Women Chefs: Inequality in the Kitchen
Much as been made about women’s equality of late, including equal pay for equal work. In a society that has supposedly made great strides in gender equality, there remains a lot of work to be done in truly insuring said equality. One of the areas that seems to be highly reflective of this gender inequality is that of the culinary world. I’m not talking about celebrity chefs and bloggers. I’m talking about actual chefs, who own their own restaurants and who gain international acclaim for their restaurants. There is a distinct lack of women chefs who have made names for themselves in the restaurant world.
Every year various publications come out with their lists of favorite restaurants and chefs. Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, James Beard, Zagat, the list goes on and on. I always peruse these lists to see which restaurants I would like to add to my bucket list. Each time I read through the nominees I am struck by how few women they select. There may be a couple of token females, but the vast majority of those on the lists are men.
I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago and two questions came to mind. One. Is the lack of female recognition some kind of bias against females in the industry? Or, two. Are there just so few women at the helm of great restaurants that by sheer numbers they cannot compete? Either way, something is wrong with the picture.
Consider these facts. According to some recent articles on the matter, women represent approximately 50% of those enrolled in culinary schools. They are outnumbered in regular culinary programs by men but in the baking department they make up almost 80% of those enrolled. So the trouble does not lie in the number of those who are actively seeking to find careers in the field of culinary arts. While numbers vary, several sources state that only approximately 15% of executive chefs of independent restaurants are women. That is an alarmingly low number.
It has been suggested that many of those women who graduate from culinary schools end up working at chain restaurants or hotels and some end up not pursuing careers in the food industry at all. The typical response to the question of why seems to be the same one plaguing other industries that seem to have a bias against women. First, women end up quitting to start families and they cannot be pregnant or mothers and maintain a full time job. While I get that chefs work long hard hours, this supposes that most women decide to have families and are thereby automatically discriminated against. Not so. More and more women today are opting to not get married and are starting families later or not at all so that they can pursue careers.
A second common response is that women are somehow physically inferior to men and incapable of hacking the long hours, heat and physical labor necessary to be a chef. That’s kind of like saying women aren’t capable of becoming good soldiers because they are weaker than men are. That makes absolutely no sense. Many women are not only as physically fit as men, but are often more capable of multi-tasking than men, which would make them excellent candidates for running a restaurant. To that notion, I cry foul.
Thirdly, women are routinely harassed in the context of the kitchen so some feel as though there is no place for them there or they will be treated poorly. Again, that’s the same logic that says women are dangerous because they cause men to behave badly. A completely reverse argument that has no merit. Why can’t men learn to behave like decent human beings and treat women with the equal respect they deserve? For this I blame men, not women, and we shouldn’t suffer because of it. I say, grow up men. Disclaimer: I am happily married to a wonderful man who is very respectful of women and am quite aware that not all men fall into this category of behavior. I am just generalizing.
Historically there has also been a bias between the public and private arenas of the kitchen. Within the home, the kitchen is often considered to be the woman’s domain. Women in many cultures for centuries prepared the food for their families and passed their recipes down from one generation to the next. In the mid-1900’s, however, women increasingly got out of the kitchen and pursued jobs outside the house, freeing themselves from the private domain. It makes sense, therefore, that they should also seek to take those very skills that suited them so well in the private domain and utilize them in the public domain.
The hitch in that giddy up is that the formal restaurant structure that goes all the way back to Marie-Antoine Careme in 1800’s France was built around men and haute cuisine has historically been a man’s world. This has persisted into 20th and 21st century Europe and America with few exceptions. Strong women like Alice Waters and Susan Feniger have succeeded despite the bias, mostly because they were able to distinguish themselves as something completely unique and new in the industry as a whole.
I don’t know what the solution is, nor do I think I am going to change it, but it certainly is indicative of something that we all sense in the society as a whole. I am proud to have my small place in the industry and to represent the minority as a woman who runs her own kitchen. I hope that at some point there will be more equity in the culinary world as with the world at large. Perhaps sometime in my lifetime.