Female chefs have faced a lot of heat in the kitchen — most of it not from the stove.
No doubt you’ve heard the old adage, a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Well, history says otherwise — at least as far as restaurant kitchens are concerned.
Sure, we all know that since the beginning of time, when the first cavewomen discovered that fire made food taste better, it’s primarily been women who have prepared the meals. Through all cultures, countries, ethnicities, and generations, that’s been the standard.
Despite this, there’s a long, winding road, filled with potholes and barriers, that separates the humble domestic domain of a woman’s kitchen from the hallowed halls of haute cuisine. When it comes to the latter, another old saying takes precedence: It’s a man’s world.
If you have any doubts, chew on these statistics. According to RestaurantHER, a website launched by Grubhub to support women chefs and female-owned restaurants, only 19 percent of chefs are women. Even worse, females account for only seven percent of head chefs.
Why such low numbers? To begin with, it’s a grueling industry that requires incredible work ethic and dedication of all who would enter, regardless of gender. To succeed in it demands talent, skill, extensive training, physical strength, stamina, resilience, and a willingness to work a schedule that requires odd hours, long days, and little time off, making it difficult to have a family or personal life.
Some of these — particularly access to training, physical strength, and work-life balance issues — have presented even greater challenges for women.
Furthermore, women face the added stress of having to deal with the misogyny that, more often than not, is an integral part of the kitchen culture. Sexual harassment is a common problem in the food-service industry, and recent high-profile scandals have raised public awareness about abuses that are more pervasive and pernicious than most of us would have imagined.
To understand the difficult journey made by the fewer than 20 percent who have managed to beat the odds and earn their toques, we asked some local chefs to weigh in on the issue, sharing their thoughts and experiences.
While men have had access to formal training in culinary arts dating back to the 1800s, women were virtually barred from such opportunities until only the last few decades.
Michelle Palmer has been a professional chef in the Reno area for more than 30 years. In addition to her successful chef-for-hire business, Absolutely Michelle’s, she formerly was the executive chef at the Nevada Governor’s Mansion during Gov. Kenny Guinn’s administration. Currently, Palmer is the executive sous chef for SAVOR, an international food-service company and exclusive caterer for the four largest venues in Reno.
Palmer recalls that as recently as the 1970s, she wasn’t permitted to enroll in culinary classes at Southern Nevada Vocational Technical Center. Those classes were just for boys, she was told. As a result, she never went to culinary school and instead was forced to come up through the school of hard knocks by taking low-level kitchen jobs to learn and hone her skills.
Palmer’s situation was far from unique. The Culinary Institute of America, one of the premiere culinary schools in the country, opened in 1946 with 50 students. Forty-nine were men. Over the years, women’s enrollment inched up at an exasperatingly slow pace, still reaching only 30 percent as recently as 2000. The fall of 2016 was the long-awaited turning point. CIA finally achieved gender parity, with women accounting for 51.6 percent of enrollment. It only took 70 years.
The boys’ club
Joe Eidem is a retired executive chef with more than 30 years’ experience and an impressive résumé of awards and honors. He also holds the record for serving the most years as president of the High Sierra Chefs Association, the local affiliate of the American Culinary Federation.
When he joined HSCA in 1983, women weren’t even allowed to attend meetings, Eidem says. A few years later, when he became president, he lifted that ban, despite pushback from the members. It wasn’t until the late ’80s that the group actually admitted a female chef to its ranks, he recalls.
“A lot of men didn’t believe that women were strong enough to meet the demands and to work under pressure,” Eidem says. “They felt they didn’t command the same authority.”
His personal experiences with women chefs have proven that those misguided ideas are based on outdated stereotypes, he adds.
Other theories put forward suggest that men have feared a loss of status, prestige, and, perhaps, salary level if the field were to be feminized. That’s not an unfounded concern considering female-dominated fields are traditionally underpaid and undervalued.
Karen Cannan has been the coordinator of Truckee Meadows Community College’s culinary arts program for almost two decades. Before that, she spent numerous years working in the field. Cannan recounts the many times, early in her food-service career, when she would walk around the kitchen, head down, repeating “la-la-la-la-la” to block out the foul talk, suggestive language, and inappropriate gestures.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, it was an incredibly hostile, sexual-innuendo-driven industry for women,” Cannan says. “I often wondered, ‘What am I doing in such a foul and unprofessional industry?’”
Palmer says she learned a tough lesson early on. She was just 15 when she was cornered in a walk-in refrigerator and groped by a male co-worker.
Apparently, neither of Palmer’s or Cannan’s experiences is uncommon, even today. A 2014 study by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that two-thirds of female restaurant workers were sexually harassed by restaurant managers, 80 percent by co-workers, and 78 percent by customers.
In 2015, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received, from women, 5,431 complaints of sexual harassment. Of those claims that listed their industries, hotel and food workers had submitted the lion’s share.
And that seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. Harassment is so common in restaurant culture that many employees admit they don’t even bother to report sexual comments and touching. Most women learn early on just to deal with it. They simply ignore, deflect, or joke about it, and ultimately, learn how to put harassers in their place.
The prevalence of sexual harassment has been blamed on a number of factors having to do with the nature of the work — long hours; working together in hot, close quarters, late into the night; easy access to alcohol; and male dominance of the field that forces women to rely on men for good schedules, advancement, and even their very employment.
Work-life balance dilemma
Personal life. Say those words to most any chef and you’ll get a one-word response: “Ha!” In this occupation, there’s not much of that. After all, these are the people who work nights, weekends, and holidays for our culinary enjoyment.
