By: Mary Beth McAndrews
I grew up in the kitchen, but I don’t mean the one in my house. I spent my childhood in the professional kitchen of a large hotel in Annapolis, Maryland. I sat in industrial-sized mixing bowls, I drew pictures for the line cooks, I learned to absolutely love food. This was all thanks to my mom, Beth Rocca, who worked as the hotel’s sous chef and, eventually, executive chef.
Telling people that your mom is a chef is always met with variations of the same phrase: “Oh my god, you must eat amazing meals.” It’s true, I really did, because being picky wasn’t an option in our household. But while having a chef for a parent is truly a unique experience, it wasn’t always a positive one. As a chef, you give up the rights to holidays and weekends; instead, you become familiar with late nights, 80-hour work weeks and missing out on milestones for friends and family. So, why would anyone do it?
“I have always wanted to cook. My mom was a wonderful cook and I loved being in the kitchen as a child,” my mother, Beth Rocca says. “I received a special knife when I was 21 years old and that sort of put things in motion.” She also has a gift with knowing how to pair and create flavors. This always made leftover nights in our house something special, because my mom could take anything in our fridge and make an absolutely unique meal. The only downside was there was no recipe, so we could never recreate one of her creations.
One of my mom’s strongest qualities is resilience, which is a necessity as a woman working in the kitchen.
One of my mom’s strongest qualities is resilience, which is a necessity as a woman working in the kitchen. I always assumed it was difficult working in such a male-dominated industry. Recent statistics reported at the 2016 Women Chefs and Restaurateurs conference showed that women make up less than 7 percent of executive chefs in leading culinary organizations. Kitchens have a rough reputation where no one is safe from ridicule and women aren’t safe from sexual harassment.
I was surprised to learn that for my mom, however, that really wasn’t the case.
“I started working as a cook in a professional kitchen when I was 22. I think I was naive so I never thought about the difference between a man and a woman in the kitchen,” she says. “I put my head down and worked as hard as I could and warned the respect of my co-workers. As I got older, I did start to see a difference in how some people treated men and women differently. I do not let this bother me, but I also do not let people walk all over me either!”
It’s true, my mom doesn’t let anybody disrespect her. Whenever she hears one of her female employees say, “I need a man to help me with this,” she’ll turn around and tell them point blank that they need to stop depending on men to help them. If a man asks her if she needs help carrying something, she’ll walk right past them, carrying a large box like it’s nothing. If it wasn’t apparent enough already, my mom is a big proponent of independence.
Her resilience came into play again when trying to raise my two younger brothers and me while working full time in a kitchen.
“When I have to work long hours, there is definitely some motherly guilt. I always worked hard at home to make sure my children were taken care of and that my hours did not affect them in a negative way,” she says. ”My husband and I worked opposite hours for years so our kids would have at least one parent present. This has not been a challenge until this year, when I took a job to open a restaurant.”
The restaurant she helped open is called The Lighthouse Bistro, located in Annapolis, Maryland, which currently has 4.5 stars on Yelp. “The restaurant’s mission is to employ the homeless or people that are at risk of homelessness,” she says. The Bistro is a part of Annapolis’ Lighthouse Shelter, where many employees either currently live or have lived in the past. My mom’s dream has been to work for a restaurant that makes food for change, so she knew she had to be a part of this mission.
To make that mission come to life, my mom has to dedicate her entire life to the restaurant, which is difficult when trying to raise a 15-year-old son. She had just moved across the country, and her husband had to stay in California for work, so she needed to find other support systems through her friends, parents and even myself. After many long days and borderline sleepless nights, she was able to successfully open The Bistro and help it thrive.
Ultimately, my mom has loved being a chef, despite the myriad of challenges and obstacles along the way. She is able to pour her heart and soul into her cooking, creating something the world can enjoy one bite at a time. She is also to take her culinary passions and use it to help other people through the mission of The Lighthouse Bistro.
For the aspiring chefs out there, she has these words of advice: “Work hard and start at the bottom. Learn about the whole restaurant-work as many positions as you can. Practice and be passionate and love everything that you cook.”