Beverly Stephen - September 1992
Women chefs are now commandeering the ladder to success, but there are still barriers to equality.
Flashback: Once upon a time, before there was a Chez Panisse or a Silver Palate, American women with culinary talent and need of income could aspire no higher than tearooms, ladies' luncheon lairs, boardinghouse tables or genteel catering. As little girls were made of sugar, spice and everything nice, there was the occasional woman pastry chef hired—albeit infrequently—to work in the strictly masculine preserves of hotel and restaurant kitchens. In 1946, one woman enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America.
Fast forward to 1992: On the evening of May 4, a tableau unfolds testifying to the transformation of women from cooks to chefs at "A Salute to Women Chefs in America," at the Second Annual James Beard Awards in New York City: Silver Palate founders Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins are inducted into the James Beard/Perrier-Jouët Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America, as well as the 1991 Cookbook Hall of Fame. Alice Waters wins both top culinary "Oscars," one for Best Chef, the other, for Best Restaurant (Chez Panisse). Debra Ponzek, the only woman chef currently running one of New York City's 24 three-star restaurants, Montrachet, is named Rising Star of the Year, winning out over five other nominees including her husband, Bobby Flay, chef at Mesa Grill. Two out of eight Best Regional Chef awards go to women (see Front Burner, Food Arts, July/August 1992) while 19 of America's most acclaimed female chefs ply adoring foodies with mustard-barbecued quail, shellfish and barley salad wrapped in seaweed, wild plum ice cream.
Today, one out of four students enrolled at the CIA is a woman.
Two Decades of Change
In the two decades since Alice Waters put American women chefs and California cuisine on the map with her landmark Berkeley restaurant, women have opened some of the key restaurants across the country, most notably in California, and have taken charge of the kitchens in numerous others. Major hotel chains have started to employ women as executive chefs. Women run catering operations, take-out superstores, corporate dining rooms, bake shops. And women are running off with top prizes.
"There has been a revolution in the kitchen since we opened," says Dorothy Cann-Hamilton, who founded the French Culinary Institute in New York City eight years ago. "In 1984, there were a lot of kitchens that wouldn't take our women graduates. I really think that kitchens are open to women now. But remember, it takes a good ten to 15 years to become an executive chef, and there just weren't that many women in the pipeline."
According to the American Culinary Federation (ACF), the number of women chefs to become certified members is steadily—though some would contend glacially—increasing. There are currently 497 women out of a total 5,881 certified members, approximately eight percent. Only two years ago, less than five percent of the ACF's certified members were women. Now, 25 percent of the aspiring chefs enrolled in the apprenticeship program are women. The ACF has a total of 20,000 members but has not counted them according to sex or race.
Today there are 20 women presidents of ACF chapters out of a total of 251. "That was unheard of 20 years ago, when kitchens were under the domination of European male chefs," says executive director Ed Brown. "We've even had to reorganize our convention's spouse program because the spouses are no longer all women. Ten years ago all the spousal things were related to fashion shows or whatever."
But acceptance in this organization has not come without a struggle. "The biggest problem I had was when I joined the ACF," says Robin Novak, a 28-year-old chef currently employed as general manager for Service America, the foodservice company at the FDIC building in Washington, D.C. "When I joined, I was the only woman for a long time. All the wives would be there. I really had to prove myself to them before they would ever let me do anything. But I did it by sticking with them and volunteering for things and following through. Now I'm the vice-president of my chapter."
Paving the Way
For every success now taken for granted, a hardy group of pioneers blazed the trail. "I felt I had some kind of mission to put women in the professional kitchen," says Madeleine Kamman, now director of the School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, California. Kamman recalls that when she opened a restaurant in Boston in 1973, "It was like a hair on the soup. Everybody thought I was a crazy woman." Paul Bocuse, who had lavishly praised her food and had even given her a "diploma" for being the best restaurant in the United States, was subsequently quoted in Newsweek magazine saying that there was no place for women in professional kitchens. "So I took the diploma and turned it upside down on the wall and used it to promote my restaurant," Kamman says.
Diminutive five-foot-tall Anne Rosenzweig was made to lift heavy stockpots by herself—even though the men were given help—and was told to clean 50 pounds of squid as a first assignment. "That was only done to intimidate me," Rosenzweig remembers. "You always get help lifting them. It's crazy for men to lift them alone, too; they get hernias. They're silly." In short order, Rosenzweig opened Arcadia and made her mark serving elegant American cuisine—chimney-smoked lobster, corn cakes topped with caviar and crème fraîche, chocolate bread pudding—to Manhattan's tony East Siders.
