Being a woman in a male dominated food industry is a daily struggle, but Cat Turner – head chef of Match Bamboo Lounge in Atlanta, GA – makes it look easy. We sat down with her for an honest discussion on what it’s really like being the first female head chef of a lounge in the city.
Tell me about your journey to becoming a chef. I know you’ve had an amazing experience, so just give our readers a little background on what it took for you to get here.
I grew up in Alabama and I’m a third generation chef. My grandmother and my mom are both chefs and I grew up watching them cook my entire life. They catered everyone’s weddings and every church event [laughs]. So, it’s been pretty much slave labor since day one [laughs]. I have no problem with the heat or the hard work. I come from a long line of hardworking women. I studied a little in Europe, used to work for the Marriott-Ritz Carlton hotels, and now I’m here at Elleven45 as the first head female chef at a lounge in Atlanta.
How has that experience been for you to have that title of the first black female head chef at Elleven and then the title of first female head chef at an Atlanta lounge?
It has its ups and downs. It’s always surprising to people when they see me come out of the kitchen because they’re like “that’s not you back there cooking in the kitchen!” I’m like ‘Yes, it is! You don’t see these little sweat beads?’ [laughs]. This is my passion. I love it. I’m back there making my own sauces; I’m back there prepping whole chickens. I really believe in using the freshest of ingredients and putting all of my heart and soul in every piece of food. I want people to love it.
What are a few issues you’ve encountered being a woman in the kitchen manning a staff?
Any of the stereotypes that come with being very assertive and being very direct. People just take it as “oh, she’s a…” And you’re like ‘No! White is white, black is black. This is what I need, this is what time I need it, and this is what I need it to look like.’ People are always turned off by that; I don’t understand, but I do run into that a lot. And, just pretty much people feeling that they can run over me because I am a woman, which they are sadly mistaken [laughs]. I definitely put my foot down. I used to get in trouble in my last kitchen because they would tell me to quit intimidating all the guys. So, I’m the bully in the kitchen most of the time, standing up for all the girls.
How do you think you’ve set a good example for the other women on your staff?
The one female staffer that I do have grew up kind of like me with a lot of brothers, so she’s used to working around a lot of guys. As you know, this industry is very male dominated, so I think just her watching the battles I go through daily is strengthening her, her skills, and her backbone to be able to someday run her own kitchen. That’s what I hope. Each of my staff – I’m trying to condition them on a path, so that one day they can be great and we can just continue to build.
You guys have a new day party once a month with a very unique name. Tell me a little about the menu you created specifically for that.
The menu I created for “The After Brunch” – a party for the tardy, but cool – is pretty much inspired and infused with Martell cognac. It’s a French cognac. I put it in a lot of the sauces, I also put it in the brine for the smoked salmon, and it’s in the brisket. I tried to infuse it as much as I could in the menu to give it something different. A lot of people have never cooked with liquor; a lot of people have never ever had liquor-infused food. So to be able to do that and offer it to our people here at Elleven45, I’m extremely excited.
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What do you think the best part of being at Elleven has been so far?
Being able to reach a different demographic. Before, it was more corporate and celebrity clientele. Here, it’s a completely different side. I get to meet people and actually come out and experience people’s reaction to my food, so that’s been pretty cool.
What has been both the best reaction you’ve gotten about your food?
The best reaction was for Super Bowl. It was Super Bowl Weekend and we were extremely busy. It was my first busy weekend here, and everyone was kind of expecting me to fail. I didn’t. And when I left the kitchen, no one could believe that it was me and my team that prepared enormous amounts of chicken wings. When I walked out, everyone stood and gave me applause. For someone to appreciate you and actually take the time to stand for you, and clap for you, it just touched my heart.
What do you feel sets your cooking and recipes apart from every other chef in Atlanta?
Everything is made from scratch with me. I have no problem going in the kitchen and making everything like sauces, bread…any of those things. I love to go purchase things and experience different things and bring it back to the kitchen to inspire a whole new menu. Following recipe books is cool, but it really takes a really good chef to come and put soul into the recipe and make it come alive and touch people.
And of course, I have to ask the most tired question of them all: what has been the best dish you’ve created?
I think pretty much everyone here would say the Chilean sea bass. It’s prepared with rice, roasted tomatoes and sautéed spinach and then we make a beurre blanc and pour it over the top.
If you were to give inspiration to someone looking to step into the shoes that you’re currently walking in, what would it be?
You have to have a passion for it. It’s a very hard job. TV glorifies being a chef, but it’s extremely hard. I’ve been through it to get where I am and I’m just very grateful. You just got to stay on the path and sometimes you’ve got to encourage yourself.