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.
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.
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.
“Some claim that men must be central in the curriculum because they have done most of what is important or distinctive in life or in civilization.” Peggy McIntosh
I taught young women and men destined for culinary careers for more than 15 years. I was passionate about food theory and was frequently assigned this curriculum. In an introductory course, two of a total 28 hours was assigned to culinary history. It’s a paltry allotment and the squeeze forced me to leap and careen through our culinary evolution.
My passion for the subject led me to study independently. I soon realized that some of what I was passing on was seriously impaired by its western orientation. Through Susan Pinkard’s, A Revolution in Taste, I came to understand that Catherine de Medici’s role in the evolution of haute cuisine was overstated. Pinkard calls it “one of the evergreen myths of culinary history.” The fork did not spring from Catherine’s hand nor was it evidence of Italian superiority at the table. Rather, it points to the trading ties Italy had forged with the east. The fork came from Byzantium. Other culinary innovations, such as ices and sorbets, came from Persia. Catherine de Medici was a carrier between the east and west.
I loved seeing this truth light up in the faces of my students of Turkish and Persian descent. For me, it was a minor lesson in the benefits of inclusion. A realization began to take shape in me that our culinary culture could benefit from more truth seeking and telling.
I usually inventoried for my students the chefs who made vital contributions to our evolution — Apicius, Careme, Escoffier, Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse. I was French trained and had inherited an immense respect for a few of these figures. But I was mostly asleep, repeating by rote the things that I had been taught and deemed to be true. The exclusivity of this version of our history was slow to dawn on me.
That changed in my early 40's when I discovered chef Eugenie Brazier, a woman whose achievements eclipsed that of Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse, and whose absence from our history demonstrated our perverse cultural bias to celebrate only the accomplishments of white, European males.
How is it possible that a woman we’ve never heard of could outshine the likes of Paul Bocuse? Using the French measuring stick of Michelin authority it is on record that Eugenie Brazier was the first chef to be awarded three Michelin stars in 1933 and the first chef to hold six stars, three stars for each of her restaurants in Lyon and col de la Luère. That later achievement remained unchallenged until chef Alain Ducasse exceeded it with nine Michelin stars in 2005. Paul Bocuse has never held six Michelin stars, nor has Fernand Point. In this regard, chef Brazier’s achievement lands her in the rare company of chefs like Joel Robuchon and Thomas Keller. In his forward to the book, La Mère Brazier. The Mother of Modern French Cooking, Paul Bocuse writes that Eugenie Brazier “remains one of the pillars of global gastronomy” who “taught all of us about flavors and gave us a taste for hard work and work well done. There would have been no success for any of us without her; something we often forget these days.”
But Paul Bocuse also provides a good example of just how this kind of forgetting happens. His attitude toward women in professional kitchens is no secret. We shrug off as French idiosyncrasy the fact that he refuses to employ women in his kitchen. (Ironic, given that his namesake school in Lyon benefits immensely from the tuition contributions of many female culinary students.)
In the Lyon episode of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN program, Parts Unknown, Mr. Bocuse bares his unseemly bias when speaking of his first mentor. Early in the episode, tribute is paid to Brazier but when Anthony Bourdain and Daniel Boulud are in Mr. Bocuse’s presence at his restaurant, she is dealt a fatal blow. When asked what he remembered about her Mr. Bocuse’s only comment is about her temper. Nothing about the early skills she imparted, about a cuisine that won the highest level of gastronomic approval, or of her Michelin achievements. Anthony Bourdain closes the subject by characterizing her as a “truly terrifying figure.” Three esteemed male chefs feasting on the remains of an incredibly talented woman. How I wish that scene had been left on the editing room floor.
How is it that Paul Bocuse is celebrated for a cuisine that hasn’t evolved in more than forty years while nothing is said of Brazier’s cooking? Are we to believe that Bocuse never raised his voice or pushed an apprentice hard? Are we to assume that what happened in chef Brazier’s kitchen has never happened in a Michelin three star kitchen? I worked in a Michelin two-star kitchen for a French man and on most nights I could see his tonsils clear across the kitchen from the pass.
When does it stop being okay to degrade an esteemed contribution because a woman makes it?
In the compressed culinary history I delivered, Catherine de Medici was the only woman of significance clear through to the 1970s when Alice Waters and Julia Child came along. Eugenie Brazier was not there. Worse still is the fact that we don’t see our culinary history as diminished by her omission.
What is the danger in celebrating chef Brazier? If we can so easily paint such an accomplished woman out of our history who else might be missing? What of the great American chef Edna Lewis? What of the long line of Bise women, beginning with Marguerite, whose cooking has achieved Michelin acclaim at the Auberge du Père Bise? Are we afraid that given this knowledge, young women might build more ambitious professional lives for themselves?
