Antoinette Bruno: First off, why does this matter? Is this an important issue for you?
Susan Spicer: Yes it definitely is. I sort of wonder why there are a lot less women cooks in my kitchen. I like having a balance. I like what women bring to the kitchen. It was never close to a majority. It seems as if the ranks of women cooks are shrinking, at least down here.
AB: Marco Pierre White recently said that he thought it was the physical nature and macho culture of the modern restaurant responsible for women being less likely to reach the top. He said “Restaurant kitchens are a man’s world. The work is physical and demanding. It is the men who rise to the top.” Do you agree with him?
SS: I don’t see it as being a physical issue; it’s much more about stamina. I’ve got guys in my kitchen and I can work longer hours than they can and more days in a row. They are good hard working guys, but it’s not like they can work more than I can.
AB: Another general stereotype circulating is that women chefs have “more soul” so to speak, and cook from the heart. It’s true that I can’t think of very many experimental female chefs, apart from Elizabeth Faulkner, Barbara Lynch, Elena Arzak, but I’m not sure that it’s a fair generalization. How do you feel about it? Is the experimental kitchen more gendered than the regular professional kitchen?
SS: Guys seem to be more gadget-oriented. I don’t know how brains are wired, but you do say “boys and their toys” – they seem more attracted to fancy equipment.
AB: The stereotypical chef is a divorcee. The lifestyle challenges relationships like no other. What are your thoughts on this? How does it affect women differently from men?
SS - Well obviously women are the ones to give birth. They are the caregivers in the early years and it is a sacrifice. I didn’t choose not to get married but I didn’t get married until I was 51 and now I have stepchildren. It wasn’t a conscious choice; I just didn’t meet the right guy along the way. Also, a lot of marriages are made in kitchens, like minds attract.
AB: How does your family life and the choices you made, have to do with your success?
SS: Now that I have a family I am trying to spend more time with them and because fortunately I’m the boss, I can make that happen. I also feel an obligation to be there for my guests. I didn’t get to go trick or treating last night, but I got to be there when they got home and we had a late dinner at 9 o clock.
AB: Who have your biggest mentors been? Men vs women?
SS: I’ve worked for all men: Daniel Bonnot and Roland Durand.
AB: How is a kitchen run by a woman different from a kitchen run by a man – or is it all nonsense?
SS: I’ve never worked for a woman, but I do run a kitchen. I’m sure there are male chefs that are sensitive to family. I take care of business and am sensitive to my employees. Any good chef takes care of his or her employees by respecting their quality of life.
AB: When it comes to raising money do you think women have a harder time?
SS: I would say yes. Where I think the big difference is in compensation and backing women. I would say that women have a little more trouble raising money but that’s just a gut feeling.
AB: Did you have a hard time raising money?
SS: No I was lucky. I had a customer who was interested in helping me. But I think women are probably paid less then women.
AB: Yes you’re right. According to our salary survey average salary for a woman was $63,000 versus a man’s $74,000.
AB: Why aren’t there more women in the kitchen?
SS: I’d really like to know more especially for young girls – I wasn’t worried about getting married – I know that there are passionate, talented women out there, are they making a choice before getting caught up in it or are they choosing different roles in the industry like test kitchens, catering, corporate jobs? I think they must be pursuing other options. I miss having more gals in the kitchen. I’ve always wondered how Lydia Shire did it. She did it different ways. She s been a hotel executive chef, she had one restaurant, then multiple restaurants, she had a female chef de cuisine – Susan Regis – and she has a husband and kids. I’ve always wondered how she did it.
AB: Do you think that there is anything we can do to change the situation?
SS: I think it is what it is. There is always going to be a certain amount of sacrifice in this business. I’m in an independent restaurant – I’ve worked for 17 years to build one restaurant. I would like to start to find someone to promote to eventually turn my restaurant over to so that I don’t have to be here all the time. But the sacrifice is part of it, part of being in the trenches together, part of the fun of it. The chef has to be the leader and show that they have what it takes.