Former Manresa cook's deep-dive podcast into culinary culture lands James Beard award

Copper & Heat's industry insider approach wins big.

Katy and Ricardo Osuna won a James Beard award for their podcast, Copper & Heat, which tackles sexism and pressure inside the restaurant industry. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Since her first cooking job as a college student in Idaho, Katy Osuna has known well what it feels like to be the sole woman in a kitchen.

The pressures. The insecurities. The inevitable sexist comments.

It wasn't until several years later, when she was working as chef de partie at one of the Bay Area's most highly regarded kitchens, the three-Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos, that she started to question the forces underpinning those feelings.

An anthropology and sociology major, she started blogging about her experiences in the culinary world, then decided to start a podcast. Copper & Heat's first season, "Be A Girl," unpacks the restaurant industry's deep-rooted mistreatment of women from the perspective of local chefs.

In April, Copper & Heat won a prestigious James Beard award for best podcast -- much to the surprise of Osuna, who bootstrapped the podcast from her San Jose home with the help of her husband, a digital media producer and musician, and with little to no press coverage.

Reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain's infamous 1999 New Yorker piece, "Don't Eat Before Reading This," which gave the non-cooking public a sometimes sordid peek into the realities of New York City kitchens, Copper & Heat gives listeners an inside look at the challenges that female chefs have long faced in restaurants. Osuna interviews Manresa cooks and Executive Chef David Kinch, as well as her brother (also a chef) and parents about how gender norms shaped her own upbringing.

"Cooks love to talk about the hardships we've gone through. The first time I cut myself. The worst burn I ever got. This angry chef who threw a plate off the pass and yelled at everyone in sight. Some would call us masochistic," Osuna wrote in a Medium post last July about her decision to leave Manresa to work on the podcast. "But do we ever talk about the real issues? Alcoholism? Sexism? Wage gaps in the industry? Not really.

"But that's gotta change."

The Weekly talked with Osuna about why she decided to start the podcast, the kitchen culture at Manresa and her immediate reaction when she found out Copper & Heat had been nominated for a James Beard award (hint: there was lots of profanity). This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Where was your first kitchen job?

I'm originally from Boise, Idaho. I got a job when I was in college at this gastropub place called Buforia. They're no longer there. They had a kitchen set up where everybody did everything -- prep, line and dishwasher. I was on the line.

Were you the only woman in the kitchen or one of a few?

The only one. That was part of the interview, too. The chef was like, 'Hey, you're the only one. Are you going to be OK with that?' I'm like, 'Sure, I'm OK with that.' ... I'm a very stubborn individual. As soon as somebody tells me I can't do something, I'm like, 'I'm going to show you that I can,' ... even though I've never worked in a kitchen and I'm a woman.

What inspired you to start the podcast?

I started blogging. I would talk to my partner Ricardo about it a lot. I was already (thinking), 'I want to get it out somewhere and do something.' He and I are both musicians. He's also a sound engineer. ... He said, 'What if we did something like a podcast where you can actually record these conversations that you have with people?' That's how it came about.

We hear in the podcast some of the concerns you had before starting it -- worrying whether the subject matter really mattered and how it would be received.

I'm (still) working through it. I do think it's a really important thing. It's just a constant struggle.

Am I the one to do it? But it's been really nice to have some of these conversations. Edalyn (Garcia), she works at The Village Pub in Woodside, she's been one of the biggest pieces of support that I've had. (Editor's note: Osuna interviews Garcia on the podcast.). To hear her be like, 'This has really changed how I look at things and how I'm approaching management.' ... If one person comes away from the podcast with an experience of that or feelings like that, then it's something to keep doing. I just keep reminding myself of that.

What was the reaction to the podcast like from inside the restaurant industry? From listeners who know nothing about kitchen culture?

Most of my coworkers ... almost all of them were in it. They were really excited about it. We've never really had those conversations before. It was just cool to sit down and have some really serious conversations where they shared some really deep stuff. They've all been super supportive.

