A young woman I mentor is actively searching for an executive chef position (I'll refer to her as A). She spent ten years working in great restaurant kitchens in Ontario and Montreal, has European training, was executive chef at an island retreat for global political and corporate leaders and 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. What he’s saying is 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.
And when an executive chef leading multiple restaurants tries to convince you to become an executive sous chef (as if the job title isn't warning enough), remember a lot of men like women in that position. It works for them because it follows the traditional order of men on top. They parade women sous chefs around at events as evidence of their wokeness. But sous chef today is a position reminiscent of pastry and garde manger when I was an apprentice. It’s a place where a lot of female talent gets parked indefinitely. He also thinks so little of your decade of stellar experience he wants you to come in and do a stage to decide 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 and so should you.
Sadly, there's no shortage of men continuing to participate in toxic masculinity—recruiters and executive chefs who 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, you don't belong, in all of its gross and sly manifestations, RUN. THE. FUCK. AWAY. Do not internalise it. Take too much of it 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 these stories. We must warn our female colleagues about these men. 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 gatekeepers. It's not your job to teach some men how to be decent humans and leaders, but don't pass on the opportunity to point directly to the problems with their offers.
Please, put me on speed dial for those rare occasion when your confidence falters.