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Female Chefs Fight for Space in Kitchens

Topics: Career Profiles
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Sexist adages about women’s work being in the kitchen fall apart when it comes to the restaurant business. Countless stories suggest that female chefs still aren’t getting the exposure or recognition they deserve, and recent press and labor statistics still confirm as much. Individual female chefs are making waves, but the lack of women in the kitchen is still an industry-wide problem.

The Stats Don’t Lie

Ask any woman in the biz, and they’ll tell you that women are forced to fight for space, recognition, and respect in kitchens in a way that their male counterparts are not. But even when they do get the chance to lead, fair pay doesn’t always follow. PayScale reports that men make up 88 percent of the chef workforce, and according to recent data aggregated by Data USA, male chefs are still paid, on average, over $6,000 more than female chefs in the same functions. And while it’s a tough number to swallow, the real problem remains not that women aren’t getting paid more for these jobs, but that they’re barely getting exposed to them at all.

Michelle Donaldson, an executive chef living in Detroit, MI, has trained in kitchens all over the country: a Michelin Star Resort and a five-star, five-diamond hotel and resort in Las Vegas, a steakhouse institution and farm-to-table concept in Tulsa, and now in a women-owned and operated catering kitchen in Detroit. She served as Oklahoma’s State Ambassador to the White House for the Healthy Kids Initiative in 2015 and 2016, and sought recognition from the James Beard Foundation for her work in reigniting Tulsa’s downtown food scene. But despite working in one of the most “supportive communities she’s ever experienced [Tulsa],” Donaldson said that when the time came for her to throw her hat in the ring for the Beard Award, few of her male colleagues were excited to cheer her on.

“I actually hated talking about that to anybody. There was only one male chef friend of mine who said, ‘this was amazing.’ Everyone else, we just kind of pretended it wasn’t happening. All the women chefs were like, ‘holy s—, this is awesome.’ But for everyone else, it was almost like I felt bad bringing it up or talking about it in front of them. One person told me I was too young.”

And despite the side-eye from male and older chefs in her community, Donaldson said she felt proud to pursue recognition for her work, leaving the “why me” nuisance for others to sort through on their own.

“I made an immediate impact in my immediate community, and on my larger community,” she explained. “Why not me?

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Women Chefs Get Funneled Into “Delicate” Work

It’s a symptom of a larger issue, one where some kitchen leaders and chefs fail to make space for women to succeed in the kitchen. Donaldson guesses that might be because the kitchen offers up the type of work environment that usually attracts men over women. Some credit the high-stakes nature of line cooking. Others blame it on the aggressive demeanor typically found in chefs working in fine dining. Some people point to the salad pastry pipeline that tends to funnel female chefs from culinary school into “more delicate things,” as Donaldson describes it. Whichever way you slice said delicate bread, there’s an absence of female leadership in commercial kitchens, and a large crop of female culinary geniuses who are tired of being misrepresented.

“When I was first starting out, I always felt like I was on the outside looking in, always trying to break this invisible wall of the boys club, and I always felt like I was falling short … almost because of the machismo of working in a kitchen.”

The red tape that comes with being young and female in the kitchen was extremely formative for Donaldson. It taught her to draw a specific boundary between her work life and home life, and left her with a thickened skin and a deceptively aloof demeanor to match.

“The other chefs could be so mean, but I would never cry at work. I didn’t want that stigma of being just another girl in the kitchen who couldn’t handle it. She can’t do what we do, because she’s just too delicate.”

The Fight for Space and Balance

By comparison, Donaldson’s experience is fairly mild when placed next to other women working in food. Of the 12 Michelin Stars that went to NYC restaurants in 2016, none were given to restaurants with a female executive chef.

While there are plenty of female chefs doing amazing work across the country, Donaldson says their fight for space in the kitchen is usually twofold: one of territory, and one of balance. As real as the struggle for space in the kitchen is, the struggle for time away from it is almost greater. And for working mothers trying to balance a career in food and a productive home life, the always-on, live-in-the-kitchen expectations that come with an executive chef title don’t always compute.

“In general, I don’t really talk about being mom in the kitchen because as a chef … because that means there’s something else I’m obligated to than the kitchen … something more important. And that other thing becomes a liability.”

That liability, Donaldson explains, is one of focus. For a working mother, having something outside the kitchen taking up 20 or 30 percent of her focus nearly disqualifies that person from being considered for an executive chef position. It’s an unsaid rule, but one chefs — both female and male, really —  know all too well.

“It’s absolutely insane what’s expected of an executive chef. There are very thin profit margins in the restaurant world. And for a chef to make a living wage (more than $45k a year), there’s an expected trade-off there … you’re gonna live at that restaurant. You’re the person who’s gonna take the bulk of the labor.”

While there are many women willing to take on the bulk of the load, for female chefs training in major markets, the glass ceiling of the kitchen feels insanely low. Donaldson says the competition between men and women is worse in larger cities, and that smaller communities tend to buck the trend and focus more on pushing the boundaries of their city collectively. But in places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Las Vegas, being female in the kitchen, or in culinary school, means undue pressure to prove yourself and your abilities, and less opportunities for one-on-one education and mentorship.

But there’s hope. Women are finally starting to get noticed for their work in commercial kitchens, and documentaries like A Fine Line and women-centric publications like Cherry Bombe are spreading their story to larger audiences. But until women chefs see more of themselves reflected in food at every level — culinary school, commercial kitchens, fine dining, and executive chef roles, it seems like the gap between male and female chefs won’t be narrowing anytime soon.

Tell Us What You Think

Are you a female chef? Tell us about your experiences in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Megan Shepherd
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