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Merde on the Mind

Features

Merde on the Mind

Compound Butter

Christine Flynn, a chef working out of Toronto, is a woman of many talents. While her roots lie in the kitchen, Flynn has since expanded her reach through projects such as an amazing faux celebrity chef instagram and cofounding a networking group for women in the industry. Fun, insightful, welcoming, (and did we mention talented??), Christine is an inspiration for anyone interested in following their passion. Her creativity knows no bounds and that coupled with her endless drive and interest in helping others succeed has allowed Flynn to make deep connections within the food world and produce awesome work both as a chef and a photographer, writer, etc. We were honored to be able to chat with Christine about her thoughts on coming up in kitchens, what it means to be a woman in a man's industry, and more. 

So we all know you’re pretty rad, but we want to know a bit more about where you came from! What drove you to leave Nova Scotia and learn to cook? Thinking back on your life, can you remember any specific moment when you realized you wanted to work with food or was it always a consistent passion of yours?

Food has been such a constant pleasure in my life. I moved a lot as a kid, from Nova Scotia, to England to back to Western Canada and on from there.  Places, people, even cultural norms would constantly change, but at home, I knew that no matter where I was, we’d be sitting down at 5:00 to eat dinner as a family and that often, it would be something deeply comforting and familiar. As I grew older, I made these same dishes for my friends. Chicken cacciatore, or pasta with italian sausages. Proper caesar salad with anchovies. I studied history in university, but as I wrapped up my undergrad, I realized that my passion for food could be more than just a hobby.

As you worked your way up in the kitchen and culinary world, do you feel like being a woman had any effect on how you were treated or your work was valued? Do you feel like it helped or hindered your progress in terms of professional development and movement?

It’s hard when you are inside something to be able to know if it could have been different. There are times when I used to think “Oh, that person just isn’t listening to me because I’m a chick,” but with a little reflection, I often reconsider how my team responded to me. Maybe its because I was a kid, running a brigade, and I didn’t know how to lead people properly. It’s rare now that people discount my opinion, or talk over me, but I think part of it is I’ve grown up a lot, and I understand that different kinds of people need different kinds of mentorship.

At the same time, even now when I do events I notice I’ll get put on the dessert course, or given maybe a more menial task that a male chef who has a similar background. There’s still room for improvement in how women are perceived and treated in kitchens. Patriarchy hurts everyone. It creates kitchen cultures that are destructive, demoralizing and unsustainable. But creating a more inclusive and positive culture means we need everyone on board and you kind of have to just let the slights go and show people there is a better way.

You gained wide recognition for your hilarious and over the top Chef Jacques La Merde Instagram account, which you operated anonymously for quite some time. What went into developing the Chef Jacques persona? You’re a self proclaimed “bro,” do you feel like Chef Jacques is a reflection of a little bro chef inside of you?

It never ceases to amaze me how many people who I’ve gotten to know over the past 6 months tell me “Wow. I thought it was a persona, but it's really just you.” People attach value to things based on their experience and worldview. In the case of JLM, most people assumed “Alright, this talented culinary person is clearly a guy,” and just went from there. If you look at the captions, I was careful to use gender neutral pronouns, and even names for the most part (Pat, Leslie, etc.). Jose was the only clear man, and actually my mum mentioned to me later she assumed it was “Josie.” For people who know me, they know the way that I speak, and I act (a bit hysterical at times, a bit catastrophic) and it's not a stretch to see JLM in my everyday personality.

Coming back to Chef Jacques, how do you think his popularity affected the public’s view of men that work in food? Do you think once it was revealed you were a woman this changed how people thought of Jacques?

I’m still unsure. I know a lot of people were happy it was a girl, but I also know there remains a huge portion of the followers who think it's a guy. I have been careful to disassociate myself from the character in many ways, and not appear on the account as myself simply because I want the idea of JLM to continue to exist. I know that sounds super weird.

