Joy Magazine

The Accidental Sous Chef

Described as "artistic" by those who know her well, Megan Becklund only accidentally discovered her true medium: cooking. "When I was 15, I bussed tables at a restaurant along the river in Grants Pass. I had a bit of an incident with an unruly customer," she said. Megan admits she can be blunt.

The customer complained. The owner pulled his young employee aside to say he didn't want to lose her, but he couldn't keep her out front. "What do you think about working in the kitchen?" he asked. She thought it sounded fine, so off to dishwashing she went. It wasn't long though, before they put her on the salad line and launched a culinary career.

One decade later, alternating gigs as a snowboard instructor and cook at various establishments, the accidental chef reflects on her career progress while sipping ice water at the wine bar of Ashland's Liquid Assets restaurant. Now a sous (or "under") chef, Megan laughs as co-owner Denise Daehler-Piotter praises her employee.

"We're going to recommend Megan for 'Hell's Kitchen.' She would do awesome!" Denise said. "The girl who won this last round is just like Megan; she's young, energetic and very creative."

Apprentice chefs encounter long hours afoot working frenetically in crowded, cramped, hot quarters surrounded by leaping flames, flashing razor-sharp knives and countless blunt objects. Just to keep your attention, thin layers of slippery cooking oils manage to find their way to every handle and surface you touch.

Oh, and one last thing. The pay barely surpasses minimum wage until you get into the supervisory positions. Even then, serious financial rewards elude all but the most celebrated executive chefs.

Unpleasant as this all may seem, Megan and fellow sous chef, Maggie Trujillo of Lela's Cafe in Ashland, savor it. Megan says, "I love the artistry behind the cooking. I love putting out a beautiful plate. I like the adrenaline rush of pulling everything together quickly."

Like Megan, Maggie accidentally discovered her calling. "I took a job in college working at a restaurant in Boise, Idaho, that was really just a burrito joint. I found out I liked cooking better than college, so I enrolled in the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon."

Setting herself on a more direct career path than Megan's, the young graduate took a job with Hilton Hotels working banquets and catering, but was stifled somewhat in her creative expressions. Maggie says moving south was an easy choice after her husband, Jason, accepted his current position as Liquid Assets' executive chef.

These women, both in their mid 20s, have encountered and overcome a gender-bending anomaly in their chosen profession. Simply stated, males dominate commercial kitchens in numbers and influence; some do not welcome females. Denise notes, "Women in the [restaurant] kitchens ... that's not a very common thing."

Has this inequity affected these women? "For the most part, I've had good experiences," Megan says. "One place I worked had a head chef who had a problem working with a female. That was a learning experience on how to rise above that and stand my own ground. Once that was established, there was a level of respect there."

Maggie faced some harassment from an employer and left for the culinary institute. Since then, she's had mostly smooth sailing in what remains a man's world. Although it still rankles her to walk into a restaurant, resume in hand, only to hear, "We're not hiring servers today."

"I'll say, 'That's fine. Now would you please give my resume to the head chef?'" she says.

However, their own successes highlight a crumbling of that glass chef's hat. Only a change of goals can deter Megan's aspiration to executive chef status. Maggie plans to own her own restaurant one of these days. Advancement and opportunities await those willing to pay their dues, regardless of gender.

Settled for now after her roaming years, Megan likes her situation. "Southern Oregon is amazing. We have great vineyards and our local produce is outstanding. I'd like to be a part of putting this place on the map."

As if the next step of her part can wait no longer, the accidental sous chef secures an apron to her waist and returns once more to her kitchen.

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