Chef Alexandra Feswick throws an artsy dinner party with a feminist agenda
Toronto's top male chefs will be working as servers
Chef Feswick (centre) flanked by the Dinner Party collaborators Missy Hui (left) and Suzanne Barr
There’s no crying in Alexandra Feswick’s kitchen.
“Instead, we’ll go outside and talk about it. I get it, and you’re allowed to have all the feelings you want, but we’re here to cook,” says the Drake Hotel’s executive chef, who is resurrecting her Dinner Party idea, an event that combines art and cooking with a feminist agenda.
Feswick knows that kitchens can be brutal. The job is not only physically taxing, but can be emotionally demanding, too, especially when you end up in a kitchen run by a Gordon Ramsay–esque tyrant. Feswick weathered her share of sexist, macho bosses before helming the kitchen at the now-shuttered, then-raved about Brockton General. But even as a top chef, she felt a disrespect she attributes to her being a woman.
At Brockton General, people would often assume Feswick wasn’t in charge. Instead, they’d look to the one man in the kitchen, a pup of a cook that barely knew a béchamel from a hollandaise. Feswick recalls signing off on the delivery of a whole pig; the delivery person refused to let her bring the hog to the counter to be butchered, something she had done countless times before as a chef.
“I have almost broken my back trying to be the same as the guys,” says Feswick.
Over the years, incidents like these made it obvious to Feswick that, if women want a seat at the chef’s table, they’ll need to make their own space. In 2012 she put on the first incarnation of the Dinner Party: a dinner cooked by female chefs and served by their male colleagues. The event, an allusion to Judy Chicago’s art piece The Dinner Party, was even served around a triangular table.
“When I used to tell people I work at a restaurant, they would often assume I was a server,” says Feswick.
In an effort to dismantle these service industry stereotypes, she’s asked male chefs (Grant van Gameren, Patrick Kriss, Michael Hunter) to play the part of waiters.
“I don’t want to put on events that don’t involve men. I don’t want to be a ‘female chef.’ I want to be a chef who puts on community events,” says Feswick.
The Tempered Room’s Bertrand Alépée not only served at the first incarnation of the Dinner Party — his partner Ruth Silver introduced Feswick to the Judy Chicago piece that inspired this event. Alépée’s beyond excited that after a three-year sabbatical, the dinner’s back.
“It’s so much fun for me to be a server. I get to be a goofball, although I hope I don’t drop a tray full of champagne flutes on someone again,” says Alépée.
Alépée thinks events such as the Dinner Party are necessary for discouraging old school mentalities in the kitchen.
“You shouldn’t have to justify being good at your job,” the father of two girls says.
“I’ve been identified as a ‘female chef’ more than I ever have been as a ‘chef,’ ” says Feswick, who’s been blatantly told before that she’s been included in events as the token woman. Feswick feels conflicted.
“There just are less women cooking,” she acknowledges.
And although she doesn’t expect the representation of female chefs to be skewed by the media (kitchens are still male dominated), she gets particularly peeved when she sees best-of lists or culinary juries that include few and sometimes no ladies (ahem, San Pellegrino).
“If kitchens are only 30 per cent women, then that’s that,” Feswick says. We shouldn’t expect to see 50 per cent of kitchen coverage to be women; however, what coverage there is, is not representative of the women who are there. According to Feswick, the first step to addressing the problem is to “show women being leaders.”
Fabbrica’s chef de cuisine Missy Hui is a Dinner Party vet, having cooked at each chapter of the event.
“This is an event that highlights all the best parts about working as a chef in Toronto: community, creativity, amazing ingredients,” Hui says. “This dinner really is a collaborative effort.… Everyone brings different knowledge and experience to the table, and I greatly value their input and critiques.”
Hui will be collaborating with nine other chefs to create one of three dinners that will be served simultaneously. (That’s right, 30 chefs, three seven-course dinners, one event.) Dinner guests will be entered into a lottery, not knowing which group of 10 chefs will be preparing their dinner until they arrive at the Drake Commissary.
Previous years have seen a more traditional dinner service around a triangular table draped with place settings sewn by Feswick. For this year’s event, the theatrics have been amplified. The Drake’s in-house curator, Mia Nielsen, will be working to bring Judy Chicago’s artwork to life. Instead of vagina-decked plates, though, Feswick has asked her chefs to bring the vaginal motif into the plating of their dishes. According to Hui, the vaginal-plating motif was integrated into previous iterations of the Dinner Party too.
“Initially it’s a bit jarring and maybe even a bit uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the food,” says Hui, whose dessert Ova, Choc-clit, Bloody Macaron managed to be both punny and delicious.
After the dishes are washed and the props put away, Feswick hopes that people will remember the Dinner Party not for its puns or its vaginas, but for the chefs.
“I hope that we’re creating a list of people to draw from,” she says, before asserting, “People won’t have to wonder where female chefs are running things in this city.”
The Dinner Party takes place Oct. 29 at the Drake Commissary at 128 Sterling Rd., $150 per person.