'Where Are the Women?': On the Scarcity of Female Chefs

20080613-femalechefs.pngGourmet Magazine's Laura Shapiro picked a strange time to bemoan the scarcity of female chefs. In yesterday's article "Where Are the Women," she writes, "I’m thinking in particular of a question that always bothers me when I read stories about chefs winning awards, chefs opening spectacular new restaurants, chefs starring in yet another new TV series—congratulations, but why are all of you male? Where are the women?"

After the jump, why she's wrong—Top Chef spoiler alert!

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Stephanie Izard

Um, did she not notice that Stephanie Izard just won Top Chef, with runner-up Lisa Fernandes close behind? And Shapiro complains that most TV chefs are male, but the Food Network features plenty of women, from Rachael Ray to Nigella Lawson to (sigh) Paula Deen. What's more, Laura Bush named Cristeta Comerford to the position of White House executive chef in 2005, making her the first woman to ever hold the position. Shapiro's question "Why are all of you male?" ignores the praiseworthy achievements of the many women who are publicly acknowledged for their skills as chefs.

New York City: Tough on Female Restaurateurs

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Rebecca Charles of Pearl Oyster Bar

But Shapiro eventually makes it clear that she is actually referring to the lack of women in the New York restaurant scene—as opposed to the Bay Area, which is full of happy female Alice Waters wannabes, or the television, a subject which Shapiro never quite returns to. There, she's right on the mark. New York City's gender disparity is hard to argue with; just look at New York Magazine's article this past October in which some of the city's few high-powered restauranteuses dished about sexism in the industry.

Both the Gourmet and the New York Magazine articles offer some interesting insights as to why New York might be a tougher place than most for female chefs. The main conclusion seems to be that New York kitchen hours are longer and more grueling, and thus less friendly towards women who want to have families. But the chefs interviewed in New York Magazine also suggest that it is harder for women to raise money. As Rebecca Charles of Pearl Oyster Bar puts it, "It's the boys' club." "Because they play golf together or they play poker together," adds Patricia Yeo, formerly of Monkey Bar and Spa. And as Shapiro points out, "If you’re a woman who loves cooking, New York offers lots of more manageable ways to make a living with food."

Women Outside the Professional Kitchen

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Ruth Reichl

New York provides women with a plethora of appealing alternatives to chef-dom (and the Serious Eats office, which often contains more women than men, is perhaps a case in point). Blogosphere aside, of course, there are plenty of women in New York with extremely successful food careers that don't require them to cook all night—Gael Greene, Ruth Reichl, Amanda Hesser. But these articles imply that women who become food writers or television stars are somehow settling for less. The New York Magazine article says of Food Network women, "They’re TV personalities, not chefs. They don’t turn out hundreds of meals a night on a hot, high-stress line at one of the country’s most esteemed and critically scrutinized restaurants." So what? Maybe these women are making a choice not to lead that kind of lifestyle, and who are we to disparage their decision?

But maybe it's not actually a choice. Shapiro compares David Chang's celebrated Momofuku to Gabrielle Hamilton's more obscure Prune—each, Shapiro points out, is "tiny" and "uncomfortable" with an "idiosyncratic menu," but it's Chang who's receiving all the press. If it's not because of the food, could it be simply because of a media tendency to focus on men? Or because men tend to cook with more gimmicks, thus inviting more press attention?

Television: The Female Chef's Best Friend?

As complicated as the contributing factors may be, it seems clear that New York is not a place where female chefs are likely to thrive. So perhaps it is up to television, disparaged by New York Magazine and basically ignored by Shapiro, to usher in a new generation of female chefs with a different kind of ambition. It may or may not be too late for New York, but a burgeoning crop of Stephanie Izard-emulators sounds pretty good to me.

Related
SF Chronicle on Women Chefs
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Does Cooking Make You Gay?

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