Over the past several weeks I’ve had contact with a couple of women, both in sous chef positions, one I know who is working in a new restaurant, and the other I met for the first time at an event. Both have stellar credentials (and interestingly a shared history at one of Toronto’s top restaurants). In both cases I couldn’t shake the question rising in me: Given their resumes, why weren’t they calling the shots in the kitchen? I reached out to the woman I know to ask why she wasn’t the executive chef? I was assured it was in the works and trust it will happen. The other woman assured me it was the next move after gaining international experience. I encouraged them both not to wait too long.
My impatience is part projection. I’ve written candidly about having spent too much time as a sous chef. In a recent Guardian feature, chef Dominique Crenn says, “Right now we are in a place where we’re suppressing diversity.” How does this apply to women in professional kitchens? As a culture we stall their progress into executive chef roles, and a big career trap is spending too much time as second in command.
By the time a woman works their way into the position, they are likely six or more years into their career (it’s worth noting their promotion is slower than their male peers). Sous chef is a final step before becoming an executive chef and should amount to a one or two year term tops. Any longer and the odds are it will become a career. It’s a point in a woman’s professional trajectory to begin planning for what lies ahead and to ask the essential question, ‘what's next for me?’
In failing to move onward and upward, women play a part in suppressing diversity. I didn’t stop to consider how being a sous chef for six years fit the dominant culinary culture of men-on-top. (To be fair, I worked hard to hold on to my stake, often in isolation.) Looking at a lot of kitchens, too often the position becomes the finish line, the highest rank a woman can hope to achieve.
Most chefs don’t know what it means to be an ally, and there are few women up to the task of challenging the dominant culture's idea of “wokeness.” I don’t care how many women your favourite chef takes to culinary events, or poses with in Instagram selfies. I have a pet theory there's an inverse relationship—the more women are used as props, the less likely they’re holding important positions behind the swinging kitchen door. The Toronto kitchen these two women have in common is part of a growing restaurant group, with no women as chef de cuisine or executive chef. There’s no history, and quite possibly no will, in the organisation to advance them. If this sounds like a current employer, it’s time to consider the next move.
For most small kitchens, progress beyond sous chef means looking elsewhere. Large organisations create complex hierarchical structures—junior, senior, and executive sous chef—to hold on to people with experience. Remaining a sous chef beyond a reasonable time should trigger serious reflection. Does it suggest a lack of confidence in a woman’s ability to lead? Is there organisational evidence of gender bias in leadership roles?
Rarely will a promotion be delivered to the sous chef station. The sooner that sinks in, the better. Women need to lay plans early about the kind of kitchen they’ll lead. Actively pursuing the goal means reaching out to headhunters and trustworthy senior members in the community, and gathering support from peers and family. Treat investors stepping in to fund the dreams of young men as another source of opportunity. No one can guess at a woman’s value, they must speak of personal achievements and ambitions with forthright confidence. Ask for everything they want (it should feel uncomfortable) and run it all by someone without a stake in it.
Shedding the sous chef trap is not just a matter for women in professional kitchens. It turns up under so many guises in the culinary world. What would happen to culinary events if we took women out of the role of logistical sous chef? How many celebrity chefs would have their name on cookbooks if women stopped signing contracts to “collaborate?” There’s a ton of emotional labour women assume when they take up the role. And just like me, a lot of men end up calling the shots and claiming the glory.
Let’s start measuring a chef’s worth by the number of women they promote inside or outside their kitchens. Let’s start asking them directly how many executive chef positions they’ve filled with women? The closer the number is to zero the more reasons there are to proceed with caution. If a sizeable culinary operation lacks female executive chefs, it's a red flag. I’m not talking token representation either, one or two women don’t cut it. If there’s a glut of women in career sous chef positions, run away quickly. Do the research, ask questions, take responsibility for discerning if the talk matches the action.
Moving into an executive chef position literally or metaphorically requires women to own their careers. Surrendering ambitions to men in senior positions is squandering talent. It’s irresponsible. I suggest women manifest their destiny—get a plan and act on it. I remain curious about the women I meet, press them to take action, and encourage them to draw a line to define when the wait is over.
Happy International Women’s Day 2019!
