Femme de la cuisine

The progress of women in the kitchen

By Paula Johnson

Recently, British chef Tom Kerridge stirred up a firestorm by remarking that although he liked “girls in the kitchen,” he felt women lack “a lot of that fire in a chef’s belly you need. That’s probably why there [are] not so many female chefs.” And, a few weeks ago, Austin pastry chef Lisa Fox, chatting with a successful New York chef who reportedly has more than 100 people working for him, asked about the number of women working in the kitchen. He responded that a lot had come through, but none of them stayed, he said, “because they hadn’t had the stamina for the job.” Wow. In 2016?

Mind the pay gap

It’s evident a lot of women are having a tough time in the male dominated restaurant world, due in part to these attitudes, and also to the long hours and “boys club” culture of the typical kitchen. It’s already been well established that restaurant kitchens don’t make it easy on mothers. As it turns out, in terms of compensation, they’re pretty hard on women in general. A new study from pay transparency website Glassdoor finds female chefs make 28.3 percent less in base pay than their male colleagues. (That’s the second-highest “adjusted” percentage among the careers included in the study.)

Not only are women making less in the kitchen, they seem to be far less likely to earn prestigious accolades for their work. According to Ann Cooper, author of “A Woman’s Place Is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Chefs,” a full 45 percent of people working in the culinary industry are women, yet women hold less than 10 percent of the top positions. Of the 211 semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation’s regional Best Chef awards in 2016, 30 were women—that’s a paltry 14 percent. In the Midwest, all 22 semifinalists were men. Worldwide, there are six Michelin three-star women chefs, versus 112 men, (and no U.S. three-star women chefs). One of them, Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn had an amazingly spot-on reaction to Chef Tom Kerridge’s disparaging comment about women in the kitchen, saying, “This week, a chef decided to use his male privilege to pass judgment on 51 percent of the world’s population. He did what no female chef would do. Can you imagine a female chef saying about men what he said about women in the kitchen?”

Out of the kitchen and back in again

Today, there’s nothing more glamorized than the TV celebrity chef. Today’s chefs are educated—many hold graduate degrees from Ivy League universities. They appear on television, travel all over the world and lecture on topics relating to food. But in the past, many women weren’t attracted to careers in cooking or were denied those opportunities. In the ’70s, women were prohibited entry into France’s state-run culinary institute. During the early years of the women’s movement, many women chose professions purposefully getting away from old stereotypes, and the kitchen—even the professional kitchen—was a place a lot of successful woman chose to avoid. So while this may explain the fewer numbers of women chefs at the highest level, it doesn’t explain why women are still largely ignored even after they’ve risen to a certain status in the profession. Take for example Food and Wine’s annual Best New Chef issue: only 43 women—16 percent—have been chosen since the list was launched in 1988. No women were selected in 2003. One lone ranger was chosen each year from 2004 to 2007 and from 2009 to 2011, as well as in 2014. Hmm …

Taking the cake

One place where women are finding success is in the world of pastry. This year’s James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef semifinalists were nearly all women, 18 of 20. So what accounts for that? It could be explained by a few things that make a lot of sense. First, pastry offers personal creativity and flexible hours. It’s a career with relative autonomy, and women who are managing families and personal lives have responded to this as a career choice allowing them to use their skills and education. For the same reasons, another course a lot of women in the industry have chosen is catering. Many women have abandoned restaurant kitchens altogether, choosing instead a caterer’s comparative flexibility.

Local lore

So, what’s it like to be female in a professional kitchen? I asked several local women in the industry and got a range of responses.

“I’ve had a lot of lines crossed, from having my butt slapped to a chef looking down my shirt and commenting on my breasts,” was one comment.

“I worked for six months in a kitchen full of men when I found out I was making a dollar less than everyone else,” was another.

So while these instances seem to support the distressing environment many women face, that doesn’t appear to have dissuaded Dayton’s culinary professionals.

Dayton does it better

Despite all of the above, there was different story begin told at a recent YWCA 2016 Women of Influence Luncheon table, where six of Dayton’s culinary stars were gathered to celebrate local notable women’s achievements.

So, is it something in the water here? Why have so many women made it in our city? Perhaps it speaks to the way in which Dayton is a small enough place where relationships and reputations are more easily forged. Chef Maria Walusis says, “I felt immediately welcomed by this group of women. We’re all sharing the same challenges and struggles. There’s no competition.”

It certainly speaks to the mutual respect, support and admiration all these smart, talented and hardworking women have for their peers. Congratulations, Dayton, on being way out in front with who’s back in the kitchen!

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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