The real lesson I was inadvertently imparting to the young women and men who sat in my classes, carrying all the enthusiasm of a brand new career, was that women did not contribute significantly to culinary history. I’m humbled by the fact that, charged with advancing the minds of a young generation, I accepted this biased view and passed it on, unquestioned. But I’m buoyed by the fact that my own curiosity and desire to teach better led me to a much richer understanding.
I want young women and men to know that this canned version of culinary history is a half-truth. It is a fictionalized account not worth learning. Brazier’s accomplishments challenge the idea that white European males have done most of what is important or distinctive in culinary culture. As Anthony Bourdain, Daniel Boulud and Paul Bocuse demonstrated, the achievement of white, European males rests mainly in their ability to muscle a particular version of events into the books. It’s well past the time for an inclusive history to be written. Let’s begin with the message that we deliver to our young.
 Peggy McIntosh. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. (Massachusetts: Wellesley College, 1988)
 Susan Pinkard. A Revolution in Taste. The Rise of French Cuisine. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009) p. 30
 Drew Smith trans. La Mère Brazier. The Mother of Modern French Cooking. (New York: Rizzoli, 2014) pp. 6 — 7
 Lyon. Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Season Three. Episode Three. Sunday April 27, 2014.
In 2011 I completed research to determine if there were gender differences in the pre-career ambitions and expectations of culinary students. One of my findings has continued to resonate with me, arousing an increased sense of responsibility. When it comes to imagining their futures, young women and men have the same dream of becoming an executive chef. But in the eight to ten years between culinary school and top spot at the stove, young women either surrender that dream or it's squashed.
This gender hemorrhage, of which I am a part, is one of the harsher realities of our industry. Thankfully there is a growing intolerance for some of the practices that have led to the exodus.
It’s the journalists—American journalists in particular—who have shone a light on those dark corners of our kitchens where sexism thrives. They’re the real agitators for change. I have mixed feelings about this because it reminds me, a female chef, how my own fears made me complicit in the system. I longed to belong in the professional kitchen and went to great lengths, including self-denial and rejection, to make that happen.
The pressure from journalists appears to be working. It’s getting harder for chefs and our esteemed culinary institutions to continue with business as usual. There are signs that if change is not self-imposed, it will soon be litigated or legislated into being. It’s also getting economically riskier to piss off women, because they make important and informed decisions about where to spend dining and donation dollars.
Paula Forbes took on the James Beard Foundation by creating charts to track its change. She’s not the first person to accuse the respected foundation's annual awards of gender bias, but the deputy editor at Eater National’s original and effective approach in communicating with the masses is to be applauded. Businesses and institutions could easily track their progress in gender diversity by adopting this same rational approach. Why wait until a reporter comes calling? In the case of the James Beard Awards, I’m most impressed by the increasing number of women mentioned in the Rising Star Chef category. At this point in a typical culinary career, female representation is still quite high. These are the young women, still standing at the stove, whom we can nurture and champion to the top.
The Bloomberg columnist Ryan Sutton has also used a very rational approach by taking an inventory of the brigades of our best kitchens to determine how many women are in their senior ranks. His two-part piece for Bloomberg Luxury is revelatory. He writes: “There’s never been a female head chef at Daniel Boulud’s flagship Daniel; at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry or Per Se (though there is one at his Ad Hoc in Yountville, California); or at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s namesake restaurant. In fact, there’s not a single female top chef at any of the 10 Boulud or 24 Vongerichten restaurants in the U.S. and Canada.” We look to these chefs for leadership. They scour river and bog, and travel to far-flung places in search of diverse ingredients and yet turn a blind eye on the make-up of their brigades.
Sometimes industry members will manipulate statistics to paint a more promising picture. It’s important to remain cognizant of how results are achieved. Do the stats look specifically at women at the stoves in the kitchen brigade or is their reach broader? It’s surprising how often restaurants will tweak their numbers by including women in the pink ghetto—those in administrative support roles and pastry. These numbers yield results that on the surface appear promising but are little more than a foil for the bleak reality of women at the stove.
I’m sure this is the case for Tom Colicchio’s Craft group of restaurants. In his piece for Bloomberg Luxury, Ryan Sutton quotes Katie Grieco, Craft’s managing partner of operations and new projects worldwide, describing Craft as a “very female-friendly organization.” That's nothing short of a lie if not a single woman is in charge of any of the eight Craft kitchens worldwide. She continues her defense by stating that this absence is “not for lack of trying.” Surely Ms. Grieco knows that talent needs nurturing. Trying is not caring. It’s that safe place where intentions stand in for inadequate actions.
