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Chefs + Restaurants

Where Are the Women?

A look at why so few female chefs have risen to the top of the restaurant scene.
female chef

Chef Gabrielle Hamilton in the kitchen at the 2007 Gourmet Institute.

One of the many things I miss about the dear old days of the 1970s women’s movement is the splendid clarity of the issues as they were first emerging into the light. Back then, sex discrimination truly made the world go round: It flourished by law and custom in school and on the job, it governed your pay and decided your promotions, it reigned over all the major religions and most of the media, the arts and the professions. And so blatantly! People didn’t bother to disguise their abhorrent policies: If they had no intention of hiring women, they said so when you tried to apply. Hardly a week passed without an invigorating new outrage, a burst of publicity, a march or a rally or a petition or a lawsuit. For a middle-class feminist in full attack mode, to be young was heaven.

Now, alas, the era of blessed simplicity seems to be over. Not that there isn’t plenty left for a feminist to do, but entirely too many gender inequities these days inhabit a gray area, fogged over by problems that resist the usual explanations and solutions. I’m thinking in particular of a question that always bothers me when I read stories about chefs winning awards, chefs opening spectacular new restaurants, chefs starring in yet another new TV series—congratulations, but why are all of you male? Where are the women?

Back in the aforementioned ’70s, this question would have had a nice, straightforward answer. Misogyny ruled restaurants the way it ruled everything else. Right through the 1980s, the traditional, European-style restaurant kitchens that used to define high-end dining in this country either refused to hire women, or gave them entry-level jobs accompanied by an aggressive barrage of sexual harassment. It was nasty, but it was familiar. Restaurant cooking appeared to be just another male fortress that was going to crumble over the next decade or so.

And it did—sort of. Barriers against women in professional kitchens fell away during the 1990s, and today it’s no more difficult for young women to break into restaurant work than it is for young men. The piggish behavior that used to be endemic has receded somewhat, and the high-speed, high-pressure, sometimes brutal working conditions accommodate two sexes far more smoothly than was the case a generation ago. Progress! But take a look at the two liveliest and most influential restaurant scenes in the country. In one of them, women chefs are ubiquitous, and so successful that nobody even remembers the word “discrimination.” In the other, you could fit all the big-name female chefs in town under a single bus shelter.

The first, of course, is the Bay Area, where great women chefs have been flourishing for decades. It’s easy to see why they’re drawn to the area: Northern California is the nation’s farm-and-cuisine capital, one of the most inviting places in the world to cook and eat. It’s also the nation’s gender-liberation capital, where the notion of second-class citizenship for women hasn’t gotten a whole lot of play for well over a century. And then there’s the Chez Panisse factor. Alice Waters has always encouraged talented female cooks to train at her restaurant, many of whom have gone on to open their own local places—and in turn train more women.

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.