Kim Wells is the head chef at Reno’s Skyline Kitchen & Vine, a prime position for a woman, especially one who’s only 30. She acknowledges that to be a full-fledged member of the chef club, you have to pay a high personal price. She says she’s willing to do it.
“I work 12- to 14-hour days. This is only my third day off in a month,” Wells says. “My social life is nonexistent. My friends are my co-workers. I work, I go home — that’s it. For women who hold families, marriages, and babies as priorities, this is not the field for them. You’re really married to your job.”
Lara Ritchie, chef/co-owner/culinary director of Reno’s Nothing To It! Culinary Center, surely can relate. She lived it. Ritchie has worked at several highly acclaimed restaurants, including five-star, five-diamond properties. She was on the fast track to becoming executive chef in this rarified world of exclusive eateries when she had an epiphany and put on the brakes.
“The executive chef I worked for had never spent a holiday with his kids,” she says. “I realized I didn’t want that to be my future.”
Ritchie’s response is not uncommon. Many aspiring chefs, particularly females, reach a point where they choose to make work-life balance a priority. That generally means they get off the treadmill and opt for cooking careers that afford more flexibility and control. Those options can include caterer, personal chef, restaurateur, or culinary instructor. Ritchie helped establish a business that encompassed all of those, plus a cookware store.
Aubrey O’Laskey is the chef/co-owner of Butter + Salt in Reno, a catering business she shares with her chef husband, Tyler. She had lots of options after graduating from top-rated CIA in Hyde Park, N.Y. After a stint as culinary program and events manager for the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society at Lake Tahoe, O’Laskey opted to go into private catering to gain the flexibility to have a family, in addition to a career. One successful business and two babies later, she has no regrets.
“I think there are women who want to fight for it,” O’Laskey says. “But I think it’s also OK to want to have a family instead of being a head chef.”
With her husband as her life and work partner sharing both loads, she can have her cake and eat it too, she says.
The fairness fallacy
For those who choose to fight the battle and rise up through the restaurant ranks, there seems to be no end to the hills they must climb. A big one is pay equity.
According to RestaurantHER, female chefs earn 28 percent less base pay than their male counterparts. This statistic surprised none of the chefs we interviewed.
Natalie Sellers, chef/co-owner of Reno’s 4th St. Bistro, has all the right credentials. She graduated, with high honors, from the California Culinary Academy, an affiliate of Le Cordon Bleu. She worked for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower.
At Tower’s highly acclaimed Stars restaurant in San Francisco, Sellers worked every station on her way up the line, from prep cook to sous chef. Finally, she was offered the co-chef position at another of Tower’s eateries, Stars Café — certainly a career-building opportunity at a prestigious venue. Then she learned that the equally qualified male co-chef was making $7,000 more than she was. She asked for equity. It was denied. She walked away.
“There were other jobs,” Sellers says. “I wasn’t going to be discounted.”
Money isn’t the only inequity female chefs face. Marked discrepancies can be found in the areas of recognition and publicity as well.
In their book Taking the Heat, Deborah A. Harris and Patti Giuffre analyze the articles on chefs appearing in four major publications, covering the years 2004 – 2009. Of 2,206 reviews and chef profiles, 11 percent featured women, 12 percent highlighted a mix of genders, and 78 percent were solely on male chefs.
Although there has been modest improvement, this imbalance has persisted through 2017, with men still dominating culinary awards and media coverage. The most recent annual ranking of the 100 Best Chefs in the World, by French magazine Le Chef, featured only five women.
Onward and upward
Due to past educational and professional barriers, women are relatively recent entries into this culinary brigade. As several of the women we interviewed have pointed out, it takes time to become a head chef — for most people, at least 10 to 15 years. It’s not surprising, therefore, that women still are working their way to the top ranks of this male-dominated field.
“I think it’s a good sign that more women are entering this field and are able to be more influential in the kitchen,” Cannan says, pointing out the increasing number of women enrolling in culinary schools.
Cannan reports that TMCC’s female enrollment in culinary arts rose to 64 percent for the 2017-18 school year.
Some female chefs are trying to mitigate the macho kitchen culture and level the playing field by hiring more female kitchen staffs. Dominique Crenn is the chef/owner of San Francisco’s acclaimed Atelier Crenn and the first U.S. woman to be awarded two Michelin stars. Her restaurant’s kitchen is comprised of 60 percent women. Locally, Kim Wells has filled her kitchen at Skyline with a mostly female staff. She finds women more collaborative in nature and, in general, easier to work with.
The pattern of recognition is changing as well. At the 2018 James Beard Foundation Awards, in culinary categories, about 40 percent of the nominees were women and 11 of 15 awards went to chefs who are women, people of color, or both. That’s a big wow!
In 2016, when Dominique Crenn was named World’s Best Female Chef by Sanpellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, she almost declined the honor, declaring, “This award should not exist. I never thought of my cooking in terms of my gender, and I shouldn’t be treated like some special case because I am a woman.”
Her sentiments were echoed by the chefs in our story. Chef Sellers shares the following quote by Spanish art historian, curator, and writer Chus Martinez, which pretty much says it all: “Equality implies the process of arriving at a place where the conditions and the virtues of our work are perceived as equivalent to those of our male counterparts.”
So, in Sellers’ own words, “Let’s do better.”
Freelance writer Barbara Twitchell has a newfound respect for the chefs who work so hard to please our palates with amazing flavors. She’s especially in awe of the strong, dedicated women who continue to blaze trails in this field, in the face of so many obstacles. Toques off to you, ladies!