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Where Are All the Great Female Chefs?

In a field rife with casual sexism and sexual harassment, female restauranteurs are fighting to change the male-dominated status quo.

Claudia McNeilly

Claudia McNeilly

Image via Stocksy / Davide Illini

Great female chefs are among us, but they are few—too easy to miss in kitchens crowded with checkered chef pants and the lazy sexist slurs we've come to expect from the hyper-masculine realm of the professional kitchen. In fact, when asked where all the great female chefs are, great female chefs and restaurateurs all had the same answer: There just aren't as many of them to begin with. Professional kitchens have never been welcoming spaces for women.

On this year's World's 50 Best Restaurants list there are only two women to be found: Elena Arzak Espina, who co-owns restaurant Arzak with her father Juan Mari Arzak, and Helena Riso, who co-owns restaurant Mani with her husband Daniel Redondo. In Epicurious' list of the World's Most Influential Chefs of the Last 15 Years, there isn't a single woman.

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These male-dominated lists are not the exception. While the home kitchen has long been thought of as a woman's "place," professional culinary excellence continues to be a male-dominated arena. "In general, men naturally cook or do things with a scientific mind that longs to understand, where as women cook from a place that's more intuitive. Perhaps we just live in a society where a scientific approach is more celebrated than an intuitive one," chef Niki Nakayama, executive chef and owner of n/naka in Los Angeles, told Broadly.

Master chef Fernand Point, who is credited with revitalizing French cuisine in the 20th century, put it more bluntly: "Only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art," he said in 1950.

While Point's view may seem like that of an antiquated old man, you don't have to look very far to see that his philosophy rings eerily true in the culinary world today. As chefs have continued to ascend to the ranks of celebrity over the course of the last decade, there has been a huge cultural emphasis on masculinity in professional kitchens today. Chefs like Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay, and Marco Pierre White have all built their reputations—and the culinary empires extending from those reputations—on similar brands of being ruthless alpha males.

Scenes of a fuming, ruddy-faced Ramsay shouting obscenities at his contestants on Hell's Kitchen are accepted as par-of-the-course to culinary excellence, and images of a fearless Bourdain cruising along the war-torn coast of Beirut on Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown fit nicely into the familiar narrative of the hyper-masculine chef ready to go to any length for the greater good of gastronomic excellence. As celebrities and culinary icons, these men have come to be living embodiments of the phrase, "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art.

It's true that professional kitchens are high-pressure situations garnished with fire and knives. They are not spaces for meekness. But the stresses of the kitchen are often even worse for women, who have their own specific struggle to deal with: sexual harassment and lazy, sexist jokes. Take, for example, Chloe Maisey, who alleged to being groped and shut in a freezer while working at The Hardwick, a Michelin Starred restaurant in Wales. Or Ivy Knight, a former Toronto cook and current food writer who went public with allegations of being choked by a sous chef after her superior refused to do anything about it.

Then there are the women who aren't ready for the repercussions of going public. As one female former chef recounted in an anonymous essay on Munchies: "In my experience of restaurant kitchens, where there is only one or two women, harassment can range from largely ignorable asides (like, 'Ooh, on the rag are you? Well excuse me for breathing,' and, 'You want bigger chef's whites for those tits, love,') to the head chef and owner holding competitions where the female staff of the restaurant—kitchen and front-of-house—would have to try and deep throat courgettes during a lull in service."

Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show that even though women constitute a majority of the U.S. food service industry, there's a huge disparity between the number of female and male head chefs. According to a Bloomberg Business analysis, women occupy just 10 out of 160 head chef positions at 15 prominent US restaurant groups.

The status quo—[the idea] that kitchens are fine the way they are—exists because the men working in them don't actually want to make changes.

And although great female chefs exist, they are rarely celebrated alongside their male counterparts. While Helene Darroze, Alice Waters, Helena Rizzo, Nancy Silverton, April Bloomfield, and others are all respected culinary figures in their own right, female chefs made up less than 1 percent of the world's Michelin starred chefs in 2014. Of course, these women serve as living proof that there is such thing as a celebrated and respected female chef—but they serve as the exception, rather than the rule.

Kitchen Bitches, an international conference held in Toronto this past September, is working to challenge this male-dominated status quo. The conference was founded by Jen Agg, a Toronto restaurateur. Agg was inspired to demand change after pastry chef Kate Burnham came forward with allegations that she'd endured a toxic work environment and sexual harassment for over a year while working at Weslodge, a top Toronto restaurant. At work, Burnham alleged, her bosses groped her breasts and crotch; smacked her rear whenever they passed her in the kitchen; propositioned her, threatening her employment when she refused to play along; and routinely sprayed her face with a pressurized can of hollandaise sauce after Sunday brunch while making ejaculation jokes.

"This isn't about PC bullshit, it's about treating each other like human beings," Agg wrote in an email. "I can confidently say Kitchen Bitches' impact was that it opened many discussions on sexism in the restaurant business. The status quo—[the idea] that kitchens are fine the way they are—exists because the men working in them don't actually want to make changes. What they don't realize is that the changes wouldn't just be to make room for women to ascend the ranks, but would benefit them as well. Young men burn out because the kitchen is a mental and physical grind. Maybe it doesn't have to be that bad? Better kitchens are better for everyone in them."

When I first opened my restaurant and I would come out of the kitchen to greet guests, it wasn't uncommon for people to look at me and say, 'Can I get the check?'

Achieving a safe work environment through effective leadership seems like a realistic and straightforward solution—one that would open kitchen doors to let more women in. Yet, as female chef Niki Nakayama explained, creating a healthy kitchen environment demands constant re-evaluation and work. "Sometimes when I want to get upset with our staff, I worry that they'll think that I'm just being a bitch instead of a good leader," she said. "It's so easy for people to categorize behaviors in certain ways. When a guy is being hard and difficult, that's considered assertive, where as if a woman was to take on the same tone it's so natural for people to say, Oh, she's just being a bitch."

For Nakayama, there is no room for laziness when it comes to her kitchen's work environment. And the approach has worked: The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and many others have applauded her work at n/naka. Still, despite her success, she has struggled with being noticed as a woman in her own restaurant. "There's a level of expectation," she said. "We're accustomed to seeing male chefs, so a lot of people naturally look for the male chef in the room. People are surprised that I'm the chef. When we first opened n/naka and I would come out from the kitchen to greet guests, it wasn't uncommon for people would look at me and say, 'Who are you? Why are you coming to my table? Can I get the check?' And I would say, 'Yes, I will help you get the check, but I'm your chef and I wanted to say hi.'"

Nakayama's restaurant is not on this year's World's 50 Best Restaurants List. But many of her peers—a cast of all-male chefs who appeared alongside her on Netflix's Chef's Table series—have their restaurants featured. "On a personal level, lists like the World's 50 Best Restaurants List are nice, but they don't really make sense," she said. "It's hard to rank anything that's art-driven and so subjective to different people's tastes. But on a professional level, we recognize how important it is to have some sort of status because it helps guide people to a certain level of thinking. Those types of privileges open a lot of doors that otherwise would not open. It would be amazing if more women were on the list."

In order for more women to rise to the esteemed ranks of culinary excellence, we need to accept that the current state of affairs in restaurants is broken. The idea that abuse is a side effect of excellence is futile at best, and warrants finally letting go. The knee-jerk reaction to look for the male chef in the room is an outdated anachronism—one that is making all of us look about a hundred years old. Conferences like Kitchen Bitches and chefs like Niki Nakayama exist because a select few have worked tirelessly to put the gears for change in motion. But it's up to us to keep moving forward, and to keep asking: "Where are all the great female chefs?"