Guest post: A sociological study of why so few women chefs in restaurant kitchens

(Editor’s note: Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre teach sociology at Texas State University in San Marcos and are working on a project exploring the work and life experiences of women in the culinary industry. They have interviewed 32 female culinary professionals in Texas and are researching how critics and food writers help shape what it means to be a “chef” and how this can be gendered. If you are interested in writing a guest post, email me at broylesa@gmail.com.)

A recent guest blogger on the Feminist Kitchen asked a familiar question: Why has only one woman won “Top Chef”? Discussions like this one usually then evolve into asking: Why aren’t more women “great” chefs? (That’s White House chef Cristeta Comerford above, who in 2005 became the first woman appointed to head White House chef.) A lot of possible explanations have gotten thrown around in the press. Are women uninterested in professional cooking? Are women chefs less skilled than their male counterparts? Do women lack the assertiveness, aggressiveness, leadership skills and general fortitude that men have “naturally”? Are women discriminated against in the culinary professions?

As sociologists, studying chefs raises some interesting contradictions. When done in the home, cooking is associated more with women than men, but professional, high-status cooking has remained the domain of men despite inroads women have made into other traditionally male-dominated careers.

Obviously, it’s difficult to understand all the factors that determine why some groups succeed in an occupation and some do not.  To learn more, we interviewed female chefs in Texas to hear about their experiences and reviewed hundreds of restaurant reviews and chef profiles to see how the media assigns the title of “top chef.”

One problem facing women chefs is the pressure to conform to the culture of professional kitchens. There is a fine line for what is considered acceptable behavior for women in this “macho” environment. Women described themselves as “invaders” of men chef’s turf, and their male supervisors often had preconceived ideas that women were not physically and emotionally strong enough to work in kitchens and would give them fewer high-status jobs.

As outsiders, women chefs said they felt they had to prove themselves. On one hand, they could act more masculine, such as “giving it right back” when teasing or sexual jokes were thrown around the kitchen. They could also take pains (sometimes literally) to demonstrate their physical strength by not asking for help moving heavy objects. They demonstrated emotional strength by not crying or showing stereotypically feminine emotions.

But the women had to be careful.  If they acted too masculine, such as brusquely giving orders like men chefs, this could get them labeled “bitchy” and undermine their authority. Other women took a more feminine approach and a caring attitude about staff. They also “got their hands dirty” doing some of the less desirable kitchen jobs to demonstrate their commitment to teamwork. This made their male coworkers view them as mothers or big sisters in the kitchen — two feminine authority figures —but it was a fine line between encouraging teamwork and being a pushover.

Another factor in why there are few women head chefs is that many leave the career before they rise to these positions. Chefs work six to seven days a week, often for 12-14 hours at a time. The hours worked are structured around meal times, and many fine dining restaurants (the highest status chef jobs) are only open at night. Despite the attention given to celebrity chefs, most chefs don’t earn that much money and many restaurants offer few benefits like health insurance, paid vacations and retirement plans.

Many women chefs are willing to put in the hours and put up with low pay and few benefits, but if they have children, these arrangements may not be as appealing. Most restaurants are not going to have paid maternity leave. Chefs in restaurants cannot leave if their child becomes ill. Few childcare centers are open when chefs are at work. Because childcare responsibilities still fall more on mothers, it can be very difficult for women with children to become successful chefs.

Women chefs said they felt that they had two options:  either leave professional kitchens or come up with creative childcare arrangements so they could stay in the industry. Several of the women we interviewed had left kitchen work for catering or meal delivery while others took jobs at upscale grocery stores and culinary institutes. Several missed kitchen work but found their new jobs much more compatible with family life. Other women were able to juggle work and family demands because their husbands had flexible work schedules and they could parent in shifts. Other women drew from strong family and friend networks to provide childcare.