Mary Sue Milliken, now co-owner with Susan Feniger of City Restaurant in Los Angeles and The Border Grill in Santa Monica, became the first woman to cook at Chicago's famed Le Perroquet. Originally offered a job as a hatcheck girl, it took a year of pestering before she finally got a start peeling vegetables. Feniger was the second woman hired. After apprenticeships in France, Milliken and Feniger met up again in Los Angeles and set up shop in 1982, offering an exciting mix of European, Asian and American flavors.
Neither heavy stockpots nor discrimination deterred the newcomers from proving that women's place is in the kitchen. But their career paths "have not been straight like bullets like those of men," points out Joyce Goldstein (Square One, San Francisco). "Women have had to zig and zag." In many cases that meant self-education: women, often switching from other professions, would skirt the issue of proving themselves to biased employers by opening their own restaurants. Andrée Abramoff, a former editor, opened Andrée's Mediterranean Restaurant, then renamed it Café Crocodile and fed what would now be called pan-Mediterranean cuisine to New Yorkers. Raji Jallepalli, a former medical technologist, has wowed Memphis—"not a place where new culinary concepts are born"—with her fusion of Indian and French cuisine at Raji, her three-year old restaurant located in a small Victorian house Jallepalli purchased with her ex-husband, a physician. For the past five years, Susanna Foo has been redefining Chinese food, with French techniques and international ingredients at her restaurant, Susanna Foo, in the City of Brotherly Love. A self-taught cook, Foo got into the restaurant business because her husband's family owned a Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia. For six and a half years, China scholar Barbara Tropp has been offering an innovative Chinese menu at her China Moon Cafe in San Francisco.
Other entrepreneurial women have risen up through more traditional ranks, the way men normally do. In New Orleans, Susan Spicer apprenticed with highly regarded French chef Daniel Bonnot, and worked her way up before striking out on her own as the chef/partner of Bayona in 1990. Lydia Shire rose to the top of hotel kitchens as the first woman to open a luxury hotel, the Four Seasons Hotel at Beverly Hills, before opening Biba, where she has been exciting Bostonians with her gutsy, eclectic fare for the past three years.
"I was looked upon as a person who worked hard, especially in hotels," says Shire. "And now I'm happy this restaurant has the best costs of any place I've been, and so I can pay my investors back ahead of time. So not only am I a chef but a businessperson. I would say I've accomplished a lot and probably am a role model for other women."
The National Restaurant Association has no statistics on the exact number of female chefs or restaurant owners, but women chefs who own their own restaurants are still a glaring minority. One key reason is the difficulty women face when trying to obtain financing. "Banks are reluctant to loan money for restaurants anyway, so being a woman is like a double whammy," says Rosenzweig. Many women chefs are forgoing the entrepreneurial route and gaining recognition in fine restaurants and even in large hotel chains.
In Seattle, Barbara Figueroa, an alum of Jams and Spago, has gained national attention as she helps to define Pacific Northwest cuisine at The Hunt Club in The Sorrento Hotel, whipping up dishes such as oyster mushroom timbales with smoked duck and hazelnuts.
Carrie Nahabedian, executive chef of Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara, California, is the only female executive chef currently employed by the chain in the United States. The Chicago native worked her way through the finest hotels and restaurants in the Windy City. "I took no shortcuts," she says. "One job led right to the other. I spent 14 years perfecting my craft. What you do is build your résumé. It's not unlike becoming a doctor, going through years of training and internship."
The Sport of Cooking
Why have women worked so hard to get into a profession that is physically demanding and requires spending long hours in hot kitchens under extremely stressful conditions? They are drawn, just as the men are, by the fast pace, the excitement and the creativity, as well as by a more feminine passion to feed and nurture. Rosenzweig likens it to "being an actor on the stage." Elizabeth Terry (Elizabeth on 37th Street, Savannah) compares it to a sport. "You're sweating, you have to keep your concentration, be a team player, and you're totally exhausted when you finish. It really is a high," she says. "And I love the organization you have to have. Your timing has to be perfect or your fish goes on the floor, or the plate gets messed up." For Goldstein: "It's like getting flowers. I like cooking for people and making them happy. Our payoff is not in dollars—it's in compliments."
But what about the very real hurdles that still exist? Male employers are not always so eager to hire women, even today, says Santa Monica, California-based executive recruiter Benoit Gateau-Cumin. "If I introduce two individuals, an owner might say, 'Do you realize you sent me a woman?' And many are afraid that as a 'minority,' a woman has more chance of successfully suing then if she's terminated."
