Sydney Harkins is a personal chef and caterer, and a sous chef with the local collective of "rebel chefs" called Gastreauxnomica. She is currently working on starting a new catering company as well as working on pop-ups at Corporate Brew & Draft in Baton Rouge.
What attracted you to being a chef, being in the culinary industry?
I was working with Whole Foods, I was offered a promotion with them in the prepared foods department, which required me to transfer to New Orleans to the uptown location. At the time, I was 19, taking on my first supervisor job, but I was working the night shifts. Every day when I got home, "Chopped" was on TV. I would just watch that. Anytime they would say a dish, ingredient or technique I didn’t know, I would go back and look it up. It became this obsession that developed into a fascination.
You didn’t go to culinary school?
No, I did not. I’m obnoxiously rebellious and auto-didactic in that I feel anything a school could teach me, I can buy a textbook and teach myself twice as fast and for free.
What is one dish you love to make?
I love stir fries because they’re really a catch-all for whatever is in your fridge. What matters is your sauce, and they vary region by region, country by country.
Who are some of the people in the food world around here that inspire you?
Outside of the local world, I love Alton Brown. He taught me everything I know through the TV.
Locally, it's Elton Hyndman. My first job was at Nino's. He’s a very good teacher. He has a paternal essence to him in working with his team. He’s definitely someone whose menu I look to for inspiration at times. I love to see what he’s doing. I hope to model my culinary style after his.
What do you feel like the image of a female chef is?
I think it’s one thing to look at Food Network and to see Giada De Laurentiis up there with her pretty outfit, tossing a pasta that her staff made. It’s another thing to be a female among the men, sweating over a grill, spending six hours cutting tomatoes, doing intense kitchen work. I want to bash that perception that whenever a female is a chef, that she has to be done up and pretty as a chef, too.
When I’m in a kitchen, I don’t care about that. Nobody in there has a gender. We’re all doing equal things. We’re all busting ass, and we don’t care how we look. That’s the chef’s life.
I think it’s very hard for people to get past this princess association with being a female personality in a kitchen. There’s a lot of stereotypical ... "I’m a housewife. I'm going to put on a pretty dress and make this dish." We have to get just as down and dirty as the chefs in the kitchen have to; so, we’re not putting on high heels. We’re working side by side.
It says a lot whenever you find male comrades in a kitchen who have been doing it their whole lives, and every now and again I get a comment that’s like, "I’ve never seen a woman work as hard as you." I’m like, "Damn straight."
Is it difficult to get that respect?
It is. As soon as somebody meets me, they see I’m 23 and that I’m a female. There’s an ultimate perception that they don’t expect me to be a chef. They automatically have this prejudice in their head that I’m not going to be able to work at the level that they are. If anything, that powers me even more. I beg you to doubt me.