We’ve Got to ‘Fight for Your Right’ at the Stove

How Young Women Become Executive Chefs

In 2011 I completed research to determine if there were gender differences in the pre-career ambitions and expectations of culinary students. One of my findings has continued to resonate with me, arousing an increased sense of responsibility. When it comes to imagining their futures, young women and men have the same dream of becoming an executive chef.[1] But in the eight to ten years between culinary school and top spot at the stove, young women either surrender that dream or it’s squashed.

This gender hemorrhage, of which I am a part, is one of the harsher realities of our industry. Thankfully there is a growing intolerance for some of the practices that have led to the exodus.

It’s the journalists—American journalists in particular—who have shone a light on those dark corners of our kitchens where sexism thrives. They’re the real agitators for change. I have mixed feelings about this because it reminds me, a female chef, how my own fears made me complicit in the system. I longed to belong in the professional kitchen and went to great lengths, including self-denial and rejection, to make that happen.

The pressure from journalists appears to be working. It’s getting harder for chefs and our esteemed culinary institutions to continue with business as usual. There are signs that if change is not self-imposed, it will soon be litigated or legislated into being. It’s also getting economically riskier to piss off women, because they make important and informed decisions about where to spend dining and donation dollars.

Paula Forbes took on the James Beard Foundation by creating charts to track its change. She’s not the first person to accuse the respected foundation’s annual awards of gender bias, but the deputy editor at Eater National’s original and effective approach in communicating with the masses is to be applauded. Businesses and institutions could easily track their progress in gender diversity by adopting this same rational approach. Why wait until a reporter comes calling? In the case of the James Beard Awards, I’m most impressed by the increasing number of women mentioned in the Rising Star Chef category. At this point in a typical culinary career, female representation is still quite high. These are the young women, still standing at the stove, whom we can nurture and champion to the top.

The Bloomberg columnist Ryan Sutton has also used a very rational approach by taking an inventory of the brigades of our best kitchens to determine how many women are in their senior ranks. His two-part piece for Bloomberg Luxury is revelatory. He writes: “There’s never been a female head chef at Daniel Boulud’s flagship Daniel; at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry or Per Se (though there is one at his Ad Hoc in Yountville, California); or at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s namesake restaurant. In fact, there’s not a single female top chef at any of the 10 Boulud or 24 Vongerichten restaurants in the U.S. and Canada.”[2] We look to these chefs for leadership. They scour river and bog, and travel to far-flung places in search of diverse ingredients and yet turn a blind eye on the make-up of their brigades.

Sometimes industry members will manipulate statistics to paint a more promising picture. It’s important to remain cognizant of how results are achieved. Do the stats look specifically at women at the stoves in the kitchen brigade or is their reach broader? It’s surprising how often restaurants will tweak their numbers by including women in the pink ghetto—those in administrative support roles and pastry. These numbers yield results that on the surface appear promising but are little more than a foil for the bleak reality of women at the stove.

I’m sure this is the case for Tom Colicchio’s Craft group of restaurants. In his piece for Bloomberg Luxury, Ryan Sutton quotes Katie Grieco, Craft’s managing partner of operations and new projects worldwide, describing Craft as a “very female-friendly organization.”[3] That’s nothing short of a lie if not a single woman is in charge of any of the eight Craft kitchens worldwide. She continues her defense by stating that this absence is “not for lack of trying.”[4] Surely Ms. Grieco knows that talent needs nurturing. Trying is not caring. It’s that safe place where intentions stand in for inadequate actions.

It’s easy to spot establishments where gender balance is a priority. Women will be present in equal measure and will hold positions at all levels of command. Chefs who practice equitable hiring know it’s not that hard and the resulting kitchen culture is good.

Katie Grieco also needs to consider how conservative Craft’s practices appear in light of research that speaks to the economic and competitive advantages of gender-balanced businesses. Perhaps Paula Forbes could lend a hand in tracking Craft’s progress.

I know “we tried” is often a place to hide because I worked in a business that failed, through consecutive hiring campaigns, to recruit women into the senior ranks. It was claimed there were no suitable candidates when I knew of women with exceptional qualifications who’d lost out to male hires. I voiced my concern and received a shockingly indignant and defensive response. For me, proof positive.

