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.