I’m collecting demographic data for Canada’s top kitchens (think "Canada's 100 Best Restaurants"), and would be grateful for your help. If this interests you please send me an email to chef(dot)reid(at)gmail(dot)com. I will use the figures to report a story, and will fact-check with you and any restaurant in question. Under no circumstances will I identify you as a source.
I taught Jamie Harling as a young chef. He was one of those eager-to-learn students with a passion that wasn’t puffed up talk; it was backed up with commitment and talent. I was sure he would go places. We were kindred spirits from the start and remain friends more than a decade later. We meet when we can, in Toronto or Calgary, to talk about life and what's next. In some small way, I've known the pleasure of professionally mentoring him.
We share a commitment to social activism, and I admire his keen support of communities in need through “Chefs for Change” and countless local charity events. He’s been a fixture of the prairie food scene participating in events like Raw Almond in Winnipeg and the Prairie Grid Dinner Series. His cooking and affable personality won him the admiration and respect of his peers and the attention of national and international food media.
Not long ago he sent me a note to say he was accepting a position with the Calgary Fire Department. We met for lunch over Christmas to talk about the realities of the Canadian restaurant world, and the future he was looking toward. There was a lump in my throat the day he posted a selfie on social media in his new uniform.
I'm happy for him and fully support his new life. I'm proud to know him and to have his trust. My respect for him grows knowing he's making family and quality of life a priority.
But I also need to speak of the small crack in my heart left by his departure, and to register the loss of a great Canadian chef.
In culinary schools and restaurants in Canada, we train the young, to replace the young. We voraciously chew through talent. That's the sum of our culture. The lofty talk of a new order falling from the lips of chefs on the "cool" conference circuit is hollow. We lap it up without asking hard questions. The reality is most chefs and restaurateurs lack the will and stomach to do the hard work of changing. When pressed, they drag out the tired, worn-through argument of tight margins. We don't pay chefs with experience their value, our demands on them are relentless, and we think nothing of interfering in their private family time.
The Calgary fire department is lucky to have you, Jamie. Maybe one day soon my knees will be under the table in a firehouse kitchen when you're at the stove. I hope there’s still stuff for us to talk about for a long time to come.
A. is actively searching for an executive chef position. She spent ten years working in great restaurant kitchens in Ontario and Montreal, has European training, was executive chef for an island retreat for political leaders and executives from around the world, and has led a unique food project in South America. What she hasn’t done—what so many women haven’t done—is follow the path of the traditional brigade system. And that stumps a lot of men who are hiring.
We met recently, and she told me a couple of her job search stories. I’m sharing what I said to her below. Looking squarely at the ways we keep women out of the top spot in the kitchen is one step toward change. When I hear a chef bemoan the shortage of talent in our industry, A’s story is one of many that jump to my mind.
When a man in a position to hire tells you he is struggling to see how you fit in the business, at a time when you’re ready for an executive chef position, look on him as a dangerous gatekeeper. He’s delivering a message that’s been spinning for female cooks for ages. He's telling you, you don’t belong.
It’s not entirely true he couldn't see a place for you either. He sent you line-cook job postings in mediocre corporate roadhouses. When a juicy position that was a perfect fit came up, he told you it was a long shot. Look on this as a measure of his lack of talent, not yours.
When an executive chef leading multiple restaurants tries to convince you not to go it alone in one of his establishments, but instead become an executive sous chef (as if that job title isn’t warning enough), remember that a lot of men like having women in that position. They parade them around at events as evidence of their wokeness. Of course, it works for them because it follows the natural order of men on top. But sous chef today is a position reminiscent of pastry/garde manger when I was an apprentice. Both are pink ghettos where a lot of female talent gets parked indefinitely.
He’s also the chef who thinks so little of your decade of stellar experience that he wants you to come in and do a stage before he decides if you’re a good fit. Stop and ask yourself if he’s getting men with similar experience to jump through that hoop? They’d tell him where to get off. So should you.
Sadly there’s no shortage of men continuing to participate, consciously or not, in the toxic masculinity that pollutes culinary culture. They came up through the brigade system and slavishly still cling to it. Instead of getting rid of a broken military model, they make a problem of anyone who doesn't fit it. Few are the men who possess the courage to change, and many are the men who pay lip service to it. But don’t think we can’t see the ways they plod along serving their brothers and the status quo.
