According to the National Restaurant Association, (NRA) over 60% of American women have worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives. National trends are reporting an increase in women occupying leadership positions including restaurant ownership, management and executive chef positions. Another NRA study found that in more than half of US restaurants, women are full or co-owners, with 45% of restaurant managers being women. This statistic is higher than the 38 percent of female managers in other industries. Women are, in fact, more likely to hold mid-to senior leadership roles in the restaurant industry than other industry.
The number of women in culinary programs is also growing. At the Culinary Institute of America, 49.9% of students were female, up from a female population of 37.6% in October 2005. At Stratford University School of Culinary Arts in Baltimore, MD, 53% of students are female, according to campus director Darryl Campbell.
Although more women are cooking professionally now, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs President Ruth Gresser thinks women still have to prove themselves in the kitchen more than men. Nancy Longo, owner at Pierpoint Restaurant in Baltimore, adds: “While more women are pursuing culinary degrees and kitchens have become more welcoming to both sexes, it’s rare for women to reach the level of executive chef”. Indeed, the website restaurantHER.com reports that women comprise only 19% of chefs and only 7% of head chefs.
Both Longo and Gresser are reaching out to promote female education and training in the culinary arts. Longo leads a mentorship program for high school girls interested in culinary careers. Gresser, (who owns Pizzeria Paradiso and Veloce in Washington, D.C.), provides national internship and scholarship opportunities for female chefs. She also leads annual conferences focused on education, networking and promotion of women in the industry. “More women at this point work in environments where they are not the only women,” says Gresser, “That wasn’t the case when I came into the industry in the late ’70s, early ’80s.”
Established by Barbara Tropp and seven other pioneering women in the industry, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs organization (WCR) was formed to help leverage the voice of talented women and serve as a resource for connecting women in all areas of the food and beverage business. By creating experiences that educate and inspire, WCR brings together women of the culinary arts and helps build a strong network among industry peers. In addition, they sponsor regional “Plug-Ins”, where local industry professionals and friends are invited for an evening of socializing and networking. The Plug-Ins provide opportunities to foster relationships in WCR communities at the local level.
Kerry Diamond and Claudia Wu launched a bi-annual magazine and conference focused on recognizing and celebrating women in the food industry. Cherry Bombe Magazine celebrates women in food – those who grow it, make it, serve it and style it. To their Cherry Bombe Jubilee Conference, Diamond and Wu invite women who are contributing to inspirational transformations in the food industry.
Obstacles to women achieving leadership roles in kitchens and restaurants are much the same as women aspiring to leadership roles in any business: balancing professional and family life. “One of the issues is motherhood for sure,” says Alice Waters, longtime “goddess of food” and the proprietor chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA. “I’ve had that struggle in my own life, whether to sacrifice motherhood for being in the kitchen.” In response, Waters tried to reorganize the way the kitchen was run at Chez Panisse so that women could have time to do both. While work-life balance is a challenge all professionals face, it is especially pronounced in chef life, where late hours are the norm and weekends off are rare or nonexistent. “As an executive chef, you have to be available seven days a week,” says chef Cindy Wolf of the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group. Wolf understands why the chef life hasn’t traditionally been attractive to women, especially those who want to have families and rear children, although she recognizes that the obstacles confronting her are factors for everyone in the industry, not just women.
The food industry has long been dominated by men. The San Pellegrino list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants included only two establishments with women as executive chefs, both of whom are one half of a male-female team. Of the seven New York City restaurants most recently honored with three stars by Michelin, none have female chefs at the helm. The last seven Outstanding Chef awards from the James Beard Foundation have gone to men. In 2013, Time Magazine published an article called “Gods of Food”, in which they failed to include a single female chef on their list. The article sparked a larger conversation about the treatment of women in the food industry.
The call for consistent gender equity in the workforce on all levels is key to ensuring women are given the best chances to succeed. For many female leaders in the restaurant industry, it becomes about creating the environment they envisioned when they started out. Little by little, female chefs, managers, and owners are helping change the industry’s perceptions of women. Deborah Boardman-Leferve, owner of M Restaurant in Philadelphia, is confident that things are looking up: “I think the male dominance is changing very fast as each week another female decides to join the workforce as a chef!”
Don’t miss the National Conference of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs in Minneapolis, MN April 21-23, 2018.
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