Working chef in the kitchen

At a time when half of all culinary school students are female, yet less than 7 percent of chef/owners in the United States are women, industry insiders are working to show there’s still room for progress to be made in the name of gender equality–and it starts in their own kitchens.

A Fine Line, a documentary that looked at the gender disparity issue through following one female restaurateur as she built a career while being a single mother, helped contribute to the conversation when it was released in 2017.

Producer Katy Jordan, who handled footage from such heavyweights as Cat Cora and Barbara Lynch for the flick, worked as a bartender in Manhattan and Boston for 10 years. She says customers were the least of her concerns: “It’s often an internal problem and restaurants could do a better job educating and protecting their employees. I remember one chef at a restaurant I worked at would say suggestive, lewd things every time I walked into the kitchen. … I dreaded working with him—I was 19.”

In the midst of the “Me Too” movement that has women speaking out against sexual harassment, how does the industry flip the mind-set that women aren’t able to helm a kitchen?

Trisha Perez Kennealy
Trisha Pérez Kennealy

Trisha Pérez Kennealy can’t think of a better example to set than having her three children help set the table for Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve dinners at her family-owned Artistry on the Green. The Lexington, Massachusetts, restaurant welcomed over 200 for Turkey Day, which meant the restaurateur needed a few extra hands both there and at home, prompting her daughter and sons to help seat guests, bus tables, and make desserts.

“They see that it’s hard work, and you can’t take a break—everybody works the same here, man or woman,” she says.

No one knows better than her executive chef Stacy Cogswell, of Top Chef fame, who’s helmed many kitchens in the Boston area, and is proud of being able to lift the same heavy pots and pans as any male chef. But ask her grandmother and you might get a different story.

“I’ve known for a long time this is what I was going to do, and I started working in restaurants when I was 14. But when I told my grandma, she was not extremely supportive of it,” Cogswell says. “She loved me being in the kitchen with her and taught me so much, but came from a world where women just don’t do that.”

Chef Stacy Cogswell
Stacy Cogswell

Cogswell says that living in the liberal Northeast helps her avoid such negative perceptions. She hasn’t encountered quite as many problems getting women’s chefs jackets from linen companies or having kitchen maintenance crews come in and look for the nearest man instead of addressing her. But, problems like that still exist.

How does the industry fight back against them?

Karen Krasne, owner and executive chef of San Diego’s Extraordinary Desserts restaurant, has a unique approach—her entire back-of-house staff is made up of women. “It just seemed natural to hire an all-female staff. It wasn’t a choice to say, ‘We won’t have any men.’” she says. “It was more that I was hiring like-minded sisters and daughters and other people who wanted to work on a team and be creative.”

Now, nearly 20 years into that hiring model, the self-proclaimed “quiet feminist” has a business large enough to offer health insurance, paid time off, sick days, and a living wage that, per California law, will reach $15 an hour for front- and back-of-house staff by 2021.

“I’m here to help women advance their careers and their lives and have families,” Krasne says. “Many of them have been with me for 20 years, so I can go and get training and come back and inspire them so it’s never the same old, same old.”

And as far as benefits, Krasne has offered her staff vacation since day one–“It doesn’t do anyone any good to never have time off,” she says–and health care to full-timers for the past 10-plus years.

While the lack of healthcare in the industry could be a driver between the disparity of culinary school graduates and female chefs, it’s definitely one of the ways Pérez Kennealy acquires and maintains staff. “It’s so rare in the industry that when I tell potential new employees it’s a benefit after X days, they look at me like the world is flat,” she says. “It may be OK when you’re 20 to 25, but when push come to shove and you get married, you don’t have the luxury of not having insurance.”

Karen Krasne
Karen Krasne

Katy Jordan and A Fine Line filmmaker Joanna James, a former server, are both new moms. They say they can’t imagine going back to work in a labor-intensive industry after just a couple unpaid weeks off. The only way to change it may be to change the way the industry itself is regarded, says Pérez Kennealy.

“Stacy and I spend a lot of time talking about this, but I don’t think being a chef and working in the hospitality industry is afforded the respect it deserves in some other parts of the world,” says Pérez Kennealy, who gave up a career as a finance executive to train at Le Cordon Bleu in London. “Culinary schools are as highly regarded as universities elsewhere, but that makes it difficult for us to be able to compensate our teams the way we’d like to sometimes, man or woman. But I drew the line at insurance—it’s just the right thing to do.”

What are some ways to achieve gender equality in restaurants?

Pérez Kennealy includes her whole team in menu-writing for inspiration and training: “It empowers them to learn more. When we get a perfect little baby carrot in, I show it to them, we pass it around. This is nature. This is beautiful,” she says.

I’m here to help women advance their careers and their lives and have families.Click To Tweet

From Tracy Borkum, founder and CEO of San Diego’s five-restaurant Urban Kitchen Group: “My advice to younger women just starting out is to stand with confidence and put your female strengths to work, such as compassion, multitasking, intuition and relationship-building.”

Jordan says that policy changes are essential: “Restaurateurs need to make kitchens more hospitable to women by breaking up the boys club mentality. A zero-tolerance harassment policy is one way to do this,” she says. “We also need to close the pay gap. By some estimates, female chefs are making 79 cents for every 100 men make. And, [we need to] support local female restaurant owners.”

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Carley Thornell is a Boston-based food and travel writer with adventures chasing down okonomyaki street food pancakes in Japan, savoring asado in Argentina, and working the lazy susan with chopsticks and China that have all made it into stories shared around the dinner table. A firm believer that a meal is more than what’s on the plate, Carley’s passionate about cocktail culture, décor, hospitality, and beyond.