Thursday, March 08, 2007

Women chefs and the 'stainless steel ceiling'

The Chronicle's list of five 'rising star' chefs includes just one woman, and John Birdsall at the East Bay Express thinks this highlights a "stainless steel ceiling" in the industry. He says the business hates women and gays and any man with a complete set of fingers.

But it sounds like Birdsall didn't read Jan Newberry's interesting and well-researched piece in San Francisco Magazine on this very topic a month ago. The awesome picture of Melissa Perello alone warrants a clickthrough (update: now it's gone! But she was running in a field looking very freeeee), but here are some salient excepts:
Laurent Manrique, executive chef of Aqua, didn’t receive a single résumé from a woman when he was looking to hire a new chef de cuisine last December, and Perello says that when she left Fifth Floor, no woman working in the kitchen there was prepared to take her place. Other restaurateurs, like Gayle Pirie, 42, of Foreign Cinema, and Elisabeth Prueitt, 43, of Bar Tartine, say they’d love to hire more female cooks, but few apply.
And this:
However unpleasant the (macho kitchen) antics can get, most female chefs say they take them in stride. Nor is the problem that they’re hitting the glass ceiling, something women in other industries complain about. “San Francisco is a great city for women chefs,” says Michelle Mah, 31, chef at Ponzu. “Everyone here accepts that if you cook great food, that’s all that matters.” Rachel Sillcocks, 29, sous-chef at Healdsburg’s Cyrus, agrees. “The opportunities for women aren’t any less than they are for men.”
Newberry's philosophy for why there aren't more women executive chefs is basically this: They are smarter and less ego-driven than men.

The reason there were more women executive chefs 30 years ago is that they weren't as aware of the downsides of the industry, they didn't have food TV and Kitchen Confidential. Now that the trail has been blazed and been found wanting, Newberry posits, women are availing themselves of supposedly "lesser" opportunities that allow room to breathe, like the pastry station, wine cellar, catering and private chef gigs.

In other words, the only way you can say female chefs are hitting a ceiling is with a macho, patriarchal view of what constitutes success. You know, a view like Birdsall's.

I hasten to add, this is Newberry talking. I would never accuse Birdsall, powerful Godfather of a food media machine, of judging women on attributes other than merit, like appearance.

And in all sincerity, I am by no means saying Newberry's article is the final word on gender relations in the kitchen.

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V Smoothe said...

Normally, I'm no fan of Birdsall, but in this case, I agree with him. Newberry's article is complete bullshit.

I don't believe for a second that restaurants aren't hiring female cooks because they aren't getting any applications. Students in the CCA's culinary arts program (there is a separate baking and pastry certificate) are generally equally divided among women and men, so what are all these women doing if they aren't applying for restaurant jobs?

In my experience, it is accurate that female cooks often end up in pastry or private chef positions, but this is only after attempting to find a place in the industry, only to find that a place for them does not exist (this offers a plausible explanation for the lack of female applicants for chef and sous chef positions, but the industry's unwelcoming attitude remains responsible). Women in the kitchen are perpetually being pushed to move into pastry, where they "belong," and at some point, most female cooks will either reluctantly accept the position and make their place there or will exit the industry and move onto an area where they actually have a shot at being successful (like private chef work). All the women I know from culinary school who are still working in restaurants have moved into pastry, and not a single one of them wanted to. They just couldn't get hot line jobs.

As for Perello - her predecessor at the Fifth Floor, Laurent Gras, managed to find plenty of female cooks and externs for his kitchen. When she took over, the kitchen suddenly became virtually all male. Does Newberry think Gras was able to attract female applicants because he's cute?

I am unable to discern any meaningful difference between Newberry's theory that women are avoiding the world of the hot line because Kitchen Confidential let them know what they're getting into and the classically sexist argument that women simply can't handle the macho environment.

That article is chock full of the same sexist bullshit that men have been saying about women in the kitchen forever:

Charlie Hallowell..."I have an incredibly successful restaurant, and yet I don't make any money. No woman would do this just to show she could."

There's also been a tremendous rise in the number of women choosing careers in wine, a far less physically taxing job than being a chef, and one removed from the sweat and grime of the kitchen.

Then there's pastry—a more traditional field for women that's set apart from the dirty work of the savory side of the kitchen and has less onerous hours.

Let's hope they don't wait too long, that the stresses of their jobs don't overwhelm their passion for their work.

