Stories / Opinion, Awards

We Need to Support Women in the Restaurant Industry

How the Beard Foundation should lead the way

Amanda Cohen

September 27, 2018

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Amanda Cohen Photo: Georgi Richardson at Maggie Marguerite
Photo: Georgi Richardson at Maggie Marguerite

Something was different at the 2018 James Beard Awards. More women, more people of color, and more diverse voices were recognized than ever before. But the question of whether this was evidence of more profound change taking place in our industry remained unanswered. As a leading organization of the food movement in the U.S., we wanted to do more to support equity in the industry and access to its highest honors.

For advice, we reached out to some of the most thoughtful, vocal members of our community to share their opinions about how the Beard Foundation could improve. This piece continues the series of four op-eds that resulted from this outreach, which will be posted throughout the week.  

As we digest the writers’ suggestions, we intend to operationalize several changes which we believe will have a substantive impact on the Awards and the industry. We will share changes to the policies and procedures for the 2019 James Beard Awards ahead of the “Open Call for Entry” on Monday, October 15, 2018. This is the beginning of a process, not the end, and we know there is much more work we can all do to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive.

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I want to say something to all the white male chefs out there: you’re not as good as you think you are.

All of you have gotten a helping hand in your careers. And whether you’re a line cook grinding it out in a country club kitchen, or Eric Ripert, part of the reason you’re in that position is that for decades, the food industry has held everyone else back, most noticeably women. Women get nominated for fewer awards than men; they get covered less by the press; and they get fewer opportunities to lead high-end kitchens, or frankly, any kitchens at all.

Does that make you mad? It should. Because if you’re anything like me, you’re competitive as hell and want to earn your success by working harder and better, not because you started at third base. None of us want it this way, so how do we make this industry change?

The James Beard Foundation enjoys a unique role as a trusted partner in the restaurant industry, and on its website declares that it is “dedicated to cultivating leadership, recognizing excellence, and producing results through our programs and awards.” While the Beard Awards have cornered the market on recognizing excellence, I think there’s more they can do to cultivate leadership and level the playing field.

What’s the Problem?

If you don’t think women have an uphill battle in this industry, the facts tell a different story. Over the previous 27 years, 361 James Beard Awards have been given. 81 of them have gone to women. Every year since 2000, Food & Wine magazine has selected the “Best New Chefs in America.” Out of the 192 chefs who have received this honor, 28 have been women. There are 72 Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City. Of those, women run six. There are 14 restaurants in the U.S. with three Michelin stars—none have female chefs.

These numbers tell one of two stories: either women are terrible chefs, or they’re getting fewer opportunities to succeed.

It’s a tough cycle to break: women get less press coverage and get nominated for fewer awards, which leads to situations where an investor choosing between a male and a female chef is more likely to go with the guy. That means it’s easier for male chefs to open high-end restaurants (the kind that win awards and get press coverage), while female chefs wind up running smaller restaurants with tighter budgets and less coverage.

There are four areas where the James Beard Foundation could institute small, pain-free solutions that would yield big results for women in the restaurant industry.

Problem #1: Unequal Press Coverage

The press covers male chefs far more often than female chefs—male chefs are more likely to have their restaurant reviewed, more likely to be profiled, and more likely to be quoted in a story.

Solutions:

  • Crunch the Data
    The Beard Foundation could run the numbers on all the food coverage by the major metropolitan newspapers over the last five years to show the number of white male chefs profiled, quoted, and reviewed versus the number of female chefs and chefs of color. There is no way to achieve change unless you can measure progress from a real baseline.
  • Build a Database
    Following in the footsteps of groups like 500 Women Scientists, the Beard Foundation could build a searchable database of female chefs and chefs of color that’s accessible to journalists. Reporters looking for chefs to talk to about potato salad recipes, or school nutrition, or tipping could plug in their topic to get names and contact information. Often the press ignores including women in their coverage simply because they don’t know any.
  • Offer Press Workshops

    Most press outlets rely on publicists to pitch them stories, and most reporters tend to call the same publicists when looking for quotes. This increases the likelihood that the chefs and restaurants getting covered are the ones who can afford to hire a big PR agency.

    So many small, owner-operated restaurants open their doors without the slightest knowledge of how to interact with the press. JBF could organize free workshops for small restaurants and teach them the basics: how to write a press release, where to send it, how to make themselves available to the press.

