WE RUN THIS PLACE
Whether on the sound stages of Hollywood or in the intense, fast-paced, real life world of commercial kitchens, it’s rare that women run the back of the house — and exceptionally rare that they dominate it. In recent history, among restaurant executive chefs and James Beard winners, women are outnumbered about five to one. That’s why Nicole Craft’s majority-run kitchen staff at Ghent’s Bartlett House has given us something to chew on.
“I am metropolitan.” That’s what Nicole Craft declared to herself when she decided, in her early 20s, to move from her home state of Oklahoma to Barcelona, Spain. Throughout college, she’d managed restaurants in Oklahoma City. In Spain, that was her plan. But the language barrier made it tough to find a front-of-house job.
“I lied,” Craft said. “And they gave me a job in the kitchen.” She was completely new to back of house, and the executive chef — a Canadian woman — knew it right away. “She told me, ‘You don’t know anything. But I will teach you some things.’” Luckily, Craft was a fast learner.
Today, Craft helms the small kitchen at Bartlett House, a farm-to-table eatery in a historic brick building in Ghent, with a bakery and coffee counter, French striped chairs on a sunny patio, and a to-die-for brunch. Under her are her junior sous-chef, Jess Adee; MacKenzie Campbell in line and production; and Paulie, her rock-star dishwasher.
“It’s a small team,” Craft says, “but we make it happen.” And she says she’s been lucky to find women who learned as fast as she did. For both Jess and MacKenzie, who help knock out hundreds of dishes every brunch and dinner — like beet ravioli or curried salmon or Narragansett scallops with braised beluga lentils, sweet stem cauliflower, and pistachio dukkah — working with Craft at Bartlett House has been their first job in the back of house.
Before she arrived at Bartlett House, Craft did a stint in New York City, where she was ushered into the role of executive chef by the general manager at the Hideaway Tribeca. That same fervor for learning that kept her alive in the kitchen in Barcelona pushed her to keep learning in the kitchens of New York.
“I was doing little projects. I was at Roberta’s off and on, and then I started working for free at the Spotted Pig — going there after my shift at Hideaway and working until four in the morning,” Craft said. “That really introduced me to my style of what I wanted to do. They asked to hire me, but I was the executive chef at another restaurant — I just wanted to get the knowledge.”
Now, at Bartlett House, Craft is passing that knowledge on. “When Jess came on board, she had never worked in a kitchen. And she blossomed into this incredible force,” Craft gushes. “She’s 19 years old, and I made her my junior sous-chef.”
But as she works with younger women, Craft thinks back on what she’s learned from other women who were with her along the way. When thinking back on the Canadian chef at the restaurant in Barcelona, she recalls, “There is one thing that she taught me that I will never forget. I was very, very hard on myself. She came to me one day and said, ‘Would you talk to a four-year-old the way you talk to yourself? Talk to yourself like you would talk to a small child. Be more gentle to yourself, and you’ll be more confident and grow and encourage yourself.’
“That wisdom isn’t about cooking,” she continues, “but generally, I see it happen in my kitchen, too. These girls want to be awesome, and they want to be careful, because they care about what they’re doing. I tell them: Don’t beat yourself about messing something up. We’re not robots. You don’t want to put yourself down because it’s not going to empower you to do anything.”
It’s a philosophy that serves the girls well at Bartlett House, where brunch is as crazy as it gets for the kitchen staff. But Craft can handle anything once she has an espresso, and meanwhile, Jess and McKenzie flex their youth.
“Jess can run the whole line by herself,” Craft says with a laugh, pantomiming octopus-like arms flipping pans on and off burners. “And McKenzie loves having purpose, and helping us, and making sure we’re all good. That’s our team. And we’ve made it through some insane moments.”