It’s a funny thing for women to fight for: the kitchen. Culturally, women were expected to cook but professionally the kitchen was dominated by men. The fast-paced fine dining restaurant’s kitchen is a modern-day gladiatorial arena, complete with competition, theatre, and money. Ana Sortun of Oleana in Boston calls the business a game – a game you’ve got to want to play as badly as the boys.
70% of the StarChefs office is female, and the “where are the women chefs?” debate is a common one in the office. While researching cities for tasting trips, we examine the breakdown and generally notice that one sex is conspicuously missing from the savory side. Inspired by this, and by recent articles on the subject, we decided to interview successful female executive chefs across the country that have each made different choices, and define success differently, but have “made it” in their field.
The main theory flying around about why there aren’t more women running kitchens has to do, not surprisingly, with children. Women chefs, like women in other demanding and time-consuming professions, have to make complicated decisions when it comes to having a family. Children can run around the child-safe domestic kitchen, but the professional kitchen is all sharp corners, danger, fire and knives. If you work restaurant hours chances are you’re finishing your shift around midnight, give or take a few, and your day off is probably a weekday – not conducive to spending time with children. But take a year off to spend time at home with your baby before you’ve reached the top, and the window of career opportunity can close.
The solution our women put forth: wait. Focus on your career, pay your dues, and then have a family. By then, ideally, you’ll be in a position to prioritize. You’ll have a command structure in place, complete with savvy, tireless young talent to burn the candle at both ends while you take an extra day off. Just make sure you have a great sous chef. After talking to each one, it became clear that these women faced the same hardships as the men – that they planned out their careers from the beginning, paid their dues at the bottom of the ladder, and that, most importantly, they didn’t give up on their dream to rise to the top of their game.
Like every chef, man or woman, they prioritized family, relationships, and restaurant. They thought long and hard about what kind of restaurant – and what kind of success – they wanted, and planned accordingly. Without exception, each woman we spoke to refused to acknowledge a disadvantage.
“There have been men who couldn’t keep up with me and plenty who could.”
Jody Adams of Rialto — Cambridge, MA
“My kitchen is not this warm nurturing place. We’re very focused but it’s not crazy.”
Ana Sortun of Oleana — Boston, MA
“My number one priority will always be my child before my restaurant. I'm okay with that.”
Traci DesJardins of Jardiniere — San Francisco, CA
“I think a man can cook with just as much ‘soul’ as a woman.”
Tracy Miller of LOCAL — Dallas, TX
“I have had to rewrite the list of children I already had (aka some of my cooks) and put my own daughter at the top of the list”
Alex Guarnaschelli of Butter — New York, NY
“There was only one other woman there and she told me to quit because they made her cry in the walk-in every day”
Suzanne Goin of Lucques — Los Angeles, CA
“We are missing a main ingredient here not having more women savory chefs. We have lots and lots of women line cooks“
Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group — New York, NY
“I believe that all really good chefs cook from the heart – both sexes.”
Anne Quatrano of Bacchanalia – Atlanta, GA
“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”
Susan Spicer of Bayona – New Orleans, LA
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