Where Are the Women?

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Compare that happy, pastoral scene with what’s going on in New York, the nation’s other major restaurant center. Here the high-end professional kitchens are overwhelmingly male. A handful of women chefs have made names for themselves, but the numbers are shockingly low for a food-mad city packed to the hilt with places to eat. Few women apply for the jobs that open up, and even fewer stick around to get promoted.

Location, location, location. The problem for women chefs in New York seems to be New York. Restaurant work is gruelling everywhere; but the high cost of doing business in New York, as well as the maniacal pace of the city’s dining and social life, mean that chefs have little downtime. “In Chicago or San Francisco, you can close on Sunday and Monday if you want,” says Anita Lo, chef at Annisa and Bar Q. “In San Francisco the last reservation is at 9:30 sometimes. Here you have to be open seven days a week, and late nights. You can’t afford to close, and if it’s a small restaurant, you can’t hire someone else to do your job.” The conflict between that sort of schedule and any sort of family life stops many ambitious women in their tracks. What’s more, if you’re a woman who loves cooking, New York offers lots of more manageable ways to make a living with food. Catering, consulting, publishing, working in the food industry, being a private chef—women flock to these fields.

Another obstacle to making it in New York is a bit more elusive, and has to do with who gets to get famous in the nation’s media center. The chefs who win awards, attract investors and find opportunities opening up for them tend to be the ones whose restaurants generate the most buzz and publicity. Dazzling food and a crowd at the door are important, but that’s not all it takes. When Gabrielle Hamilton opened a tiny, uncomfortable place called Prune in 1999, her idiosyncratic menu caught on, the restaurant became successful, and today she’s a much-admired figure on the scene. When David Chang opened a tiny, uncomfortable place called Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, his idiosyncratic menu caught on, the restaurant became successful, and today he’s a much-admired figure on the scene—with numerous awards, scads of magazine profiles, two more restaurants and a public that worships him. However you account for the difference between these two career trajectories, it’s got to include something besides the food.

Maybe New York will never have equal numbers of men and women at the top of the restaurant scene. If so, I suspect the disparity will reflect women’s choices at least as closely as it reflects the media’s old-fashioned fondness for keeping men at the center of all it surveys. But surely the latter is due for an overhaul. “When women chefs get media attention, it’s for bucking the norm,” says Alexandra Guarnaschelli, the chef at Butter. “How about we just become part of the norm? Can we qualify for norm status?” That’s going to be the hardest of all.

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