Contrary to the refrain in Julia Moskin’s glass-half-full piece, A Change in the Kitchen, I still do believe that gender issues matter in the professional kitchen. (I also think she may have left out a question mark in her title.)
I’m well aware that this might not raise my standings on the popularity scale. I’ve already concluded that a few women find my questions unbecoming and would rather I sit down and make nice. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be grateful but I’m worried that the conclusions drawn are rushed.
It’s not the first time I’ve read a young woman repeating that gender is a non-issue in the contemporary professional kitchen. Stephanie Prida, pastry chef at the California restaurant Manresa, did it first in issue nine of Lucky Peach. Both essays made me pause. If it doesn’t matter, is the issue dead or tired? Is it another case of social justice receiving an apathetic response? Is it a form of gender rejection, a means by which women sanction the status quo? Is it meant to stifle and shame naysayers like myself? Have we reached the nirvana of a problem solved?
Or is it, as Christine Muhlke suggests in her Lucky Peach piece, something new? Is the professional kitchen “having a feminist moment” as Kerry Diamond of Cherry Bombe suggests? Are young woman looking to reframe the issue of gender? Do they just want to get on with the business of promoting their own needs, hedging their bets that in the end all will be served? Is the young industry moving and changing in ways that I’m too old to recognize?
What I’m certain of is that it still matters for me. And I’m not alone. This past summer the British chef Margot Henderson asked our industry’s leading thinkers and innovators gathered at the MAD 3 conference in Copenhagen: “Where are all the women chefs?”
There’s an advantage to being a female chef in my 50's. I have the long view, am currently not engaged in the taxing activity of advancing a young career, and am old enough to question authority and worry little about the consequences.
There’s something deeply personal going on as well. I never made it to the position of executive chef. I opted out. I was “the power behind the throne.” I beat a retreat to the pink ghetto where conditions were improving as a result of critical mass. It was my professional DNF (did not finish) and I regret not possessing the courage and fortitude to make that final push.
In 2010/11 I undertook research to determine if gender played a role in the career expectations of culinary students. An important initial step in the process was defining context. We narrowed the survey to include only students enrolled in culinary programs, knowing that female friendly corners of the industry—pastry, event planning, public relations—would seriously skew our results and obscure our view into the kitchen.
I remain interested in women in clogs, holding knives, and stirring steaming pots, at gas ranges, in restaurant or hotel kitchens—the women whose career is stuck between garde manger and the executive chefs office. I’m leaving out pastry and those sectors covered by Sue Chan’s Toklas Society. Critical mass is a key component of progress and real change.
I scribbled many notes related to research in the margins of Moskin’s piece. I found the phrase “highest-earning kitchens” confusing. Did this refer to wages or restaurant income? It’s not a moot point given that pay equity is a central issue in gender equality. I wondered why Moskin opens with DeSteno’s promotion and then a few paragraphs later writes: “A leading kitchen run by a woman is no longer newsworthy.” I was curious about the “statistics and interviews” that support the idea that women will be the “next generation of leaders”? I wanted to know what defined both “culinary staff” in the large survey she refers to and Altamarea’s statement that “50 percent of cooks” in their employ were women. Did those figures include the pink ghetto? Call me cynical but for the life of me I couldn’t project the promotion of a single woman into an executive chefs position onto the industry as a whole.
I do think that DeSteno is right in suggesting that good kitchens are fertile grounds for change. The issue requires public leadership—from the top. I cleave to chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s idea that it needs to be an inside job. We need David Chang, Rene Redzepi, Alex Atala and their like to bear witness to our absence.
I want proof that “one’s sex has nothing to do with the real work of a chef.” Research that answers questions like: What increase has there been in female executive chef numbers since 20-First, the international organization committed to gender balance in business, made its 2011 projection of 10 percent? How does gender equality in the professional kitchen compare to other sectors? What is the ratio, using the frame of reference I outline above, of women to men in professional kitchens? Is the employment spread—meaning stations in the kitchen hierarchy—equal? Are promotion and wages equitable? Are kitchens with HR gender diversity policies in better shape than those without? (Policy dies without action.) Do women taking paid maternity leave return to the same position on the line?
I wanted Julia Moskin to inquire after DeSteno’s salary and compare it to males who previously held the position. If it follows current form, she may have uncovered the standard gap of 22 to 24 percent. I find it helpful to frame this practically. Annual housing costs should run between 28 to 35 percent of income. Leveling the wage gap would mean that women could cover their housing costs for the better part of a year. Or using Moskin’s entry-level wage figure, a young woman on the grill or in garde manager is earning $11.25 an hour as compared to the dude who is her equal earning $15. Does that matter? Are women content to live with greater financial insecurity? Does the promotion of women into senior positions represent an economic advantage for restaurant and hotel owners?
And on the issue of promotion, I’m not convinced that the second tier naturally leads to top office. By the time a woman reaches a senior position in a “good kitchen”—eight to 10 years into her professional journey—she’s likely dealing with a ticking biological clock. Peak career time for women coincides with peak fertility. The best place to make family friendly decisions—personal and policy wise—is as the executive chef. The industry exit door at the second tier is much wider than the one leading to its top suite. Real change here will mean that women will no longer face the conflict of choosing either family or career because conditions are ripe to support both.
When I posted a few preliminary questions about Moskin’s piece on one of my social media sites a young man—a former student currently heading a “good kitchen” in Calgary—commented that he’s not seeing the change in his city. His awareness and response owe much to the fact that his sister is an executive chef. It raises my own hopes to know that at least one young man is mindful of the professional realities around him.
If the issue of gender is over then I’ve clearly missed something. If young women want to tackle the matter in a new or different way I want to know about that. I’d love to see gender balance approached with the same kind of curiosity and openness that stimulate discovery in our culinary laboratories. Our industry ambivalence seems archaic, even a little insane, given that the business outcomes of gender balance are such a goods news story.
I’m grateful that we’re still tracking small moves in the right direction. How close we are to the goal seems up for debate. I didn’t feel soothed or served by Moskin’s certainty about the approaching future and am hoping that we’re not succumbing to that most womanly of traits of making far too much of far too little.
 Christine Muhlke, “Something Different, Something Better,” Lucky Peach Issue 9: Fall 2013: 80.
 Ibid, 78 — 82.
 Margot Henderson, “The Passion, The Probe & The Problem,” Guts insert Lucky Peach Issue 9: Fall 2013: 19 — 21