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"Pluck Be A Lady": 15 Boston female chefs
July 25, 2012 8:48 AM   Subscribe

The Improper Bostonian: "In a town rightfully famous for its trailblazing female chefs, where Julia Child helped introduce American families to fresh vegetables and unprocessed foods, and Lydia Shire fine-tuned the buttery possibilities of French cooking, women have hardly disappeared from the dining scene. They can be found in other kitchens. But where and why are subject to debate, depending on whom you ask."
posted by hypotheticole (20 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's always been interesting to me that we (for some value of we) expect that of course women do the cooking at home....but in professional kitchens, especially those producing meals that customers pay $$$$ for, well, that is the purview of men. It's weird.
posted by rtha at 9:02 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't there a saying that says the instant a career starts to become respectable and status-giving it starts to be invaded by men?
posted by The Whelk at 9:03 AM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's always been interesting to me that we (for some value of we) expect that of course women do the cooking at home....but in professional kitchens, especially those producing meals that customers pay $$$$ for, well, that is the purview of men. It's weird.

All my life, this illogical culinary law has baffled me.
posted by Atreides at 9:17 AM on July 25, 2012


Isn't there a saying that says the instant a career starts to become respectable and status-giving it starts to be invaded by men?

Yeah, but for cooking that happened in the 19th century, with Escoffier and Cesar Ritz and the invention of restaurant service.
posted by Diablevert at 9:18 AM on July 25, 2012


All my life, this illogical culinary law has baffled me.

Not just culinary, in many professions; in education, compare the percentage of female elementary school teachers to the percentage of female college professors. In medicine, compare the percentage of female nurses to the percentage of female doctors. It might not be true in every field but it's not restricted to the culinary.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:20 AM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Off of the article, it seems the biggest reason women don't make up a fair percentage of the cooking profession, at least in high end restaurants, is the working environment.
posted by Atreides at 9:28 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interestingly I believe my top two favorite higher end restaurants in San Francisco both have female head chefs.
posted by gyc at 9:40 AM on July 25, 2012


Where I live, at nicer restaurants it is mixed, with about two thirds being entirely male and the rest being mostly female. I have seen very few with half and half.
posted by Forktine at 9:49 AM on July 25, 2012


I used to work in this town and in this industry and I knew a few of the women featured here. The women chefs in this town that I dealt with were almost without exception remarkable businesswomen and incredibly hard working, but with normally varied talent. I doubt you'd find a male in the industry (above a line cook) that disagrees with this.

I find it funny that they didn't ask any of the other dozen or so excellent male Boston chefs whether they think it's a male-dominated field or not. Just Ken Oringer, who happened to have no female applicants at Clio last year. Oringer goes on to speculate why that is, and maybe he shouldn't have. The whole thing reads kind of like a non-story or a made up controversy.

On preview, it's like Forktine says: about one third women in the kitchen. But many of them fall into in sous- and head chef roles, where the ratio becomes more equally male/female. Where the big discrepancy lies is in the ratio of male/female line cooks and prep staff, many of whom hail from Central and South America, where labor roles are more 'traditional' and sexist. This is what I've seen anyway.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 10:02 AM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think this has far more to do with the economy--it's hard to raise money to open a restaurant, for men or women. Being a chef for hire is nice enough, but most working chefs aspire to owning their own place. Here in LA, there's plenty of women working in kitchens, but not a huge number of women owner/chefs. Considering how many restaurant ventures fail, esp. due to being under-capitalized, it's hard to find investors.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:19 AM on July 25, 2012


It's always been interesting to me that we (for some value of we) expect that of course women do the cooking at home....but in professional kitchens, especially those producing meals that customers pay $$$$ for, well, that is the purview of men. It's weird.

A restaurant kitchen tends to be much bigger and busier, which means a lot of heavier work - huge cuts of meat, big pots that have to be lifted, big heavy gratings that need cleaning every day, and so on. It's physically exhausting, which means men are over-represented at the lower end of the profession and in working up from the bottom. For years that was the only way to get into the business unless your family had a restaurant; culinary schools are a relatively recent trend.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:27 AM on July 25, 2012


It's been this way since way before this crappy economy. My bet would be that it has a lot to do with who restaurant investors are - especially the ones who can bankroll a high-end place. Those investors are likely to be men, and they will invest more money more often in devils they know i.e. male chefs.
posted by rtha at 10:28 AM on July 25, 2012


Where the big discrepancy lies is in the ratio of male/female line cooks and prep staff, many of whom hail from Central and South America, where labor roles are more 'traditional' and sexist.

A lot of the spouses of the line cooks/prep cooks I know have better-paying jobs than their husbands (which isn't hard, these guys are basically paid jack) doing "traditionally female" work like cleaning houses, working as maids in hotels, and providing day care. So the US gender-based division of labor perpetuates the gender-based division of labor in their countries of origin.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:37 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, going to culinary school doesn't exempt you from the grunt work of a kitchen. Unless you're lucky enough to start out in a big restaurant where you come in as the patissier's assistant or something, you're schlepping the sides of beef like everyone else.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:40 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sometimes people say you should open a restaurant to me. I don't think those people know people who have actually opened restaurants. It's like opening a startup, with all the give-your-entire body and soul to work for 90 hours a week in a business where almost half fail within a year, except with more hard physical labor. How many people want that? I admire those who do (including my friend who is opening up a restaurant in Chicago), but understand it's a choice a lot of people don't want to make.
posted by melissam at 10:48 AM on July 25, 2012


At points in my culinary career I worked directly for several of the women profiled. My career was about a 50/50 split between male and female executive chefs. I can attest there were very few differences in those kitchens from a strictly administrative perspective. Yes, kitchens do run differently and I can definitely say that different chefs have different tastes and levels of expectations; however, kitchens are like sausages. At the end everything that comes out is pretty neat and uniform - even those pushing the boundaries push them in unison.