These are the exact same arguments men have been making to keep women out of the kitchen forever, just repackaged as some sort of sick apology for the absence of women in the industry. Oh, it isn't that they can't handle it, they just don't want to because they're smarter. It makes me want to puke.

March 08, 2007 6:04 PM  
cedichou said...

Ryan: You are way off base here. You should read eggbeater (I think Birdsall is a fan, I don't read him, but you mentioned him plugging her as a potential replacement of a Chron food columnist).

There you'll learn that: a pastry chef career is not chosen because of easier schedule (you have to work like a dog), or that even for pastry chefs, it is hard for a woman to break through.

March 08, 2007 7:04 PM  
Ryan said...

This post has been removed by the author.

March 08, 2007 7:57 PM  
Ryan said...

This post has been removed by the author.

March 08, 2007 7:58 PM  
Ryan said...

Thanks v smoothe and cedichou, I truly appreciate the perspectives and feedback.

I don't think one has to take a position on the ceiling issue -- which I have not, emphatically -- in order to believe Newberry's piece deserves to at least be addressed. She went out and talked to a large number of female chefs and wrote a thoughtful, nuanced article.

I'm not saying I agree with the conclusions or not. What I *am* saying is that I don't think Birdsall read the piece, which came out just weeks ago, or otherwise he would have mentioned it and at least explained why he thought she was wrong.

At the end I detour into a point about something Birdsall wrote previously, without weighing in on the ceiling issue, at least not intentionally.

All that said I really liked read v smoothe's comment, she clearly has first hand personal experience, and I enjoyed the rejoinder to Newberry's article.

cedichou, I just started reading Shuna's blog a few weeks ago. I have read this twice now, but I still don't see her explicitly raising gender issues. I thought of the piece in business terms, since there are economic issues surrounding pastry chef pay. After reading this tonight after Shuna linked to it, I see she does have thoughts on gender. And I would not dispute that there are gender issues in the pastry chef situation and any other issue out there.

Keep the comments coming, I appreciate the perspectives.

March 08, 2007 8:11 PM  
Ryan said...

PS To clarify, when I said I "don't see her raising gender issues", I meant in that one article. As I note later in my post, Shuna does raise the issue generally.

March 08, 2007 8:12 PM  
Ryan said...

For the record, I took 'alleged' out of the headline ('stainless steel ceiling' was already in quotes and 'alleged' was being read as a scare-word and taking sides, even though that's not the literal meaning), changed 'instructive' to 'interesting and well-researched' in graf 2 ('instructive' is loaded in this context), and added the last sentence.

March 09, 2007 7:09 AM  
V Smoothe said...

A few more thoughts.

I think that Newberry’s article would have been more interesting had she attempted to include the perspective of women in the industry who have not achieved chef or sous chef positions. She is putting words in the mouths of young women entering (or exiting) commercial kitchens, but fails to actually show us any of them.

Something else that really bothered me about the article was the assertion that pastry hours are somehow less onerous than normal kitchen hours. In pastry, you will be working either much earlier or much later the savory workers, and it’s difficult for me to see how this is easier. When the hot line cooks are leaving work at 11 or 11:30, but the pastry cooks don’t finish until 1 or 2, how are these hours better? Or, in the alternative, a pastry chef who doesn’t work nights will often have to arrive at work at 5 or 6 in the morning. So I guess you go get to “go home at night,” as Nancy Oakes claims, but what time are you going to bed when you have to be at work at 5 AM?

Another point Newberry fails to address, but which I think is salient in any discussion of women in the culinary industry is the obscene degree of sexual harassment that remains a fact of life in professional kitchens. I have witnessed regular lewd and degrading treatment of female cooks in all levels of kitchens in the Bay Area, from neighborhood burger and fries joints to Michelin starred restaurants. So if a woman decides to leave the field because she’s sick of putting up with behavior that most industries stopped tolerating over 20 years ago, does that make her “smart” or was she just pushed out?

And a caveat: I am by no means saying that there are no restaurants in the Bay Area where women can be successful or are treated with dignity. I have worked with wonderful chefs and cooks who treat women in the kitchen as equals. I am simply saying that these are not the norm, and that a female cooks will find far more roadblocks in their path to success than their male counterparts. The industry as a whole remains unwelcoming to anyone but straight (and in the case of high-end kitchens, white) males.

March 09, 2007 11:09 AM  

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