When you hear the message that you don’t belong, in all of its gross and sly manifestations, RUN THE FUCK AWAY. Do not internalise it. Take too much of that in, and pretty soon you’re talking yourself out of your greatness. Just know the barriers thrown up against women moving into a position of authority are still formidable.
Let us take pleasure in dining out on the stories of these men. We must warn our female colleagues about who's practising this brand of bullshit.
Hold out for the people who recognise and want your kind of special. Sadly, along the way, you'll have to show your back to plenty of unworthy motherfuckers. It’s not your job to teach men how to be decent humans and leaders, but it doesn't hurt to point directly to the things that are problematic in their offers.
Put me on speed dial for those rare occasions when you start to give in to it.
Note: This is the second piece I have written to a woman who came to me for professional guidance. Here is the first.
This photo circulated in my Instagram feed in mid-January. I found it irritating for obvious reasons. In 2018, any organisation flaunting a token woman has made a conscious decision to do the bare minimum on matters of gender equity. The equation is simple:
Token woman = Secure status quo.
As far as rank goes, Jenna Reich is the only commis (junior chef) on the Bocuse d’Or Canada team (and she's a culinary student). From the perspective of her power and solo status, she's not in a position to challenge the “world-class team of Canada’s leading chefs” on any issue. And evidence suggests that’s just how they like it.
The event’s PR team, led by Brigitte Foisy, has been working overtime to produce “woke” content. Their home page has a video featuring team candidate chef Trevor Ritchie and chef Reich. The banner features images of Canadian chefs including Mark McEwan, Jonathan Gushue, and Jason Bangerter alongside photos of mostly unknown young women and Foissy herself. To celebrate International Women’s Day, they posted this photo. I’d place a Vegas bet most of the women here are culinary students. That doesn’t mean they’re not important, but none of them qualifies as a peer of the male chefs associated with the event. It’s painfully ironic that the Bocuse d’Or Canada is using images of young women to promote the competition and appear gender friendly while having just one woman, in a junior position, on the team.
It could work if the objective is to attract more young women. But where are the female chefs who are peers of McEwan, Gushue, and Bangerter? There’s also an acute exclusion of female chefs among the band of eight senior chefs on the team. Why are they absent from the ranks? How will young women get a vision of their future without them? Regarding mentorship, it’s a serious omission.
As far as team demographics go, 2019 represents progress. Here is the competition team in 2017 and 2015. And the chefs honoured as Bocuse d’Or Canada laureates are, brace yourself, all men.
The team’s fathership is the CCFCC Canada (Canadian Culinary Federation) whose mission is, “...to unite chefs and cooks across Canada in a common dedication to professional excellence.” (You’re not out of the loop if you’ve never heard of them.)
It should be no surprise that the ten members of the CCFCC’s National Executive, are all men. But hold on, there are two women serving as junior board reps. Recognize that pattern?
Many Canadian culinary institutions require CCFCC certification for their teaching faculty. Meaning, the membership has a significant population of culinary educators. So the chefs teaching young culinary students, a body that’s reached gender parity, are being certified by an organisation that, for all appearances, is hostile to women.
Most Canadian competitions are affiliated with culinary schools. There's often a designated faculty member overseeing young student competitors. I can’t speak to how many female faculty members are assigned to this, but I’d hazard a guess the number is disturbingly low.
It's a tangled web of institutions with a special kind of cultural blindness that allows this biased infrastructure to exist. The trickle-down effect of those values is worrisome. I’d argue you can see them at work in the demographic makeup of the current Bocuse d’Or Canada team.
The team has no sponsors listed on their website, but the CCFCC has plenty. The footer banner on their website lists the companies tied to their organisation. Wonder if their corporate sponsors are aware of the bias toward men.
I don’t know how long it will take for the Bocuse d’Or Canada or the CCFCC to accurately represent the culinary industry at large. The CCFCC's mission statement to "unite chefs and cooks" is laughable, and without women “professional excellence” is impossible.
Before I depart, here’s a word on the dull and predictable response of ‘no women applied.’ First, it’s the preferred refrain of this set. When I hear it, I know I’m dealing with lazy, status-quo-loving individuals. Change takes strenuous and prolonged effort.