Problem #2: Sexual Harassment

Over the past year, the media has begun to document the culture of sexual harassment and misconduct in the restaurant industry. Compounding the problem is the fact that many smaller restaurants can’t afford human resources departments, which increases the likelihood that owners and managers are unaware of best practices for preventing sexual harassment and don’t know how to properly handle incidents when they occur.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution that will eliminate all sexual harassment and abuse in this industry, but here are some simple steps that might reduce it.

Solutions:

  • Hold Labor Law Workshops
    When I opened the larger Dirt Candy location, I talked to a labor lawyer for the first time, because I needed advice on eliminating tipping. Even with my 17 years of experience running restaurants, I was astonished at how many labor laws I was ignoring. And it’s not just me.

    Labor laws are complicated, and the Beard Foundation could take a leadership role in helping owner-operated restaurants navigate this maze. The first step? Hosting workshops for small restaurant owners led by labor lawyers that would go over basics like payroll, overtime, tipping laws, and sexual harassment.
  • Provide Access to Free Legal Advice
    If I ran an arts organization, I would probably belong to Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a group that puts organizations needing legal advice in touch with lawyers doing pro bono work. How amazing would it be if JBF maintained a program that put owners and employees with labor issues in touch with lawyers who could help them?
  • Establish a Mediation Program
    Often the worst person to mediate a labor dispute is someone who works at the place of business. But in the restaurant industry, that’s usually the only person available, and the fallout from that event, no matter how it’s handled, can poison a kitchen crew for months.

    But what if there were mediators? The Beard Foundation could vet a team of retired chefs who had taken mediation training and were available on a volunteer basis to sit down with both parties, hear them out, listen to the owner, and make binding resolutions. Women in the restaurant industry who had experienced sexual harassment might be more likely to speak up—and owners might be more likely to intervene earlier—if there were a free, trusted mediation option that could help avoid potential litigation.
Problem #3: Lack of Adequate Paid Family Leave and Childcare

I love listening to male chefs talk about how their children are the most important people in their lives, about how they put family first, and about how they spend their days off with their kids. Who provides the childcare in that family the rest of the days? Usually it’s the women in their lives, because as much as men want to have kids, they usually don’t want to give up their careers to raise them. Add to that the fact that men tend to earn more than women, and you have a situation where a couple that wants to have children will more often keep the man in the workplace and the woman at home.

Solutions:

  • Offer Sponsored Daycare
    We can’t fix America’s maternity leave system, but we can do something about daycare. I know a lot of women (and men) who would have returned to the line sooner if they’d had access to affordable daycare. The Beard Foundation could work with companies in the food industry to fund childcare grants for restaurant workers and chefs.
Problem #4: Lack of Awareness of Female and Underrepresented Chefs

We all want to discover new chefs, new restaurants, and new cuisines. It’s in everybody’s best interest for the pool of restaurants and chefs that receive recognition and media coverage to be as wide and as deep as possible.

But the problem is that getting in front of diners is expensive. JBF could take a few simple steps to combat this.

Solutions:

  • Subsidize the Cost of Cooking at the Beard House
    Being asked to cook a dinner at the James Beard House is a huge opportunity for a chef, because it puts them in front of a lot of tastemakers. It’s also very expensive. Chefs have to foot the bill for food and—if they’re based outside of New York—for their staffs travel and lodging as well. The restaurants and chefs that can afford to take advantage of this opportunity are the ones that are already well funded.

    Paying chefs a stipend to cook at the Beard House (and an additional travel reimbursement if they’re coming from out of town), will instantly make this a more realistic option for restaurants that don’t have big bank accounts, and will expose diners at the James Beard House to an array of new talents that have previously been ignored.
  • Offer Women-Focused and -Led Education Programs
    Female chefs have been written out of the history of food. What about a class at the James Beard House that told the story of women like Edna Lewis, Chu Niang, Eugénie Brazier, Sylvia Woods, Dione Lucas, Li Li, and Leslie Revsin? Most of New York City’s biggest and best Thai restaurants are owned and operated by women, so why not invite them to teach Thai cuisine at the Beard House? How about female-led lectures guiding members through West Indian, Filipino, or Yemeni cuisine?

None of these ideas are flashy, none of them are sexy, but we don’t need any more headlines. We need change that is steady, sustainable, and immediate. Not just for women, but for all chefs—because everyone benefits from a larger, more inclusive, and more egalitarian restaurant industry.

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Do you have thoughts about how the culinary industry and/or the James Beard Foundation can be more inclusive? Please share your feedback with us at awards@jamesbeard.org.

Amanda Cohen is the James Beard Award–nominated chef and owner of Dirt Candy in New York City.