In 1976, Newport, Rhode Island was hosting the Tall Ships. As a new Culinary Arts graduate, I wanted to cook at the best restaurants there. The chef at the Newport Sheraton interviewed me for an hour, then told me he did not hire “girls”. When I said I was off to the “The Black Pearl”, he scoffed: “They don’t hire girls, either”. The owner at “The Black Pearl” didn’t spend much time interviewing me, because he did not hire “girls”, but asked where else was I going to apply. My final stop was next door at “The Clarke Cooke House” run by Chef Gilbert Deforges. "The Black Pearl" owner said Gilbert did not hire “girls” either, but told me to come back if I wasn’t hired. I could see a crack in the armor.
French and imposing, Chef Deforges looked down at me for a long time deciding what to do with this blonde, upstart woman. I returned his gaze with a solid, challenging look. He said, “Can you make a roux?” My first bench test! Without any idea where things were, or how much to make, I ran down to the hot line. I melted 10 pounds of butter in a sautoir, added enough flour to make “beach sand”, stirred well, covered and placed it in a 250°F oven to bake for 2 ½ hours. I got that job because the male chef always burned the roux.
In the 1980’s I was the chef at a yacht club in Massachusetts. I acquired the position only because my then business partner/husband wanted to work the front of the house. For our first wedding consultation, I prepared an elegant menu. When she met me, the mother of the bride was incredulous: “You’re the chef?” she asked. I expected mutual support, but realized she, too, was caught in the club’s patriarchal culture.
Over the past 40 years, I have seen change in the strong sentiment that women can’t cook in a commercial setting. I’ve been a chef in elegant and sketchy restaurants, became the chef because the male chef had an alcohol problem and didn’t show up, served as chef on board research/sailing vessels, and owned my own businesses. My present job as Associate Professor/Chef/Retention Chair at Johnson & Wales University affords me the opportunity to act as a mentor to my students, especially young women. I always tell them "Never let anyone say you can’t achieve your goals."
Have things changed for female chefs since 1976? Absolutely! Is there more work to do? Tons!
Here are a few facts:
- In 2015 women held only 19.6% of the jobs as chefs/head cooks (US Bureau of Statistics)
- Women hold only 6.3% of head chef positions at 15 prominent U.S restaurant groups (Vines)
- Male chefs make almost 40% more, on average than women holding the same title. Nationally, a man hired as a director of operations for a casual chain in 2015 started at a salary of $108,333. A woman in the same post was hired at $67,000 (Romero)
- Female executive chefs earn, on average, $19,000 a year less than their male counterparts. (Decker)
- “Changing jobs merely widened the pay gap. A male chef who shifts from one position to another typically raises his salary by $6,246. This is 30% more than a female chef making the same career jump.” (Romeo)
- Of the 314 nominees for the James Beard Foundation Awards in 2016, only 10% were women. (Ho)
- Of the more than 100 chefs worldwide who have 3 Michelin stars, only 6 are women (Elite Traveler)
The most important attributes for any successful chef are determination, knowledge, stamina, and experience. Paying dues at lower paying jobs is part of the journey. Long hours, childcare costs, job insecurity, and the local and global economy are challenges for male and female chefs alike. But, as women climb the culinary ladder, there comes a time when their focus shifts for many changes and family responsibilities take precedence. Paid maternity leave may not exist. Any absence for birthday parties (watch "Burnt"), is viewed with askance by executive chefs. At the height of their earning power, many women opt to leave their culinary careers.
The landscape, however, has slowly begun to change:
- In 2005 Cristeta Comerford, 10-year veteran of the White House kitchen, was selected by First Lady Laura Bush as the first female executive chef. (Washington Post) Emma Bengtsson, 33, executive chef of Aquavit in New York City, was awarded two Michelin stars within six months after taking over the kitchen of the upscale Swedish eatery in 2014 (Vora)
- In 2007, Clare Smyth of “Restaurant Gordon Ramsay” (UK) received 3 Michelin stars 6 years in a row, (Elite Traveler)
- Hélène Darroze’s London restaurant, “The Connaught” now has 2 Michelin stars. (Elite Traveler)
These industry changes have created opportunities for young women chefs. Those of us teaching this new generation, can provide further support in the classroom, through mentoring and through organizations like the International Association of Culinary Professionals, Women Chef Restauranteurs and Les Dames D’Escoffier.
Keep watching the new generation of passionate women who are making their mark in the culinary field: Dominique Crenn, “Cat” Cora, Sara Moulton, Tina Nordström, Ingrid Hoffmann, Sophie Wright, Jeong Kwan, Niki Nakayama and Ana Ros. Keep watching the new generation of passionate women who are making their mark in culinary. It’s the “Perfect Storm” of culinary education and professional women, inspiring and mentoring our cohorts. “
Works cited available upon request.