I've taught cooking classes for almost 25 years, and the greatest pleasure is the people. Yes, we gather to cook and eat delicious things, and everyone leaves with a soupçon of knowledge, but it's working in the kitchen together that's best. Former students are among my closest friends, and I know of several, decades-long friendships, that began in classes I taught in Stratford. Cooking and camaraderie are a winning combination.
It's not just the students; it's the people behind the scenes. Last Sunday I did a tourtière class at the Drake Commissary (a west-end gem). The staff were warm and friendly, and chef Matthew and Alex went above and beyond for me. We wouldn't have all met in the gorgeous kitchen space if it weren't for Ivy Knight, Toronto food writer and host extraordinaire and the mastermind behind Knight School.
I struck a deal with one of the students in the class. I'll be trading a tourtière for cabbage rolls on December 24. It might be a new tradition in the making. I love the idea that this year there will be a few more people tucking into a réveillon feast on Christmas Eve.
When William Drew opens his defence of The World’s Best Female Chef Award with, “The world is sexist,” you know where he’s headed. It’s reasonable to expect the sentence to end, and so are we. He’s not off to a great start in defending the award and positioning the host organisation, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, as advocates of “affirmative feminism in action.” A cursory glance at their record since 2002 quickly reveals his brand of feminism as a sham. In 2016, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants could only find one woman on the planet to bring into their fold, Chef Elana Arzak Espina, and she’s not a new member of this privileged club.
William Drew’s spin that the award is meant to, “shine a light on supremely talented female chefs with the aim of inspiring future generations of young women to reach for the heights of their chosen profession,” might pacify some. But female chefs share a different perspective. They view the award with suspicion, like a shiny bauble that distracts organisers, jurors, sponsors, and participating chefs from the fact that the host awards, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, is a boys club.
The gendered award has always felt like a consolation prize. That runner-up feeling amplified, as Charlotte Druckman astutely points out, by the fact that rarely does the World’s Best Female Chef land on The World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. The Michelin Two Star restaurant, Atelier Crenn, owned by last year’s winner Chef Dominique Crenn wasn’t up to their standards. In April we’ll find out if Mr Drew will deal the same hand to Chef Ana Roš.
The award came into existence to solve a problem. Female representation on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list went from an average of nine percent (2002–08) to four percent in 2009, and it’s never risen. Some prominent women took note and began agitating on social media. In 2011 the award was born, and Chef Anne-Sophie Pic was the first recipient.
Was it a neat solution? Did the award allow the organisation to continue with business as usual and do nothing about the obvious gender bias? Can we accept the decline knowing that the number of female chefs leading great restaurant kitchens continues to grow? In 2016, not only did Chef Dominique Crenn’s restaurant fail to make the grade; female representation on the prestigious list sank to its lowest level, at two percent. It’s hard to hear Mr Drew talk of affirmative action while the organisation behaves in a manner toward women that could be construed as openly hostile.
And what of the jurors? Should we worry about the imagination of the “1000 ‘influential’ people from within the restaurant community” who in 2016 couldn’t come up with more than one female chef worldwide to include on the list? Given the repetition among award winners, it's reasonable to question the terms of the search. Are most of the jurors making rounds of the same international tables, playing some high-flying game of musical chairs?
Are top ranking chefs like Massimo Bottura, Daniel Humm, and Rene Redzepi okay with being celebrated by an organisation that marginalises women? I’d like to hear them explain the ranking to the female chefs in their kitchens. What would they say? It’s not just the ‘best’ designation female chefs lose; it’s the media exposure and economic benefits that accompany it.
But why should female chefs worry about that when Mr Drew's tasked the World's Best Female chefs with cleaning and scrubbing the industry of all its woes:
“Between them and their fellow female winners, they are campaigning to attract more women to the industry, to improve traditionally anti-social working conditions and poor wages, to address work-life imbalance, to drive changes in food production methods and the treatment of farmers, to promote LGBT rights, to provide opportunities for the under-privileged, and to celebrate their respective localities.”
And while they’re busy nurturing the industry, what are the boys doing?
Who is the “we” that Mr Drew invokes? Are they content with gender segregation as a solution? The silence from the men associated with the awards suggests they’re not bothered by the way it plays out for women. Maybe they believe William Drew when he says, “It is not an award that seeks to separate female cooking or define it as ‘other.’” Most female chefs will recognize that statement for what it is, delusional and the talk of a man with a big stake in maintaining the status quo. As it stands, the World’s Best Female Chef award gives a false impression that all involved are concerned about equity when the evidence clearly suggests they're not.