It's easy to spot establishments where gender balance is a priority. Women will be present in equal measure and will hold positions at all levels of command. Chefs who practice equitable hiring know it’s not that hard and the resulting kitchen culture is good. Katie Grieco also needs to consider how conservative Craft's practices appear in light of research that speaks to the economic and competitive advantages of gender-balanced businesses. Perhaps Paula Forbes could lend a hand in tracking Craft’s progress.
I know “we tried” is often a place to hide because I worked in a business that failed, through consecutive hiring campaigns, to recruit women into the senior ranks. It was claimed there were no suitable candidates when I knew of women with exceptional qualifications who'd lost out to male hires. I voiced my concern that they didn’t try hard enough and received a shockingly indignant and defensive response. For me, proof positive.
In a recent panel discussion on chefs and diversity, chef Marcus Samuelson recounted that his experience as a young and ambitious black chef in kitchens dominated by white European men led him to question his choice of employers. He believes that signs of intolerance and discrimination are an opportunity for young chefs to gain “clarity of where you should not work.” I echo his sentiments in cautioning young women against entering any kitchen where there are no females in the senior ranks. Where gender equity is not being willingly adopted it’s likely to require external enforcement, and transitions that are imposed are rarely easy or pleasant.
I’d encourage all young women to stop spending their dollars—on cooking schools, dinner, cookbooks or events—where there appears to be no room for their kind at the executive chef level. Turn off networks that consider sexist messaging a good marketing ploy in 2014. Economic choice is powerful. Talk to those who love and support your dreams. Often my family has been even more outraged than I by the sexism and discrimination I’ve faced on my journey to become a chef.
I want young female chefs to act more assertively in laying claim to their spots at the stove. Don’t tolerate slow promotion. Let go of the adolescent notion that “father knows best.” I stayed in a great kitchen for five years watching young men rush past me, turning my career over to the care of a chef I was certain had my best interest at heart. I abandoned a lot of my dreams and ambitions there.
I also went it alone, which accounts for much of my fear to speak out. I didn’t have a mentor or allies among my peers. The guidance of a senior industry leader is invaluable. Choose someone who’s got what you want and knows just how you can get it too. Someone with no time for petty gossip or problems, who will actively work for your promotion.
Connect, work and stage with women chefs. I learned so much about female leadership by staging with Lydia Shire, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. When I studied with Lydia she was at the top of her career and had a toddler in tow. Besides the delicious things I learned at her stove, I discovered that having children and being a celebrated chef was hard, not impossible. I also understood that making decisions about childcare is far easier when you’re in the top office.
I want young women to negotiate their wages and to be particularly mindful of the 24 percent wage gap that widens in mid to late career. With 13 years of kitchen experience, and while holding a senior position in a restaurant, I was asked by a very successful businessperson from another industry how much I earned. The expression of shock on her face was a moment of great clarity for me. I suddenly woke up to the reality that where money was concerned I should have asked for more. I don’t want the hiring of women to serve as an economic advantage for businesses.
Most women exit the industry just before they reach the top. Charlene Johnson-Hadley says that a lot of young cooks “are not even taught or pushed to take that step towards saying ‘Listen, you’re awesome, people need to know what it is that you do.’ That concept doesn’t even cross their minds.” Moving up takes a whole heap of confidence and support from above. Know your skills and leadership potential and make a plan for taking the next step. The world needs to taste your uniquely delicious stuff.
I’ve become far more outspoken in the four years since I began my research. Under its influence I started to use feminine pronouns in my writing and when teaching classes to young chefs. It’s a subtle and powerful action. I’ve seen the faces of young women light up under its influence. I know that all of my experience, good and bad, is invaluable. I’m also freer than I have ever been to speak my truth with confidence. I’m not politically motivated to tread lightly or exercise caution in causing offense. I’m no longer tiptoeing around white, middle-aged, European men. The dreams of so many young women have energized and inspired me. They are a treasure I've uncovered. They remind me that above all else, we need to act, to apply Thomas Keller's sense of urgency to the matter of gender imbalance in our kitchens.
 Reid, Deborah and Lauren Wilson. Recipe for Success. Gender's Role in the Career Expectations of Culinary Students. (2010/11, George Brown College) p. 27
 Sutton, Ryan. "Most Exciting $700 Tasting Menus Made in America by Too Few Female Chefs." Bloomberg Luxury. 3 March 2014. Web.
 Ryan Sutton. "Women Everywhere in Food
I visit Sanagan’s Meat Locker, Toronto’s “hipster” butcher in the heart of Kensington Market, on a Tuesday morning following the Easter weekend. The previous day, the young, urban readers of blogTO dubbed the shop Toronto's number one butcher. Even among the bustle involved in replenishing shelves depleted by the holiday rush, there’s a palpable sense of pride among the staff. The atmosphere in the prep area mimics that of a winning team’s locker room after an important game.
