Din­ner Party re­dux

Chef Alexan­dra Feswick throws an artsy din­ner party with a fem­i­nist agenda and T.O.’s top male chefs as servers

North York Post - - Food - by Caro­line Ak­sich

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 three­year 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 vagi­nadecked 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.

Chef Feswick (cen­tre) flanked by the Din­ner Party col­lab­o­ra­tors Missy Hui (left) and Suzanne Barr

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