I could hardly believe my good fortune when your email arrived on November 23, 2016. When you wrote, “I wish I could hug you,“ about my writing on female chefs and social justice issues in the professional kitchen, my heart sang. It’s one thing to have readers connect to my work and another thing altogether for a young female chef to find meaning in it.
When you asked, “How did you know to bow out? There is no doubt in my mind that it is the SMART thing for me to do, but somehow I feel like I haven't yet achieved what I wished to achieve,” it took me back to a critical juncture in my career. (The photo of me is from that period.)
In 2000 I did a six-week stage at the River Cafe in London. It was a pivotal moment in my 13-year career. I was sous chef in a top Canadian restaurant and my path to that point was stellar (and in some ways insufferably long).
The democracy and absence of hierarchy at the River Cafe were a revelation. There were so many women working in Ruth and Rose’s kitchen. It was a dream. When I returned to Canada, I wasn’t the same. I felt ready to take the last step in my journey to becoming an executive chef.
But nerves, self-doubt, and too little opportunity proved formidable foes. I left the kitchen within a year of my return and struggled for several years to find a place for myself off the trajectory where I had spent my entire young life.
I did grapple with all the feelings that remained after the thing I had made tremendous sacrifices for was laid to rest. I spent time mourning, and the most cursed thing was, I mourned alone. That’s one of the biggest final humiliations of working in a male-dominated culture; your absence goes unnoticed.
I don’t know if it was the smart thing to do. I'm a wonderful cook, and I do think about what could have been. I’ve felt shame and some regret about not having steeled my nerves and forged ahead.
Your words are powerful. When you write, “I am tired of putting on a brave face and acting like some kind of martyr. The thought of starting at another new restaurant and proving my worthiness while I watch younger less experienced men start above me is exhausting and insulting,” please know that you are not alone. Young female chefs worldwide share your disappointment and anger.
A lot of young women leave professional kitchens within five years of graduating cooking school. You’re a rare and talented woman if you’ve made it to ten.
The other great exodus for female chefs is just before they take the final step. I offer my story as a cautionary tale. I might have done things differently had someone encouraged me to stay all those years ago.
With ten years of experience behind you, there’s no more need to prove yourself. The time for letting an executive chef dictate your position is over. Say goodbye to Garde Manger (and pastry) FOREVER. Seriously question the intelligence and integrity of any executive chef who wants you in that station with your experience. It’s time for you to decide what position you want in a kitchen. One of the reasons all those “less experienced male cooks” start above you is that they ask for what they want.
I’m exhausted and insulted reading that you’re paid a day rate of $100 for 14 hours of work. That’s $7.14/hour, a full $3.61/hour below minimum wage in Quebec. Just bridging the gap to minimum wage over the course of a year would put $7220 more dollars in your pocket (and that’s without overtime). Think about that the next time you pay rent. Day rates and salaries almost never benefit cooks. They’re often a red flag that wage abuses are likely to occur.
Please don’t make earning minimum wage your goal. It’s too low. At ten years, you’re responsible for the return on your investment and wages are something to negotiate. I’ve talked to countless young women who found out they were earning below their male peers in large part because they didn’t ask for more. Role-play, practice, do whatever it takes to cook up the chutzpah to secure a wage in line with your experience. Make it a figure that gives you reason to stay.
Figure out what you burn to achieve and go for it. Don't waste any time. I hope all of it scares you shitless. For many women, a sure sign you’re ready is to think that you’re not. Go for it with everything you’ve got. Show those futhermuckers who's boss.
I’m with you in spirit. So are countless other female chefs. Let me know when you land the position of your dreams.
In my second year at the Stratford Chef School, I was assigned as student executive chef for a tribute dinner honouring the great chef Fernand Point. The dinner was on the last night of classes before the Christmas holiday. On the surface, the menu appeared simple, but its execution required skill and subtlety. I was a perfectionist and hell-bent on achieving Michelin three-star results in a teaching kitchen in rural southwestern Ontario, no matter the strain. I’d fallen hard for Point while doing my research and, crazy as it seems, of all the people I needed to please on that night, I most wanted to get it right for him.
