While I was a part of culinary education at two prominent U.S. colleges, I was proud of how many women were entering and graduating from culinary schools. By the late 1990’s, nearly a third of all enrolled students were women and that number appeared to be growing. This population stalled over the next decade or so, except in baking and pastry programs where the percentage of women was much greater.
Still, in comparison to the early days of pre-1990 culinary education, these numbers were encouraging.
From a chef’s perspective, gender was no longer a real concern. As the restaurant industry grew, what mattered most was work ethic and skill. As a result, I would always tell students and parents that the glass ceiling in the restaurant business was non-existent. If you were passionate about food, competent, had some business savvy and were willing to make the commitment – success could be yours.
Here it is, 2014 and although there have been thousands of female graduates from culinary programs; there is a surprisingly small number who hold positions of executive chef. Now, there are certainly examples to the contrary; a cadre of women chefs who are making their mark, yet no where near the 33% that graduate from culinary schools across the country.
So where is the gap? Does it matter what gender a chef happens to be? Do we even need to have a conversation on the topic? I can only speak from my own experience and do not profess to have any substantial quantitative or qualitative data to support my observations; nevertheless, her is my take.
It shouldn’t matter what gender a chef is, but it does in some minds, and yes, we need to have this conversation. We all realize that men and women are different in many ways. Some of these differences are real while others are fabricated. In an article from Business Insider, Melissa Stanger wrote of her interview with Rebecca Rockafellar, the GM of iStockphoto. In this succinct article, Rockafellar points to three distinct traits of women leaders:
- Social Intuition: Women tend to be tuned into subtle signs that fellow employees or customers display. Women seem to have the desire and ability to not just identify these signs, but also work with individuals from this point of observation and understanding.
- Empathy: Women tend to listen and care more about what employees and guests are feeling and experiencing. This display of “caring” is oftentimes lacking in organizations.
- The Desire to Build Business Consensus: Women, in general, seek to build understanding and consensus of opinion around a topic during any decision making process. This desire to involve others is a trait that many employees, in particular, seem to gravitate towards.
Men, on the other hand (once again, a generalization):
- Tend to ignore social intuition and often times view this form of bonding as a sign of weakness.
- Feel empathy, as do women, but far too often hide it under a veil of testosterone laced “maleness”.
- Consensus is foreign to many men in positions of power, and they would rather ask for forgiveness than seek consensus. The rapid fire demands of kitchen decision-making demand real-time responses, which women leaders have to work harder to accept. Women tend to be inclusive and men like to go it alone. There is a time and a place for both approaches.
In a kitchen, I have found that women cooks and chefs have a bit more finesse, are detail oriented and can bring a different sense of focus to the operation.
A balanced team of at least the numbers resembling those in culinary schools tends to calm a kitchen and open the door to a sensitive approach to everything. Male cooks act differently (in a good way) when there is a gender balance in the kitchen.
When gender is too far skewed towards a population of male cooks then life can become uncomfortable for women. This would apply to the opposite situation as well. In either case, f the chef or the manager does not observe, act, educate and set standards of behavior, then the environment can become untenable for the minority gender.
There are no physical reasons in today’s kitchens for men and women to lack equal opportunity for career success, yet the numbers tell a different story.
I applaud those women who are leading the way for others and demonstrating that a woman’s place is leading a kitchen. Alice Waters, Annie Rosenweig, Nancy Silverton, Lydia Shire, Lidia Bastianich, Traci Des Jardins, Barbara Lynch and many other trailblazers are doing an exceptional job, yet they are still a minority. Many people can recite the names of prominent male chefs, but need to turn to Google to find their female counterparts.
READ THE DAILY MEAL – TOP 15 BADASS WOMEN CHEF’S
The industry needs talent. We need dedicated cooks with eyes on the prize of running a kitchen. It is time for the industry to recognize the incredible pool of talented female cooks who are ready for the challenge. As Andre Soltner once said, “Keep in mind we are all cooks.” We are cooks with equal potential. We should all have an equal opportunity.
GOOD RESOURCES AND READS FOR WOMEN COOKS AND CHEFS:
WOMEN CHEFS and RESTAURATEURS
Les Dames d’Escoffier International
A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen (if you can still find a copy)
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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