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5 Women Chefs on Professional Success

Maggie Borden

March 28, 2017

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The role of women in professional kitchens remains a topic of complex discussion, fueled by passionate individuals of all genders who work in the restaurant industry. In recent months, JBF has hosted a series of online and in-person focus groups and roundtable discussions (as part of our Women’s Leadership Programs) that asked women to articulate the obstacles they face in the kitchen. Answers ranged from the challenges they encounter in accessing capital, to the sense that men are more able to “fake it” until they achieve tangible success. To wrap up Women’s History Month, we reached out to some of the participants of these conversations to dig into some of the difficulties they expressed.

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JBF: Does the culinary industry present unique challenges for women to succeed?

Amy Brandwein, Centrolina, Washington, D.C.
Kitchens have emanated from a male European-style brigade system that prizes chain of command, toughness, physical strength, and a little machismo. Historically, women were not really welcome in the professional kitchen. Although great progress has been made over last ten years, these issues still exist in modern kitchens. There is a smaller pool of female chefs at the top, so it can be harder for female cooks coming up to visualize their career path.

JBF Award Winner Anne Quatrano, Bacchanalia, Star Provisions, Floataway Cafe, W.H. Stiles Fish Camp, and SUMMERLAND, Atlanta
I believe the time commitment and hours of operation can pose a daunting obstacle for women in our industry. I have so much respect for the women I know in our industry who have maintained successful businesses serving delicious food and have raised terrific kids. I am not sure how they managed.

Katie Button, Cúrate and Nightbell, Asheville, NC
One of the big conflicts women face is in the decision whether to have a family or not, and whether if you do that you can still follow your passion in the restaurant industry. The long hours, lack of benefits, and late nights can make it a challenging industry to both work and have a family.

Duskie Estes, ZaZu Restaurant and Farm, Sebastopol, CA
The work of line-cooking is so physical—it is for the strong-willed! And the evening and weekend hours make being present for your family the hardest challenge if you want to have kids. Financial support comes from networks, and women have fewer networks and aren’t using them as well as we could.

Deborah VanTrece, The Catering Company by VanTrece, Atlanta
There are numerous challenges that women must overcome in the culinary industry. It is often a completely unfriendly space in the kitchen for us. In terms of skills, leadership ability, and talent, we are no different than our male counterparts, but yet there are very few opportunities for us to advance or flourish. We are viewed as the weaker sex, with less creativity and little stamina, but I beg to differ. We create foods and environments from a different place, one of emotion, feeling, and love.

 

JBF: What do women chefs need to be able to succeed in this unique industry?

Amy Brandwein: A thick skin! Throughout my career, I was told that I would never be a sous chef, an executive chef, or launch my own restaurant. If I had not been so determined, I would have probably abandoned my culinary career. It is so important for women to have faith in the culinary industry and to understand that the industry is rooted in skill and aptitude.

Anne Quatrano: I believe both women and men need to understand hospitality, guests’ needs, and the humility to serve those guests while remaining true to their craft. That is the real balancing act.

Katie Button: First, they need to find a kitchen environment that is respectful. You can only handle the sexist jokes and sexual innuendos being tossed around a kitchen for so long before it starts to get really old. I used to laugh along with the guys during those kinds of jokes, and then I just got tired of laughing.

Duskie Estes: We also deserve media attention and we need the definition of what is trendy or hot to be more open to multiple food styles, whether it be ethnic or casual. We need to somehow develop a different form of networking that works for our way of communicating and being (i.e., that isn’t hanging out late at night after events, drinking and smoking).

 

JBF: Where in their career trajectories do women chefs tend to get “stuck” and fail to advance?

Amy Brandwein: I think that first position of sous chef is the pivotal moment that puts your career on the path toward leadership. You have to compete with others—mostly assertive males—to be able to get that first break. Sometimes a woman might have a softer approach and so her organizational and technical skills may be overlooked. Part of stepping up to the next level of supervising is giving orders cut-and-dry, and some women struggle with this, whereas for men it seems very natural. I think this is the critical juncture and I believe sometimes people fail to get to the next leadership step because it can be so hard to be a leader as a woman.

Katie Button: The percentage of women in culinary school is over 50 percent, and then as you rise in position those numbers drop. I would say that the "sticking" point is the sous chef position. After that point the number of women in chef de cuisine or executive sous chef positions really begins to drop off.

Duskie Estes: It is harder for women chefs to get funding and investors for multiple locations or projects. We don’t ask (because we aren’t trained to) and I don’t think we are included in the circles where those conversations happen. We also have less opportunity for mentors because there are fewer of us.

Deborah VanTrece: To succeed in this unique industry, you must believe in yourself and your abilities; be aggressive and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t ever give up and don’t get discouraged. The women who have been in the industry for a while must reach out to aspiring women in the industry and mentor and encourage them. Passion does not have a gender —persevere!

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Learn more about our Women’s Leadership Programs. 

Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.