One of the great ironies in the food industry is that even though millions of women around the world cook and provide meals to their families daily, there are few women employed in professional kitchens (outside of pastry). And the few high profile female chefs often get overlooked, as was the case in Time Magazine’s recent cover story entitled “The Gods of Food,” where nary a woman was included among the nearly 100 chefs and food personalities the editors considered the most influential today.
In order to understand why there are so fewer female chefs in professional kitchens, or why they’re often overlooked, I sat down with Suzanne Goin, an LA-based chef and cookbook author who runs several restaurants in the city and has received numerous awards and accolades, including being named one of Food and Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs” in 1999. She told me that when she was in training twenty years ago, the only other woman in the kitchen where she was working at the time confessed to her that the guys made her cry everyday. Now chef Goin fills her kitchen with women to not only lead by example, but because she believes “women tend to cook in a less showy and more soul-satisfying way that focuses more on the flavor and satisfaction of the diner with less emphasize on the tricks and wow factor.”
Here are her tips for all the aspiring chefs out there who also happen to be women: “Work at least as hard as any man. Come from a place of strength even if you have to fake it in the beginning - you can't be a wimp! And show everyone that you can do everything they can do as well if not better than they can.”
What do others have to say? In an editorial in Montreal’s Gazette, Lesley Chesterman noted, “To get to the top, being tough is not enough. You have to be a barracuda.” Chesterman went on to argue that maybe we’re better off leaving professional kitchens to the “mean” men who run them. “Maybe in interviews, star chefs seem charming, but behind that swinging kitchen door, they’re hard as nails…. Women don’t dominate the upper echelon of the chef world [because of the] soul-destroying methods to get the job done… They have nightmares about unwiped plate rims, disorganized walk-ins, sloppy knife cuts and Michelin inspectors in their dining rooms on a daily basis. The stress is excruciating. It’s a dog-eat-dog atmosphere in the professional kitchen, and the cooks not pulling their weight are up for destruction. A reign of terror rules. Who in their right mind wants to be a part of that? Maybe women are simply too smart to put up with that day in, day out.”
The celebrated British chef Margot Henderson concurs. In a recent talk at Copenhagen’s MAD Symposium, Henderson told the crowd “Out there it’s Blokedom -- boy’s club. Women don’t need as much courage as men, they need more.”
But rather than blaming power dynamics alone, Henderson called for a paradigm shift – a return to more instinctive, simple, regional, and nurturing approach in professional cooking, not the trend of scientific or laboratory style cuisine that tends to exclude women. How does she imagine this food universe populated with women? “Platters groaning with unctuous flavors. When things are sticky and oozing and people are not afraid to gnaw on a bone. Food that is a celebration of the uniqueness of the occasion, the coming together of the season and the location. …When there is food whose beauty is natural and simple and time-honored, and not contrived or distorted through tricks or manipulation. I am happiest when the ingredients speak for themselves.”