I don’t think my being a woman affected how people think about men in the industry, but I hope it gave people pause and let them know you never know who is standing right next to you or what they might have to offer. Am I the best chef? Absolutely not. But do I know a thing or two? Could I maybe connect you with someone who could help you get where you need to go? Heck yeah! I’ve had some pretty hilarious moments over the past year where people just steamrolled me and assumed the worst, especially when I was anonymous. A local photographer explained to me how to food style and I remember noting the irony since I’d just been published on the cover of the national paper’s Art Section, and even more recently, a chef at an event spent 10 minutes “teaching me” how to whip butter -- she had worked at events with me for over 5 years. Just because I’m not the loudest or biggest personality in the room, doesn’t mean I don’t have something to offer. I stay quiet and ask a lot of questions, I learn more from working with other people than they learn from me when they don’t take a moment to ask what I’m thinking or doing. When people realized the person behind JLM was a girl from Toronto who runs a bunch of restaurants that make salad, I think it was a positive thing for the industry as a whole. Innovation starts with being curious, and we all need to ask more questions and take inspiration from others whenever we can.

Chef Jacques has a right hand man named Jose, who you have mentioned is based on a real person, specifically a dishwasher, that you worked with. What role does Jose play for your character and how do you feel it reflects and represents kitchen staff like prep cooks and dishwashers that often operate behind the scenes but are nonetheless invaluable to a restaurant’s operation?

We are quick to celebrate the people who run kitchens and are the faces of restaurants. It's a hard job and it takes a lot of work to get to a point where you are running a kitchen. At the same time, there are so many unsung heroes in restaurant culture, so many people who enable restaurants to operate smoothly.  Jose was the sleeper hit of the account, I think because most of us know, and deeply rely on someone like that, and they don’t always get the recognition (at least publicly) that they deserve.  

You are very focused the idea of egalitarian kitchens in terms of hierarchy, race, and gender, as well as other existing factors. How do you this can be achieved and what are the benefits of a an equal kitchen, as opposed to the classically stereotyped strict, stressful, and hierarchical kitchen?

I’m actually not opposed to hierarchy. I grew up in the brigade system and it taught me discipline, respect and the value of hard work. I learned how to do things well because it made me feel good to complete a task well, and not because I was paid (since often in those days, I wasn’t). In terms of gender and race there’s been a lot of progress in the culinary world in the past decade. Kitchen culture is inherently merit based, and that’s a wonderful thing. If you work hard, you are valuable, and especially now, when there seems to be a shortage of cooks in every city, being present, eager and hardworking supersedes things like gender and race.  

I love walking into my restaurants and feeling like it's a mini UN. I remember coming into work after the Nice attack and seeing a group of team members sitting together sharing lunch and talking about some new album or something. There were like 5 countries represented, and one guy from a Toronto suburb. In a time where so many people want to draw lines in the sand and build walls or whatever, it was really an amazing moment.  

As a female led publication, we are inspired and excited by everything you have been able to achieve and the work you are currently doing for women of all industries. Can you tell us a bit more about your work with the Women Hospitality League? What advice do you have for young people starting their careers, specifically those in food and hospitality?

For me, it took forever to build a network of industry women I could call friends. Maybe because when I started, there were fewer of us, or maybe because, like many women who opt to work in food, I was a bit of a misfit when I was younger and was bullied badly by skinny girls wearing Gap twinsets and dangly earrings while I lumbered around my Jr High wearing oversized cat t-shirts. Women often scared me, and because I was intimidated I automatically felt competitive. My friend Kyla Zanardi and I created the Women’s Hospitality League as a way to put collaboration over competition and to get a bunch of women together to talk about how to make the industry better. By forging relationships, and connecting people with similar experiences we really created a special bubble with a lot of support that I don’t think I would have otherwise felt like I had. Knowing I can call up even a competitor and pick her brain is pretty amazing, and something that’s really helped me over the past few years working at iQ.

Last but not least, we’d love to hear about your upcoming projects. What exciting things do you have in the works?  

Honestly the past year has been a bit of a blur. While I was anonymous I often spent all week at my regular job, then weekends shooting or traveling to locations or whatever. People thought I was just taking a lot of vacations. I also didn’t get any sympathy for being flat out exhausted all the time. I counted the other day, and I was on something like 40 flights over the past year. It sounds glamorous, but it definitely wasn’t. The only thing worse than a 6:00 am flight is an 11:00 pm redeye. So while I’m still working with some different media outlets and charities, I’m mostly focussing on iQ and participating in events and people in my own community. I want to make a difference in the industry, and I want to help young people avoid the pitfalls I stumbled into and keep a sense of humour about things; where better to do that than at home?

You can keep up with Christine's happenings on her Instagram, and be sure to follow Chef Jacques La Merde's antics on his Instagram as well.

Illustrations by Jaya Nicely