Just as I was wondering if I should pen a longer response, a young woman that I had taught in 2011 contacted me. She’s living in Montreal, working in a very reputable restaurant and wanted my guidance with her career. Suddenly Kerridge fell into his rightful place. He’s a diversion. Too much time spent on his kind keeps me from the real and important work that’s calling.
I asked the young woman, 24 years old and a little less than two years out from graduation, to prepare for our meeting. I wanted her to spend time identifying the skills she possessed, and those she lacked, and to dream big about the restaurants and chefs she wanted to work with in the future. We met and together we drafted a plan for her future.
I’m committed to advancing the professional lives of young female cooks. I want more of them to become executive chefs. Creating career plans is part of my business and empowering young women is an ideal use of my 26 years of industry experience.
I know firsthand that failing to plan is planning to fail. I spent the early part of my career without a plan and with no professional guidance. It is one of the reasons I never became an executive chef. Influential people told me often that I was a damn fine cook, but without a way forward that meant little. I do wonder what could have been for me. I know from experience that having no direction or goal increases the odds of getting sidelined (in my case I spent 16 years teaching). A career plan compounds the educational investment many young female cooks make. There’s less chance to bump and amble along, hoping, like me, that someone will recognize your talent and point you in the right direction.
I did have smaller goals along the way and have experienced the benefits of setting my sights on a dream. In 1995 I received a copy of the River Cafe’s Blue cookbook. I loved that book with all my heart. It spoke to me in part because the restaurant and food were the creation of two women, Ruth Rogers and Rose Grey. I dreamt of working with them. Five years later, in 2000, I was walking the path along the Thames that led to their restaurant. I spent five weeks as a stagiaire in their kitchen (where again my fine cooking skills were affirmed).
A career plan is an outline of what can happen in the six to eight years between graduation and becoming an executive chef. The key areas in a career plan are: skills inventory, promotion time lines, restaurants and chefs with whom to work for and stage with, and wage ranges. The plan will expand as a young female cook’s career progresses. In the case of this young woman, we spent time strategizing the next two to three years—setting wage goals, identifying skills she needs to acquire and the chefs who can give her those skills. We cast just a bit ahead to the next stage of her professional development. We will revisit her career plan regularly with each promotion, and to dream and plan for her progression to the next level.
Its value can be expressed in several important ways. First, it gives young female cooks control of their destinies. They won’t need to wait for someone to recognize their talent or grant them a promotion or a raise. I gave too much of my own power away and watched as young men were promoted past me, all the while believing that an executive chef, a male authority figure, had my best interests in mind. That ‘Father Knows Best’ naiveté crushed some of my resolve.
Having and reaching wage goals makes career planning financially beneficial. When I asked this young woman about her current wage, she told me that when she was hired she was asked in the interview what wage she wanted. She gave them a range and, no surprise they offered her the lowest figure she presented. We talked through that lesson so that she wouldn’t need to repeat it. I suggested she either present a dollar figure that included a negotiating buffer or a wage range that had the figure she wanted at the low end of the range. Over the next two to three years she will have to work a bit harder to catch up after her initial stumble.
I speculate that there are many young female cooks who don’t know how to put a value on their work. For far too long I didn’t. Being well paid is vital for a good and long career. A young female cook that knows her earning potential, and asks for it, won’t vanish from the industry because she tires of living on too little. She’s also in a good position to close the 23% wage gap that widens in mid- to late career.
Asking for a livable wage is a practice that young female cooks desperately need to adopt. Young men don’t leave money matters to chance; they negotiate their wage right from graduation.
Several years ago I advised another young female cook who was further along in her career on the importance of knowing and naming her price. She had been working contractually for an organization at a very good hourly rate. The company wanted her to assume more responsibility and when I asked her what wage she was going to ask for, she gave me an annual figure. I suspected something wasn’t quite right and suggested we do the math together. We discovered to her surprise that the figure she landed on was below her current hourly wage. We then spent time discussing a reasonable wage in light of the added responsibility, leaving room for negotiation. She expressed discomfort with asking for the figure I suggested. I reassured her that was normal and she was not alone. But I also encouraged her to be fearless in these matters and told her of the positive outcomes I’d experienced when I finally asked for what I wanted. She now earns the wage she was afraid to ask for. Wage negotiations, like knife skills, require practice.
Skills inventory is the foundation of a career plan. An experienced guide can help a young female cook take stock of the skills she has and those she lacks. In the case of the young woman from Montreal, her only pastry skills were the very limited ones she’d acquired in school and she hadn’t identified them as skills she needed to pursue. (The plague of too many young executive chefs—crap pastry skills.) Being a good generalist is essential to becoming an executive chef. Once I identified the gap we then began to talk about the places and people who could give her those skills (the prospects in Montreal are exciting).
Taking stock of progress is also vital. I spent more than three years in garde manger. That department (along with pastry) can be a kind of ghetto for female cooks—a place where career progress is stalled. I don’t know one single male chef who spent that much time in garde manger. Because I went it alone, I had no one nudging me forward, encouraging me to press on. Some of my forward momentum was lost.
Once the culinary skills are obtained—the foundation has been laid—the young woman from Montreal will move into the second phase of her professional development. Together we will expand her career plan, identifying the administrative skills—hiring, scheduling, ordering, and menu development—that will position her for leadership.
I try to imagine the fate of the female cooks who turn up with their dreams in Tom Kerridge’s kitchens. His bigoted statements are a pathetic attempt to halt our progress. He makes a good case for just how desperate we are for female leadership in professional kitchens. I encourage female cooks to turn his words into a challenge—to move with conviction towards their professional goals. To create a plan and seek the kind of guidance that will see them through to becoming executive chefs. To create precisely the kind of future Tom Kerridge fears.
 Manisha Thakor. “The Long-Term Price of the Gender Pay Gap.” The Wall Street Journal. The Experts. 21 October 2014.