feel inferior to the people that did go to culinary school. In some way, we knew the same things. The line is the equalizer.”
So, through a less-than-traditional route, Nicole made her way into big restaurants like La Sardine, Duseks Beer and Board, Yusho, Tru, and Scofflaws.
“It was hard. You have to be insane to want to do this kind of work,” Nicole said in a matter of fact tone.
Nicole laughed as she described how outsiders viewed her mentality towards her work. “This one time, I had a bunch of scallops I had to cook. I grabbed a towel to hold the pan, but it was just a little wet,” she began. Of course, when even a slightly damp towel meets a hot pan, the heat travels through the towel. “My palm was burning, so I rested the entire pan on my bicep. I got a gigantic burn. When I went home, my mom thought I was crazy….but yeah. I’d rather burn myself than drop the pan. That’s my sign of dedicated insanity in the moment. You gotta be tough. And no one knows what ‘tough’ means until you’re in the kitchen, doing it.”
The physical labor
“It’s difficult to work in a kitchen with such high expectations,” Nicole recounted of her experience at Tru. “Michelin was evaluating them for their second Michelin star. Some of the long-term staff had left and nothing had been tweaked or removed from the menu to make things easier on the kitchen. I was the saucier. I’d open at 9am and have to take 300lbs of beef bones to cook down in a steam kettle before reducing them all day to make 4 quarts of sauce. I was the smallest person in the kitchen doing the biggest physical job with no help. And Chef at the time said, ‘Do you want to do it or not?’ And I did.”
After those impossibly long, laborious days, Nicole would return home to her then-partner, Chef Wilson Bauer, who was the Chef de Cuisine at Schwa. Chef Wilson didn’t indulge her complaints. “He taught me that it’s important to work past that and then take on more.” So she did.
Soon, in addition to her saucier duties and opening the restaurant, she took on all the ordering and often stayed till closing. “Every day was hard and exhausting. But, if you were to look at it like a graph of my learning curve, my line was going up at a 90-degree angle.” None of this was recounted as complaint, just plain fact.
The emotional battles
“I remember one time for work I was literally running down the street to Whole Foods, crying, because some girl forgot to tell me to order raspberries. I was in charge of the orders, so not having raspberries was my fault. You know what? That girl might make that mistake again. But I never will.”
Nicole’s biggest lesson learned was that if you’re cruising along in the kitchen, chances are you’re not learning fast enough, if at all. And that the hardest days faced are the biggest opportunities to learn and grow, even if it does hurt.
When women are assigned the assumptive backseat
“I’m a woman. I look very young. I’m very small. This wasn’t always a disadvantage, but I tried to overcompensate for it all the time.”
As Nicole advanced in her career, this issue did not disappear. “My current sous chef is a very nice, tall mid-20s white Texan boy and when people walk in here looking for the chef, they assume its him. And then they’ll assume at least seven other people are in charge before they even consider me.”
My conversation with Nicole was over the phone and yet I could almost see her shrugging her shoulders with a sense of determination. “You can’t take it personally, because you don’t want to be that shitty person that gets mad at people all the time. And at the same time, I don’t feel the need to force myself to be ‘one of the guys.’ I just don’t expect to get special treatment for who I am.”
It was refreshing to hear a woman speak so openly about the struggles and biases she faces in the kitchen. “Look,” she told me after I had said as much. “If I’m going to say something, I have no problem standing by it. This is not about being salty or being marginalized. These are just important things to talk about.”
The thing about inequality…
While the topic has certainly surfaced in the last few years, cooking is not an industry that will address inequalities head on.
“If I started to get bothered by the gender inequalities, I’d be such a hypocrite. I can’t make it about race and myself, or gender and myself, if I’m not also thinking about things like minimum wage or supporting families. I can’t make it about me if I’m not going to make it about the whole kitchen.”
At this point, I stopped Nicole to ask if she was referring to her current kitchen at Presidio. “Patrick [Cullen], the owner of Presidio, has extended himself to pay higher wages for the positions,” she responded, clearly pleased to be part of a restaurant that cares about everyone in its employ.
This is no small feat to be pleased about. There are superstar restaurants in Chicago that cost an arm and a leg, figuratively, for a meal and yet their cooks are paid bare minimum wage. These aren’t just any cooks; they’re some of the most highly trained and technically skilled cooks to be found in the country. These same great talents are crushed with the responsibility and pressure of working at an acclaimed restaurant for over twelve hours a day, churning out perfection per plate, only to earn around $13 an hour. Proof that cooks truly do it for the love and the (insane?) experience, not for the money.
…is that, luckily, it’s starting to be addressed. But not enough.
NoMa, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen, recently made one of the dishwashers–who has been with them for over a decade–a partner in the business.
“They wouldn’t have done that if the money wasn’t there or if they weren’t trying to position themselves to grow their staff and educate their people,” Nicole explained passionately. “If more restaurants thought like that, there would be real room for change.”
The conversation circled naturally back to Presidio. “We pay above industry standards. It was something that was discussed before I got brought on. Everyone in my kitchen got raises and none of them quit when I came on, which was a comment not just on my ability to pick things up and make the transition easy but also a testament to their work environment and their wages.” She paused to take a breath and then, “I would never work for a place that took advantage of people financially.”
The changes need to come from the top
“I’m a flexible leader,” Nicole muses when asked about how she likes to run her kitchen. “I don’t have that much going on in my own personal life and so I’m willing to step up and let other people maintain their relationships. I prioritize people’s family lives.”
When a woman in a leadership position assumes a role and exhibits empathy, there are those who take advantage. “That’s when I check them,” Nicole asserts. “They can’t prioritize their personal lives and not perform their duties. They have to know when I let them go early…it’s a privilege, not a right.” And Nicole is not afraid of making that distinction known.
At Presidio, the kitchen is primarily male apart from Nicole and one female cook. “I don’t think she’s looking to me to be her mentor. This is a job to her. She knows what she’s good at and she supports her family. I support her in doing that.” For heads of kitchens to recognize and support their kitchen staff’s priorities is the first step to creating a positive workspace.
Knowing all of this, why do you do it?
“99 percent of the time, it sucks.” Nicole does not beat around the bush.
“There’s no protection in the kitchen. You can’t afford to be slow or forgetful or loud or tired. At first, I did it for the camaraderie. There’s nothing like getting through a difficult service with a crew that’s become like your family. It was exciting. I felt like I was working towards something. But it’s different now. The people I came up with are all getting positions like mine. We can’t air our complains when we’re in charge. Now it’s like I have more of a point to prove to myself, which is, ‘Oh, so you’ve finally gotten where you wanted to be? Now what?’”
Now that Nicole has taken over the reigns as Executive Chef at Presidio, the next steps will be reflecting her style in the menu while helping to guide the restaurant’s shift in identity. “We’re reconfiguring what’s on the menu but also how we make and print our menus.”
Curious diners can get a taste of what might be to come at the James Beard Sneak Peek Soiree in Chicago on April 17th. Nicole will be serving Hamachi Crudo with preserverd citrus, charred spring onion and radishes, staying true to her love for produce and spring ingredients.
“When a female chef gets famous, it’s usually for doing food that represents her ethnicity,” Nicole remarked. This is not that. “Spring will showcase a lot more changes,” Nicole said with a glint of excitement in her voice, unshaken by what she’s faced so far and as driven as always to shape what lies ahead.
P.S. If you’re hungry for more and don’t want to miss a single Behind Chicago Food story, be sure to subscribe by e-mail (completely spam-free with the option to unsubscribe at any time)!
P.P.S. Curious about my views on complimentary food, event coverage, and more? View my policy page here.