And if she is hired, the salary is not likely to be equal unless she is a celebrity. "For women celebrity chefs, the pay is the same—if not better," says Gateau-Cumin. "But I would guesstimate that the non-celebrity woman chef might earn at least 25 percent less than a man."
It is crucial, says Gateau-Cumin, for the Debra Ponzeks, the Susan Spicers, the Barbara Figueroas to promote themselves in the media and be role models so employers will see hiring women as an asset. In an ideal world, employers wouldn't care whether they hired a man or a woman, but in the meantime, there has to be an appeal. Celebrity sells."
Winning over male subordinates can sometimes be as difficult as winning over superiors. Taking orders from a woman still grates on some men. Women chefs say these men tend not to apply when they know the hiring chef is a woman. Melissa Lord, executive chef at New York City's Zip City Brewing Company, says, "Men make appointments and then don't show up for interviews. It's happened too many times to be a coincidence." But men who are already employed can suddenly find themselves taking orders from a female boss. Robin Novak once had a male subordinate say to her: "I don't care if you're the Queen of England, I'm not going to listen to you." To which she replied: "Buddy, you're fired."
Luckily, more women are now in a position to hire. And even though they believe they should be equal opportunity employers, women are often more willing to giver other women a chance. "I've been with my sous chef Toni Donglrio five years," says Lynne Aronson (chef/partner, Lola, New York City). "The three top people in this kitchen are women. I didn't do it on purpose. They were just the best people."
Another obstacle is finding opportunities to apprentice in France, a plus for any ambitious chef. "Women are being accepted in France very slowly," says Ellen McShane, vice president of administration at the New England Culinary Institute (NECI). "We have a series of restaurants that will take women, but so few find a positive work experience when they get there that we don't encourage it. They have to be very assertive, very confident."
The European experience, however, is such an important piece of a star résumé, it's a barrier worth chipping away at. Milliken managed by apprenticing with a woman chef. Barbara Figueroa got into the kitchen of André Daguin at L'Hôtel de France in Auch, who no doubt has been influenced by his daughter, Ariane Daguin (chef/co-owner of D'Artagnan, a foie gras and game purveyor in New Jersey).
This year, for the first time ever, a woman worked in the kitchen of Paul Bocuse. Lisa Scarpelli, 25, a graduate of Kendall College in Evanston, Illinois, and former chef to Illinois Governor James Edgar, won The Champagne Mumm Award for Culinary Excellence: her prize included a week in Bocuse's legendary kitchen in Lyons. "Bocuse had been out of town and returned the last two days I was there, but he wasn't cooking. He came and found me and said hello to me. He was very nice," says Scarpelli. "I had the opportunity to work with all his cooks, who are just amazing. I was kind of a new experience for them. I don't think they knew quite what to do with me, so they just treated me very politely."
Looking to the Future
Today, women comprise anywhere from 23 percent (CIA) to 40 percent (Johnson & Wales) of culinary students. "Women will become major players in the next five to ten years," proclaims NECI's McShane. We will see more and more women graduating from culinary schools, entering all aspects of the business and succeeding. And we are certainly likely to see women following the kind of direct career paths typical of male chefs.
We are likely to see more determined women like Cindy Pawlcyn, who was only 28 when she launched her assault on the northern California restaurant scene. Armed with a degree in hotel and restaurant management, a stint at the Cordon Bleu, and experience garnered at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc., she and two partners opened Mustards Grill in Napa Valley in 1983. Next stop: San Francisco and Fog City Diner. Today their Sausalito-based company, Real Restaurants, owns and operates six concepts, with Pawlcyn as executive chef. "Working with Cindy Pawlcyn is like standing next to a racing engine. Her mind leaps from one creative idea to another," says former Mustards chef Wendy Little (now executive chef, Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur).
Early on, Pawlcyn, now 37, had to overcome the skepticism of other chefs and managers. "Once I proved I could do it, I was fine," says Pawlcyn. "There's always a testing period for new employees, but the difference is that with a man there's not that automatic assumption that he isn't competent."
And we're likely to see more women chefs like Robin Novak, 28, who consciously set out to build her management experience by taking a general manager's job. The young CIA graduate had worked her way up in hotels and restaurants in the New Jersey and Washington, D.C., areas and left a post as an executive sous chef at a hotel when it became clear there was no room to move up. Her ultimate goal is to own her own restaurant. "There are a lot of wonderful, creative chefs out there who don't know how to manage money or people," Novak says. "I have my own chef now. She was a chef at the National Press Club. And now I'm concentrating on business."