Positive media attention can help make or break a chef’s career, and we wondered if how chefs were evaluated had to do with gender. To do this, we compared hundreds of high-end restaurant reviews and chef profiles in magazines (e.g. Food & Wine) and newspapers (e.g. The New York Times).  There were some pretty stark differences in how men and women chefs were discussed.

Men were given credit for the intellectual and technical work involved in producing a dish. They are masters who dominate the food they produce. Critics rarely mentioned technical skills of women—they are more likely to be praised for being “hard workers.” Successful men are described as iconoclastic rule breakers (especially men working in technically advanced food styles like molecular gastronomy). Women, on the other hand, were praised for following food traditions. When men chefs achieve status, the natural next step was to start a culinary empire of multiple restaurants, cookbooks and media exposure. Yet, women are described as shying away from this type of success — they cook from the heart and are motivated by the caring act of feeding people, not personal ego or financial success.

We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s likely that men and women chefs (on the whole) are not radically different in terms of skills, leadership qualities and professional drive. What are different are the perceptions and experiences of men and women chefs. Our research on media definitions of “great” chefs tend to reaffirm the cooking and career choices made by men — even though our interviews with women chefs show they face stereotypes (sometimes even hostility) and family demands that make it very hard for them to reach the same levels as their male colleagues.

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16 responses to “Guest post: A sociological study of why so few women chefs in restaurant kitchens

  1. The famous restaurants and hotels in Europe and the U.S. have long depended upon women in a housekeeper uniform to serve their customers, but very few of them have ever appointed women to executive chef positions. Although women make up more than half of food service employees, less than one in five women work as chefs or head cooks. Many critics say that women in the culinary profession face serious discrimination: women are often permitted only entry level jobs, and they are not permitted to rise to positions where they could provide serious competition with the men.

  2. As far as I know there really hasn’t been a comprehensive look at the role of the media in shaping how female chefs are perceived, so definitely kudos for that. This also does a good job of identifying more general issues that women in all fields struggle with (childcare, the balance between “bitchy” and assertive) and connecting them to the pattern of women “dropping out” of kitchens. I would add that it’s also likely that when it comes time to find investors for restaurants or concepts, women are having more trouble than their male counterparts.

    However, I’m with Gabrielle Hamilton here. I’ve been working as a restaurant cook for four years, both in Austin and in Florida. The only thing that is going to change this is more women in restaurant kitchens. Period. Not more women graduating from culinary school (I didn’t). Not more female food writers. Not more women hanging out with a book club watching Eat Pray Love. What I’d like to see is less focus on how awful and hard kitchens are for women, and more focus on building networks of female cooks and chefs who can support each other in material ways. As far as I know an organization like that doesn’t really exist here in Austin.

    • You’ve really hit the nail on the head here, Nicola. I enjoy cooking, but writing is my passion. Part of me hates being just another female food writer, but a big part of the point of this blog is to use my writing to support fellow women, no matter what they choose to do. If you ever decide to start some coalition of female cooks in Austin, let me know and I’ll help spread the word and do whatever else I can.

    • Having posted that first comment, I also wanted to address the comment about how women hanging out with a book club watching Eat Pray Love won’t help get more women in restaurant kitchens. The book club won’t directly get more women in the kitchen, but that’s not really the goal. I want to provide a place where people can talk about issues surrounding gender and food. Women in restaurant kitchens is just one of those issues, and Eat Pray Love, which has some baggage within the feminist community, brings up some other important questions about body image, dieting and self-worth that will be good to talk about. When we talk about “Blood, Bones and Butter” in September, hopefully the discussion will include how we can actively support women in restaurant kitchens in Austin, through an organized group or just by dining at places run by women.