Point steered the course of French cuisine toward the future at his restaurant, La Pyramide, in Vienne, France. Moving it away from its often overwrought classical past and toward a sophisticated, lighter approach still recognizable today. He worshiped ingredients and thought they should shine. Flavourful reductions began to simmer alongside the flour-thickened sauces of the past. Elaborate menus were scaled back. Most of the three-star chefs who would later create Nouvelle Cuisine were apprentices in his kitchen. They were carriers of his lessons. They loved him, as did his peers.
I’d been in the kitchen until late the night before the dinner, working with the student assigned to pastry. The dessert for the evening was Gâteau Succès. We were busy piping rounds of almond meringue and slowly baking them to a crisp finish, whipping buttercream to a light fluff the colour of fatty cream and then flavouring it with praline. In the end, the success of our pastry prep left me feeling in control and entertaining gilded dreams of the dinner. That bliss would be short-lived as, the next day, one small detail went astray.
The evening’s main course was one of Points most famous creations, Poularde en Vessie, chicken cooked with aromatics in a pig’s bladder. The bladders were the final item to be struck off my prep list and were essential to reproducing the dish with historical accuracy. I’d written into the evening’s script a grand parade through the dining room of a just-cooked and fully inflated bladder set on a silver tray, just like the pictures I’d seen in historic cookbooks.
I’d ordered the bladders from the local European butcher well in advance, and they seemed pleased to fill my unusual request. My last stop before heading to the restaurant in the early afternoon of the dinner was to collect them. Mr. Weideman and his son Daniel presented me with a long strand of bladders, blown up like balloons, and strung together like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The holiday riot of their delicatessen lost its coloured-foil lustre as I instantly realized they were too small.
I’d had to paste a smile on my face big enough to conceal my disappointment. With bulging shopping bags in each hand, I headed out into a wet, heavy snow that clung to my boots with the weight of the failure stuck in my head. The stainless steel sky tinged the town the colour of despair. My mind was racing to find a solution to a problem that had come on like the flu.
The kitchen was empty when I arrived at the restaurant. I’d planned time to review my orders before the day’s activity began. By nature, I am tightly wound but on that afternoon, my nerves clanged like the sauté pans heaved into the dish pit during service. I prided myself on being fastidious and yet one of the details I’d attended to with such care had gotten away. I couldn’t think what to do about the bladders and settled on hand-wringing instead.
When the teaching chef arrived, he could read the distress on my face. We set the crew to work, and the chopping and hustle calmed me. The chicken would be cooked for dinner service, so we had the luxury of a few free hours. Out of the blue, the chef wondered aloud if Ziploc bags could substitute for the bladders. We had enough time and ingredients for a trial run. I put a large stockpot of water on to boil while someone ran off to the store to buy the bags.
We needed this solution because we didn’t know that pig’s bladders vary in size and shape. The bladders I received could accommodate a small bird like a squab or a quail but certainly not a chicken.
The bag containing the chicken, liquor, and aromatics stayed suspended in the barely simmering water bath. The ethereal scent of the bird when it emerged from the bag shattered my worry. The chicken was succulent with the flavours of cognac, Madeira, and black truffle. In late December of 1991, long before the advent of modernist cuisine, we had invented a primitive form of sous-vide cooking. The Ziploc intervention worked a charm.
We all exhaled and the rest of the night’s prep was done with ease. The first course, gratin de queues d’écrevisses, was a luxurious dish of langoustines in a shellfish reduction, rich with cream. It took Point seven years to perfect this dish. The chicken was garnished with glazed baby root vegetables from a local farmer. Saint Marcellin cheese followed, wrapped like a gift from nature in chestnut leaves, perfectly ripe and earthy.
My cheeks were flushed from the heat of the kitchen, and I was giddy with the success of the evening as the last dessert left the kitchen. Something important had happened to me. On that winter night, in the tender, early days of my development, I had fallen truly and deeply in love with French cooking. I spent the next decade pursuing its masters. As I passed through the dining room greeting the guests, several told me that Fernand Point was smiling down on me that night. I recognized the compliment as a generous offering to a young cook, but I also knew in my heart, having passed the test of recreating the work of a great master, it was true.