Politically, 1992 has been officially designated the Year of the Woman, and you can be sure the point will not be lost on women chefs everywhere. Every day, in their own ways, women chefs will chip away at that "glass ceiling" until ultimately, all the Michelin-starred restaurants in France accept women apprentices, until it's commonplace for women executive chefs to run hotel kitchens, until women chefs achieve parity in salaries and in stars, and until maybe—just maybe—a woman chef commands even the exalted kitchen of Paul Bocuse. Then might they simply just declare a Year of the People so that everyone could just get on with it and live happily ever after?
My Baby, My Restaurant"Beverly Stephen"
Perhaps the biggest problem facing young women chefs, now in their prime childbearing years, is how to combine career and family. Supportive husbands, enough money to hire a good nanny willing to cover nightly shifts, and living close to the restaurant are the kind of options that make it possible for a chef to make time for motherhood. Caprial Pence explains that her husband, John, with whom she now owns The Westmoreland Bistro in Portland, Oregon, "stayed home for two years and took care of Alexander, who's now four. This time, with Savannah, who's now three months old, we're taking turns every other week doing lunch and dinner. And we'll have a babysitter in the afternoons when we crossover."
But most women still bear a greater share of the responsibility for child care. At 34, Mary Sue Milliken is juggling a two-year-old and two successful restaurants. "I love being a Mom, but I am finding it a struggle," she says. When her son, Declan, was born, Milliken installed a crib and a changing table in her office and brought him to work much of the first year. "Now I have a wonderful nanny who comes at noon and stays as late as I need her, and I've passed on the office nursery to our executive chef, Toni Sakaguchi, who just had a baby herself," explains Milliken, who now believes it's one of her duties as an employer to be supportive of mothers.
Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel, whose children are now seven and nine, live above their Los Angeles restaurant, Campanile. "The kids don't like it because they don't have a backyard," says SIlverton, "but I don't have to drive, and I can be here as much as necessary. But I always find myself torn between my love for cooking and my love for my family. It's Saturday night, and it's one of your kid's birthdays, and you've got eight customers coming in who are difficult."
Many women also gravitate towards areas of the industry with more normal hours and workloads than restaurant chefs can ever have—catering, pastry, retail take-out. In fact, just over half the students in the CIA's Baking and Pastry Arts Program are women. —B.S.
On the French Front
Paris—Every week, ARC, the feminist Association des Restauratrices-Cuisinières, receives horror stories in the mail from a girl called Claude or Dominique or some other such androgynous name who, having been accepted for apprenticeship in one of France's top kitchens, is turned out when she presents herself and turns out not to be the boy they expected.
To fight such discrimination, women who have managed to carve a name for themselves, mainly by opening their own restaurants, formed into a pressure group in 1975—and recently won endorsement from the European Community, which has pledged positive measures to get women reinstated behind the range.
Meanwhile, ARC has earned recognition for its own awards bestowed on top lady chefs, published its own restaurant guide and is starting its own training courses to spare women the hostility of the all-male chauvinist kitchen—hostility which seems to increase in direct proportion to the fame of the chef in question.
When Paul Bocuse rather unwisely pronounced that a woman had no place in the professional kitchen, ARC member Christiane Massia commanded him to come say that to her face—after sampling a meal in her Michelin-starred Paris restaurant, L'Aquitaine.
He came, he chowed down, then metaphorically speaking, he consumed his toque by renouncing his anti-woman sentiments. The result—a barrel inscribed with the legend "Bocuse recognizes women's cuisine"—takes pride of place in the restaurant lobby, beside the all-female kitchen.
Ironically, a couple of years later, ARC member Lea Linster won an international "Best Chef in the World" award for her Luxemburg establishment—the trophy in question being the Bocuse d'Or.
Now ARC president Christiane Giuliani, who is garnering her own awards for her cuisine de terroir at the Art Nouveau Hotel du Vivarais in Vals-les-Bains, perched in the Ardeche mountain resort region, believes the association needs to internationalize to gain true clout.
"In spite of our ancient tradition of female super chefs in France—the mères of the Lyonnais—we haven't been able to overcome chauvinism on our home ground," Giuliani says. "This in spite of the fact that men like Bocuse himself and another three-star chef, Bernard Pacaud of L'Ambroisie, were formed by the school of one of Lyon's most famous female chefs, Mère Brazier. We think we have a lot to learn from countries like the United States where women either haven't had our problems or have coped more assertively with them." —Anthea Gerrie