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  6. I am a very fit and active 48 year old woman in culinary school who runs circles around the boys. I think the men I am in school with are for the most part very nice and a few educated and progressive about a woman’s role. However, things in the “real world” of professional kitchens are sexist as ever, in an old-school way, even among the most hip chefs. I am doing a stage at one of the best restaurants in Boston and have a little something to say about what I have observed (I am a former academic and focused on gender issues in film and literature, so I always have something to say).
    First of all, the first thing I noticed about this restaurant was the maleness of it. The line chefs are all great big, tattooed, predominantly working class males with little formal education, and like their working class male counterparts in other blue collar industries, they are grunts, which we often overlook because they can cook and handle themselves in a kitchen. Feminism to them is a thing that other people do. Feminism is something that has passed these guys right by and they don’t really analyze their behavior, the behavior of others, or the gendered spaces around them. It doesn’t dawn on them that never in the 8 years or so this restaurant has been in business has their EVER been a female line chef. EVER!!!! The women are stuck in prep, pantry, and garde manger roles. Just the other day I walked in for my shift and was told they had no work for me because they had two other stages who were going to NYC next week and had to be ready. And I’m like, “Well, I am 48, I need to speed things up here, I am sick of chopping your friggin onions, and I NEED TO GET PREPARED FOR MY LIFE TOO!” The stages were male, in their mid 20s and they moved them right to the front of the line as their hard working and loyal garde manger “girls” who would kill to work the line looked on a little bewildered. Why aren’t the careers of these women as important to groom and hone as those of these men? Why don’t the women speak up? Well, because they are blue-collar girls who “know their place” especially when the boys don’t want to let the girls play. It is pathetic.

    • Sorry for the lousy grammar in my last post, but it is early and I am practicing to be a grunt so I won’t threaten the boys with my brain and my boobs. Working girls have got to dumb down for the boys or else they will be subjected to all kinds of backlash. Wow. The restaurant world is stuck in the 50s.

      • I completely agree! I attended a professional cookery course nearly two years ago, graduated as the best one. Needless to say, because I am married and a woman, I never found a chef job in nearly two years, only kitchen hand jobs! Why studying to be a chef if a woman is forced, for all her life, to wash dishes in a kitchen? :/ I am feeling discriminated and a lot too, despite I showed everybody in a few events that I was the only one getting through 16 hours without feeling tired…..

  7. Really, Jane, you dummied down for a man? This is not meant as an attack, but who else is stuck in the 50s? I am 57, active, look about 10 years younger than my biological age, and am in my 3rd semester of culinary school. I have managed to intimidate my classmates because I have over 40 years of cooking and I had excellent knife skills prior to going to school. I do the work, I speak my mind and I’ll be “Joe Brown” before I let some jerk in a kitchen dictate how I will act in a kitchen. I have boobs and a serious desire to cook. Mr. Man on the line does not scare, intimidate, or control me. When I graduate, I will have my first degree in food management and am willing to start where appropriate, not peeling a carrot for 2 years and I also expect promotions as deemed. If not, then I am on to the next until I do find a place that will treat me will dignity and respect. That may even mean my opening a place of my own, but I will NEVER dummy down to anyone.

    • I certainly wish you good luck, but at 57 (even if looking younger) and being a beginner, your career is bound to be quite short. I am your same age and are towards the end of my career as a chef for over 30 years. I have been an executive chef many times and I can tell you there is real gender bias and discrimination in the food industry, from employers as well as from male employees. No matter how
      smart and accomplished, you would need talents well above the average to succeed in getting hired, getting media attention and being respected by employers and male coworkers, not to mention the ability to command the same salary than male chefs. In addition, there is the age factor: an older chef will see opportunities dwindle by the time they reach 60… usually being replaced by a younger chef (it is almost like in the fashion world.) I do not think it happens only in the kitchen, I think gender bias happens in nearly every field or profession with a few exceptions.

      • Before qualifying as a chef I was in the fashion industry, another male dominated industry. Yet, I was paid as much as a man in my same job position. The sexist discrimination in the kitchen is really astounding. I am nearly 42 and I graduated with top marks at cookery school. Nevertheless my qualification is deemed nothing because I am a woman!

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