Adler is a peaceable cook, and a pragmatic one. She is the author of one cookbook acclaiming thrift and grace ("An Everlasting Meal”), and a new one this April ("Something Old, Something New: Classic Recipes Revised”) that’s a meditation on recipes of yore — and on remaking them in a simpler, less expensive way. She lives in an 1840-era home she and her husband bought on impulse, where they’re raising their toddler, a towheaded boy who has recently learned how to say “spatula.”
Living her relatively quiet life in a relatively quiet place, Adler — a former chef at Chez Panisse in the Bay Area and at a small restaurant in Georgia — now seems far from the hubbub ripping through the bright-lights, big-city restaurant world. But as male celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and John Besh topple after sexual misconduct allegations, they leave a question in their wakes. For female cooks at home and at work, after the big question of being safe is tackled, what does freedom look like?
In 2012, Adler wrote a New Yorker piece asserting that in Anthony Bourdain’s TV show “No Reservations,” he “bathes everything, even if it’s naturally quiet and normal, in brutishness.” She objected to the “swagger” and “bluster” of Bourdainisms such as, “I’m . . . quivering with desire here,” and “I would jerk a rusty butter knife over my best friend’s throat just for this [soup].” Bourdain wasn’t happy with her critique, commenting that she had mistaken a joke for bluster. Adler had, it seemed, made an enemy.
Five years later, she caught Bourdain’s eye again when reviewing Canadian restaurateur Jen Agg’s memoir, "I Hear She’s a Real Bitch,” in the New York Times. The memoir is blowzy, direct and, yes, swaggering — loosely reminiscent of Bourdain’s own writing. Agg writes that she “can’t stand how vilified teenage girls and women are for their sexuality,” and proceeds to chronicle her own sex life and specific instances of sexism. She curses. She bridles at being labeled a “mean girl” in magazine profiles.
Adler wasn’t a fan. It’s “a feminist mandate of a very specific variety — the kind that invites, or gives permission to, women to act like stereotypical men,” she wrote. Bourdain, who had blurbed Agg’s book as “beautifully written,” retorted that Adler’s review was “a badly written turdlet.”
Fast-forward to 2018: For New York magazine, Adler chronicled what she ate for several days, including an egg she cooked in a hand-forged spoon in the coals of a fire at her carriage house. Bourdain suggested Adler’s article read as satire. Criticisms of her life began to bubble up among his 7 million followers like water in a glass: “Insufferable.” “Pretentious.” “Navel-gazing.” Even “vomitorious.”
Bourdain, asked about Adler’s work, his tweet and the comments that ensued, emailed, “As with any writer of note, I feel Ms. Adler’s work should speak for itself. I was obviously very unhappy with her review of Jen Agg’s book. But that’s one person’s opinion.”
Adler laughs about “Eggspoongate" now. “People want women in food media to be ingénues or broads,” she says, adding that she is neither. “I don’t find it terribly graceful to curse if you don’t need to, or talk too much about things that are only important to you. It’s just not how I was brought up. When you are resistant to falling easily into one of those two categories, that can feel unsettling.” She had built a fire because the former carriage house is neither heated nor insulated. It’s where she writes, high in the rafters, like a mouse, to make money to help feed her family. As for the egg, it was the first thing she had eaten after four hours trying to thaw pipes.
“I didn’t light a stove because I had a fire going,” she marvels. “How is that anything but practical?”
A woman in a kitchen has been a hot-button topic since 1963, when Betty Friedan’s "The Feminine Mystique” — a searing condemnation of women’s unpaid domestic labor — hit shelves. Since then, many women with a yen for a whisk and a stove have grappled with the question of whether they truly find pleasure in kitchen work. Many do, but in 2018, the question is complicated further, especially in professional kitchens. Beyond the harassment and assault that continue to plague women (and some men), there is a sense in some restaurants that if women don’t conform to the stereotypically male image of a chef — the loud and threatening Gordon Ramsay, for example — they won’t make it in the industry.
Not all chefs conform to an aggressive model. Adler briefly apprenticed for Gabrielle Hamilton, co-chef and owner of Prune in New York City, during brunch service. One morning, Adler had been struggling to get Dutch baby pancakes and eggs en cocotte in and out of a very hot oven. It was a juggling act in a pint-sized space, and no one could squeeze by when the oven door was open.
One morning, that included the chef herself. Adler recalls Hamilton saying quietly, “If I were a different kind of chef and this were a different kind of restaurant, I would count ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5’ while you have the oven door open, and then I would slam it,” before walking away. (Hamilton, reached for comment, clarified that she was joking.) But Adler remembers being grateful that it wasn’t a different kind of chef, nor a different kind of restaurant, and calls this “one of the kindest things she ever did.” She never saw Hamilton lose her temper.
Options for how to act can feel more limited for women trying to make it farther down the pecking order.
If, in addition to being aggressive, the professional kitchen is a hyper-sexualized space — which a writer in the New York Times credited in part to "Kitchen Confidential,” Bourdain’s memoir — some women enter the industry ready to play ball on both fronts. Maybe they wear bustiers and tons of makeup. Maybe they write sexed-up, swear-stained memoirs, as Agg did. Tiffani Faison, a Boston chef who gained notoriety on “Top Chef,” recently wrote at Eater that her likability shouldn’t dictate her success.
There’s hope that the #MeToo movement has sparked some reflection among managers in restaurant kitchens, and that the era of toxicity might be winding down. “It’s a much healthier industry these days,” says chef Ashley Christensen, owner of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh and other North Carolina restaurants, who has spoken out about sexual harassment. She is optimistic that yelling and fear-based management is starting to become “part of the past.”
To be who you are in your home or work kitchen, and to have your choice be respected. It might sound simple, or small, but as any woman who has ever had a random man yell, “Smile!” at her as she walks down the street knows, freedom can be a complicated thing.
Adler doesn’t appreciate being pigeonholed.
These days, she has mixed feelings about the piece she wrote about Bourdain and thinks she’ll avoid invectives, as a form, going forward. (Her Agg review, however, she defends as a paid piece of social criticism, not an attack, though she added, “I dislike writing anything negative.”) She is working on a new book — an A-to-Z encyclopedia dedicated to using leftovers — and is a contributing writer for Vogue, on topics as eclectic as curing a Peking duck in her window and making mille-feuille for love.