Other people, like my parents, had been sharing it with some of their friends. Hearing some of them be like, 'Wow, I had no idea that any of it was like this.' It's interesting and also very gratifying. People back in Idaho -- a lot of conservatives and a lot of people who don't really think about a lot of social issues -- it's cool to hear that they're starting to think about it.

Was there anything you believed going in and then your interviews changed your mind?

I don't know that I had one that really changed. I knew what I wanted to explore but I didn't have a thesis ... like, this is what's going on and this is what I want to prove. But something that I was really surprised about was how much the pressure of masculinity affects men as well.

What was the kitchen culture like at Manresa?

Surprisingly, a lot better than I was expecting going into working at a fine-dining place. They do cultivate more of a zen-like space. There's not nearly as much yelling. It's more of a quiet pressure.

As far as the sexism and misogyny stuff, I was the only female on the savory side. All of the pastry department was women. But since I've left, I think that changed ... it just changes really frequently. I think it's more the sous chefs ... one in particular who I had a hard time getting along with working-wise and I think he had a very old-school mindset.

There have been headlines saying "diversity won big" at the James Beard awards this year, with more people of color and women being recognized. What, if anything, does that signal about the state of the restaurant industry today?

It will be interesting to see over the next few years if that continues or if it's just right now. It's at the forefront of everybody's mind so they're trying to prove it. But ... it has seemed like they're actively working to do that. One of the reasons why we even applied in the first place was that they waived their entrance fee for a first-time applicant. (Editor's note: The James Beard Foundation waived the $150 entry fee for first-time submissions this year to "attract new voices.") It's really exclusionary to a lot of people, people in media who have so little money. It doesn't cost anything for the chef awards but the media awards do. I think that was a really cool thing that they did to really welcome new voices. We wouldn't have applied had we had to pay.

Are you hopeful that things are headed in the right direction in terms of gender equality and kitchen culture in the restaurant industry?

Yeah, I am. I think that conversations are happening. Chefs, especially a lot of chefs feel they are in a position of power now (and) they can start talking about these things. Chef Kwame (Onwuachi, an African-American chef who referenced Jim Crow laws after winning the 2019 James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award) said he would have never brought any of this up before but he's now in a position where he can start sharing his story. I think there are a lot of people who are rejecting the old way. I think as more chefs talk about it and it trickles down and the cooks start to talk about it, it will continue to get better.

I do really hope that it doesn't just stay in the big cities. I hope it extends out into some of the smaller cities. I'm from Idaho where they're about 10 years behind in food trends. It would be really great to see some of this stuff pick up faster than some of the other foodie things.

What was your reaction when you found out Copper & Heat had been nominated for a James Beard award?

(It was) completely unexpected. We knew that the nominations were going to come out in March. I wasn't expecting anything. ... (The morning of the nominations) my husband had to get up for work. He happened to open it right as they were saying our name. He came running into the bedroom, hitting me, 'THEY JUST SAID OUR NAME!' I was half asleep. He immediately, as he does, turned on his recorder and started recording. I kept saying, 'What the f---' over and over again for about two minutes.

To actually get to the point where we were at the James Beard awards -- again, I had zero expectation of winning ... I just kept thinking, 'I hope it's Racist Sandwich,' (a podcast co-hosted by San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho); I love them so much. It was the same thing: they called our name, and complete shock. He (Ricardo) had to open the speech and hand it to me.

What will season two be about?

One of the things that came up so much when we were taking to people for season one: the economics and financial burdens of being in fine-dining and just in restaurants in general. We want to explore some of that. ... the divide behind front of house and back of house and that eternal feud: wage disparity.

Is there anything else you'd like to add about Copper & Heat?

It's really exciting that James Beard recognized that the voices of cooks are important. Obviously I think they picked us because gender issues are really timely right now, but also because we're talking to cooks and that's not something that people do a lot. I think it's really important that the cooks are talked to and not just celebrity chefs.

More information and episodes of the podcast are available at copperandheat.com.

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