Cooking Her Way to the Top: Chef Rossi on Feminism and Kosher Hot Dogs

"Rossi tells a story that deeply satisfies the consumers’ appetite."

The Raging Skillet isn’t like other food writing. There are no pictures. Chef Rossi doesn’t bother with the finer points of locally sourced organic vegetables. The recipes rely on her own systems of measurement: a dollop, a shake, a shot, a coffee cup. She believes dishes will work out, even without weighing ingredients to the gram or composing the perfect image (and appropriate filter) for Instagram. The only weddings Rossi writes about are ones she caters. When she writes about cooking, it’s to describe flipping thousands of burgers or deboning a hundred pounds of salmon. Her patience is thin, her work ethic tough.

Rossi lives out her childhood dream of being a rockstar through the kitchen: attention, power and celebrity. She celebrates this more than anything else. Her writing is funny and pretention-free. She repeats exaggerations and embellishments often, but this redundancy befits her personality. It is hard to imagine her taking anything too seriously. She battles it out, a constant storm blasting through convention and delicacy.

The way she writes is the way she lives and cooks: curt, confident and unpolished. It is impossible to imagine her laying forth the virtues of farm-to-table meals or fussing over just the right ingredient (if she fusses, it’s to be sure you use Velveeta, not “something fancy, like cheddar or Swiss”). She tumbled into cooking as a stoned teenager. Her passion lay dormant before becoming an exciting and necessary means of subsistence as a young queer woman in New York. One step, surefooted or slippery, led to the next. Now, she owns her own offbeat catering company and throws great parties.

More than a story about a woman interested in exposing the sexism of the male-dominated culinary world, The Raging Skillet presents a woman who knows how to fight for her ground. She never appears motivated by lofty ideals of equality. I asked Rossi about a moment in the end of the book when she writes, “Feminist? Shmeminist! Did they like the mango ginger sauce?”. She responded:

I never thought of myself as a feminist, just a take-no-prisoners, apologize-for-nothing babe who wanted to see some real sister power in this world, so um…yeah, looking back, I guess I was a feminist all along.

I think the word “feminist” is not as sexy-sounding a word as the word “power” is, but it means the same thing to me. We could always invent a new word…FEMPOWER! Yeah man! But until it catches on…I think “feminist” is still a very important word. A lot of words important to women are no the best sounding words; vagina, lesbian…it must have been a man who came up with “vagina,” don’t you think?

Her interest is more than equal rights or empowerment. It is power, plain and simple. Her story reassures us that women can be powerful, so long as they are tough enough. It’s all very American-Dreamlike: work hard to get out of the shit, and where you came from doesn’t matter. It’s easy to imagine Rossi rocking out to “Flawless” and nodding in agreement with Sheryl Sandberg as she talks about women who don’t let their voices be loud enough.

The first meal Rossi ever cooked was pizza bagels. Her mother cooked old-country Hungarian food from memory, stuffing her children round.  When the microwave arrived, her mother “seduced by an electrical lover, and the payback was far more rewarding than a measly marriage with children. The payback was time.” Home cooked food went out the window. Rossi hated the microwaved dinners and so took matters into her own hands, discovering the “elusive sensation of being the only one who could provide what everyone wanted was in my grasp, wedged between the kitchen mitts and the platter of cheese ravioli. It was a lesson I would never forget: Power is delicious. And so are pizza bagels.” In that moment, cooking became the means to climb up and out, define her life on her own terms. Rossi realizes the kitchen is a place where she can be in control and be creative. She surmounts the sleepy world of suburban, Jewish New Jersey, abandoning her parents’ anachronistic dreams of marriage, religion and microwaves: she becomes very now.

The book figures in a wide range of chef’s memoirs that lift the curtain behind the comfortable, curated dinner table. There is something sexy about kitchens, about their sweat, yelling and perseverance. The memoir of a chef offers a window into a closed world where different rules apply, often ruled by testosterone and machismo. It makes the other side of the restaurant knowable for the curious reader, but keeps her at a safe distance from the muck and mire. The pace and danger of a kitchen is exhilarating, centered on debauchery and butchery.

Rossi tells a story that deeply satisfies the consumers’ appetite. She went out on her own and worked through the burns, cuts and bruises until she made it. This kind of narrative is all-too common in the genre: Anthony Bourdain made it famous with his tales of drug addiction and perseverance (and Rossi is a huge fan). Gabrielle Hamilton treats similar questions in Blood, Bones, and Butter (a book Rossi is reading now—and loves). Both challenge the dreamy domestic food blog world, in which cakes are decorated just-so, and food always matches the season. These women cook to support themselves, and fight for the right to do so.

Unlike Hamilton, Rossi wastes no breath on delicate, considered descriptions of food or tender moments around the dinner table. Her subject is that rage against where she comes from. She salivates over control and self-determination, rather than creating a cozy domestic space where the food appears effortless and a natural continuation of a woman’s body. The Raging Skillet offers a delightful break from precious food writing and the glorification of domesticity so often implicit in food blogs. It is also indicative of the complex narratives that surround contemporary feminism.

Her fempower narrative holds tight to values of ownership and identity recognition at odds with some feminist arguments that focus more on social revolution. These social elements of feminism are more or less absent from Rossi’s experience: she is right in assigning herself a new word. Equal access to power and control motivates Rossi from those first days watching pre-shredded mozzarella melt over bagels in her mother’s oven. She works until she arrives and never looks back. Nevertheless, The Raging Skillet stands out among food writing by women for its emphasis on work and independence. As Rossi writes, “It’s not easy, but it’s also anything but boring.”

*****

Nina Sparling currently lives in Paris where she is a middle school English teaching assistant. Between classes, she writes, waits tables, and bicycles to pass the time. After a year and a half working as a cheesemonger in Brooklyn, she likes to surprise people with fun facts about curd and convince the French that Americans can make cheese too. She also keeps an irregular blog, Salt to Taste, about cooking and eating without regard for details or Instagram.

Read more Essays:

  • http://chezkiva.com Chez Kiva

    I like this writing style. Keep it up Nina, you will soon be competing with Croque Camille, the world’s foremost ‘disappearing’ American/Parisian foodie. Paris, après le déluge, must certainly be awash with white space.