I think Sidhedevil hits the nail on the head with the observation of how unskilled/ semi-skilled imigrant labor distributes itself into kitchens. For the men that I worked with that wound up there, many of them had worked construction at points in their life, and either the work wasn't there, they had an incident at work (read: they were drunks), they didn't have the aptitude for construciton, or they needed a fixed schedule. I met no female imigrant labor in the back of the house of any kitchen I worked in. I knew a ton of female imigrants that worked in housekeeping in the hotels where there were hotel/restaurants. I knew a handful of imigrant female front of house labor, but none in the back of the house.

For A'mericans in the kitchens, there were definitely women. In male run restaurants, they definitely seemed like they weren't part of the clique (with an exception), but there also seemed to be some out and out rejection of going out with the other chefs on their part - a standing invite that was always extended and never/rarely accepted. (There was a great night out at the B-Side after work one time where we had a pretty full house of chefs from all over the cambridge side - men and women).

In female restaurants that changed. The women definitely went out, but the kitchen seemed to be more of a 'this is work - not a social scene' place and folks didn't bond with all their co-workers, and instead went out with one or two co-workers... it was cool.

In both places I learned, in both styles of places I learned and flourished. There were no 'pms moments' like were described to me by a few other (male) line cooks. (Which was an odd stereotype given the known rage-o-holic-give-Gordon-Ramsay-a-run-for-his-money chef of cambridge is a man). The only time I saw anyone cry in a kitchen (male or female) was when there was blood involved and then yeah... they had every right to cry.

I will say this: There is an overt comradarie and rivalry between women's kitchens. They send eachother gifts, always greet eachother, visit eachother's restaurants... they do go and borrow proverbial cups of sugar... but there is a distinct and present competititon between them as well.

Lastly, most guys I went to culinary school with left school looking to imbed themselves into someone's kitchen and learn from them. Most of the women I went to culinary school with left school either looking to imbed themselves into a bakery or pastry shop, or they were looking to immediately go into personal chef/ I have my own B&B sorts of things.... Only one women I know of wanted to go straight to a kitchen to learn more before going out on her own. Most women that I met in culinary school wanted the entrepeneur experience immediately.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:39 AM on July 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's always been interesting to me that we (for some value of we) expect that of course women do the cooking at home....but in professional kitchens, especially those producing meals that customers pay $$$$ for, well, that is the purview of men. It's weird.

yeah, don't you know that women can't cook? Well, except for my mom, and your mom, and our grandmothers and great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers...

That sexism isn't just at the high-end places - I worked at a decidedly low-end place, just a step above fastfood, and I was the only woman in the kitchen at all and it was a seriously macho, almost sexist place. I had to try to be "one of the boys" to fit in (though the chef himself was a lovely, mild-mannered man). This was 15 years ago, but I've not heard that much has changed in the industry.

I've never understood it - I would have thought that kitchens would be female dominated, if anything (kind of like healthcare is going). Certainly, I was bringing in recipes for the desserts that had all been developed by women (my nana's pastry, etc).
posted by jb at 12:11 PM on July 25, 2012


Yeah, but for cooking that happened in the 19th century, with Escoffier and Cesar Ritz and the invention of restaurant service.

actually, even as I said "I don't get it", I remember that the masculinsation of cooking pre-dates even the 19th century by some way. In Tudor Great Houses, the head cooks were all male, though they might have female assistants. All the servers were male as well - it wasn't appropriate for women to be in that kind of public position. I learned this watching the awesome TV special "A Tudor Feast" - I should rewatch that, and catch up with their other programs (Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm).

It's been a while since I've seen it - but I think that Ruth Goodman, one of the historians/archeologists, talks at length about gender relations and professional cooking.
posted by jb at 12:18 PM on July 25, 2012


I've never understood it - I would have thought that kitchens would be female dominated, if anything (kind of like healthcare is going). Certainly, I was bringing in recipes for the desserts that had all been developed by women (my nana's pastry, etc).

Modern cooking was an offshoot of the French Military. Most kitchens are willing to hire drug addicts, the mentally ill, and folks that are just plain wierd. You have to be capable and willing to take a fair amount of hazing and abuse in any kitchen (in an odd way it does prepare you for some pretty hellish encounters such as dishwashers trying to knife the saute chef, cleaning out the grease trap, and otherwise 'surviving the line') There is only a very slim chance that you will be enough of a success that you will get to open a restaurant. There is a 50% chance that your restaurant fails after three years (and goes up to 75% failure at seven years). Restaurants require odd hours and are not conducive to either dating anyone not at a restaurant (read: the mentally ill, drug addicts and plain wierd) and go against any sort of a family/work balance.

Hell, if I hadn't worked in the industry long enough, I wouldn't understand how anyone could go to work in it. Top Chef, MasterChef and any other culinary competitions (even Hell's Kitchen) fail to capture what a restaurant is really like...

On Preview:
Even pre-Escoffier cooking was male dominant, but before then there was no rigor and organization. Escoffier gave people order and rules. Going further down the line, it wasn't until the french court was broken up that the cooks left to found their own restaurants. Courts (once again) promoted sexism - even if it was the guy's wife that was doing all of the cooking - it was his name that was famous.
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:28 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Orwell wrote about working in a French hotel restaurant in Down and Out in Paris and London, and it came off as a horrid and terrible experience.
posted by Atreides at 2:34 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


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