That Toronto’s discerning food lovers have rated Sanagan’s so highly is no surprise. That achievement owes much to the character of the man whose name the business bears. Peter Sanagan cares a lot, and not just about meat. The same intelligence and ethics that inform his decisions about what to sell are applied liberally to the business as a whole. Having a conscience and acting responsibly is Peter Sanagan’s stock in trade.
I’m not here to learn the secrets of the meat business. I’m here because Peter Sanagan posted a thoughtful comment on an essay I wrote about female chefs. He wrote about having a professional commitment to equitable hiring and advancement, and accused some of his male peers of foot dragging on this front. I was curious to know more about Sanagan and his business practices.
I’ve been a professional chef for more than 25 years and, since 2010, have actively applied myself to helping young women advance into leadership roles in the food business. While I’ve discovered several businesses where women are in charge, I'm frequently embarrassed by how little my generation of chefs, now in our 50s and 60s, has done to advance gender equity. I hold out hope that younger cohorts will do much more.
It seems natural that young people in their 20s and 30s, raised by working women, are ripe for change. Sanagan, who’s 38 and was himself raised by a “very strong maternal figure” in a family whose politics were left of centre, tells me he has noticed an “attitude shift” in the young professionals he employs.
In 2012, when Sanagan expanded his shop into the space formerly owned by European Quality Meats and needed to appoint managerial staff, he looked for leadership potential from among his existing employees. He knows such qualities are not gender bound but recognizes they manifest themselves differently in men and women. And he doesn’t find that threatening. He’s happy to let the differences exist rather than squeeze people into a dusty, dated, bland leadership model.
Head butcher Lisa Giraldi says that when she started working at what the staff fondly dub “Little Sanagan’s” two years ago, the shop had four employees—two men and two women. The current, greatly expanded Sanagan’s employs two head butchers and a small army of help.
Giraldi is the physical antithesis of the strapping European butcher. She admits that early in her career some people considered it strange that she wanted to be a butcher but that changing attitudes, particularly among her peers, have made it less of a deal. She knows of four other women in similar positions in Toronto; together they’re redefining the trade. According to Jerry Kokorudz, Sanagan’s assistant head butcher, many customers do a double take when they ask Giraldi if they can speak to the head butcher.
Giraldi came to butchery with an interest in animal welfare and a passion for quality products. She honed her skills with some of Toronto’s finest butchers and chefs, including Paul Bradshaw, Mark Cutrara and Ryan Donovan. She likes people, which is important given that she interacts with the public every day. And, she also likes the people she leads. She knows, as does her boss, that the fundamental challenges of leadership—how to get work done and help people realize their potential—have nothing to do with gender.
Giraldi is learning how to lead, and tells me she’s been reading a book called Quiet in which the author draws a distinction between aggressive and soft power. The distinction resonates with Giraldi who thinks less of the former—the predominant North American business model—and takes pains to explain that she asserts her own authority in a respectful manner.
I’m most impressed with the collective willingness at Sanagan’s to embrace the ambiguity in creating this new order. A good beginning has been made but there’s still some way to go. During my interview interesting ideas surface related to female assertiveness. When Sanagan tells me that he has noticed that “the young men he employ's don’t get their backs up about women in charge,” I wonder how important it is that men feel comfortable? Is this a benchmark of increasing tolerance for female authority? I also question, when Giraldi tells me she doesn’t want to be thought of as a “bitch,” if her concern for what others think isn’t too traditionally feminine.
Jerry Kokorudz tells me that when he began his butchery apprenticeship right out of high school 10 years ago, women were employed as wrappers and counter help. He’s happy with the way things are at Sanagan’s and is not shy in expressing respect for Giraldi whom he says “is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever worked beside.” He thinks that people had the trade wrong from the start—butchery requires as much finesse as muscle. There it is, the yin and the yang, the masculine and the feminine of the trade. Of the gender issue, he quips that it “ain’t no thing.”
Sanagan’s Meat Locker is the right kind of place for a young woman like Mo Morrison-Brandeis to land. She came to the shop from a high school co-op program and was hired on after her two-month term was complete. She’s building skills and heartily echoes the respect and pride other employees have for the kind of values that run deeply through the business.
In his comments on my essay Peter Sanagan wrote that in the “food industry the collective agreement is to push forward with better ways of cooking; better ways of serving customers...We need to push forward and through that glass ceiling as well.” Sanagan loves the industry’s active search for improvement and wants it to include more women leading and receiving their dues. He’s put ideals into action and is building his business in just this way. He wants women to apply for jobs in his shop. For now he reluctantly agrees to be exceptional in these matters, but he’s hedging his bets on change. Because when the young people he employs look beyond his shop for the next thing, they’ll surely be influenced by their experience and the values Sanagan promotes. The odds are high that they will look for or create more of the same. Because the search for better ways inevitably leads to better places.