In a recent panel discussion on chefs and diversity, chef Marcus Samuelson recounted that his experience as a young and ambitious black chef in kitchens dominated by white European men led him to question his choice of employers. He believes that signs of intolerance and discrimination are an opportunity for young chefs to gain “clarity of where you should not work.”[5] I echo his sentiments in cautioning young women against entering any kitchen where there are no females in the senior ranks. Where gender equity is not being willingly adopted it’s likely to require external enforcement, and transitions that are imposed are rarely easy or pleasant.

I’d encourage all young women to stop spending their dollars—on cooking schools, dinner, cookbooks or events—where there appears to be no room for their kind at the executive chef level. Turn off networks that consider sexist messaging a good marketing ploy in 2014. Economic choice is powerful. Talk to those who love and support your dreams. Often my family has been even more outraged than I by the sexism and discrimination I’ve faced on my journey to become a chef.

I want young female chefs to act more assertively in laying claim to their spots at the stove. Don’t tolerate slow promotion. Let go of the adolescent notion that “father knows best.” I stayed in a great kitchen for five years watching young men rush past me, turning my career over to the care of a chef I was certain had my best interest at heart. I abandoned a lot of my dreams and ambitions there.

I also went it alone, which accounts for much of my fear to speak out. I didn’t have a mentor or allies among my peers. The guidance of a senior industry leader is invaluable. Choose someone who’s got what you want and knows just how you can get it too. Someone with no time for petty gossip or problems, who will actively work for your promotion.

Connect, work and stage with women chefs. I learned so much about female leadership by staging with Lydia Shire, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. When I studied with Lydia she was at the top of her career and had a toddler in tow. Besides the delicious things I learned at her stove, I discovered that having children and being a celebrated chef was hard, not impossible. I also understood that making decisions about childcare is far easier when you’re in the top office.

I want young women to negotiate their wages and to be particularly mindful of the 24 percent wage gap that widens in mid to late career. With 13 years of kitchen experience, and while holding a senior position in a restaurant, I was asked by a very successful businessperson from another industry how much I earned. The expression of shock on her face was a moment of great clarity for me. I suddenly woke up to the reality that where money was concerned I should have asked for more. I don’t want the hiring of women to serve as an economic advantage for businesses.

Most women exit the industry just before they reach the top. Charlene Johnson-Hadley says that a lot of young cooks “are not even taught or pushed to take that step towards saying ‘Listen, you’re awesome, people need to know what it is that you do.’ That concept doesn’t even cross their minds.”[6] Moving up takes a whole heap of confidence and support from above. Know your skills and leadership potential and make a plan for taking the next step. The world needs to taste your uniquely delicious stuff.

I’ve become far more outspoken in the four years since I began my research. Under its influence I started to use feminine pronouns in my writing and when teaching classes to young chefs. It’s a subtle and powerful action. I’ve seen the faces of young women light up under its influence. I know that all of my experience, good and bad, is invaluable. I’m also freer than I have ever been to speak my truth with confidence. I’m not politically motivated to tread lightly or exercise caution in causing offense. I’m no longer tiptoeing around white, middle-aged, European men. The dreams of so many young women have energized and inspired me. They are a treasure I’ve uncovered. They remind me that above all else, we need to act, to apply Thomas Keller’s sense of urgency to the matter of gender imbalance in our kitchens.

[1] Reid, Deborah and Lauren Wilson. Recipe for Success. Gender’s Role in the Career Expectations of Culinary Students. (2010/11, George Brown College) p. 27

[2] Sutton, Ryan. “Most Exciting $700 Tasting Menus Made in America by Too Few Female Chefs.” Bloomberg Luxury. 3 March 2014. Web.

[3] Ryan Sutton. “Women Everywhere in Food Empires But No Head Chefs.” Bloomberg Luxury. 6 March 2014. Web

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dixler, Hillary. “The Ten Best Quotes from the Mother Jones Panel on Chefs and Diversity.” Eater National. 4 March 2014. Web.

[6] Dixler, Hillary. “The Ten Best Quotes from the Mother Jones Panel on Chefs and Diversity.” Eater National. 4 March 2014. Web.