Chefs with Issues: A call to arms for female chefs
March 29th, 2011
04:00 PM ET
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Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Caroline Jann Dunbar is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Le Cordon Bleu. She currently works as a chef in Austin, Texas.

Let's just pretend for a second that you haven't grown an inch since seventh grade, can French-braid your hair while driving and have a higher pitched voice than some small children. The guy standing next to you? Well, he’s your age, graduated high school around the same time and has been cooking nearly as long. On paper, a fair opponent for the “Mystery Basket Test” which will determine who will earn the new line cook position. Oh, did I mention he’s about 6’5’’, probably twice your weight and his face is the only area of skin without a koi fish motif?

The Executive Chef lifts an eyebrow signaling that you and the other applicant can start. You and Bigfoot grab your knives and begin furiously preparing your mise en place. Moments later, you are speeding between all the stations trying to justify your technique and experience to the observing kitchen staff. Time’s up! Chef tastes, nods, tilts his head and declares that you did a “pretty good job.” Your competitor’s chicken, on the other hand, may technically be cooked, but squishes down too much at a light touch for anyone to risk a sample.

The line position has to be yours. Easy choice. Your dish was well executed and won’t give anyone stomach cramps later. Unfortunately, your food is not the only thing being judged.

The stature and domineering look of your opponent speaks just as loudly as your tested ability. He could totally fill out an extra-large chef’s coat. And let’s be honest, isn’t that what being a line cook is all about? Following orders, not talking back too much and looking like a chef to all the ritzy diners staring into the open kitchen. Women in the professional kitchen are sparse and sometimes scare people - not in a good hard-core kind of way. Yeah, throw in a token cooking chick here and there but there better be a beefy man with a fish-spatula available to put everyone at ease.

I think it’s a fair observation to say more females cook at home than males. Many women love to get culinary creative in the privacy of their own abode and many men who don’t cook professionally can’t figure out scrambled eggs. Why is it that our culture accepts women as the Executive of the home kitchen, but much less often in the professional kitchen?

Professional kitchens are hot, crowded places with the opportunity for physical harm around every corner and on every surface. We all signed up for it, though.

As a friend and fellow female cook said lovingly, “our line is a pirate ship.” She was talking about the less-than-pristine language and jokes that accompany many restaurant kitchens, but I think this statement is also applicable to other aspects of the kitchen culture. There is the captain and the crew - no room or time for a princess.

“Stop being a girl about it.” My mother still tells me when I flake, take the easy way out or don’t speak up for myself. Not to say that professional cooks should lack femininity (I love me some pink lipstick), but if we want the same opportunities as men in the kitchen, we can’t be girls about it. No, we must be women.

In hindsight, I have contributed to the stereotype that women are not tough enough to survive the grueling conditions of the kitchen. In culinary school, I gladly stepped aside when a male classmate offered to lift the 25-pound box of canola oil off the shelf. I took a moment to relax while the men were put in charge of cleaning out the fryers.

Instead, I should have been looking for opportunities to prove my physical ability. My culinary ideas were respected and my dishes given high marks, but I know that my chef instructors put me and my female colleagues aside when thinking of how physically demanding a busy restaurant gets.

One young man in my final segment of culinary school was obviously a favorite of our chef instructor. His untried pride came off as arrogance to me - to my teacher, a strength. My peer’s goal of working at wd~50 enthralled the instructor and he gave his unreserved support to the goal.

When I asked the same instructor for a recommendation for a local Italian restaurant, he smiled, patted my shoulder and suggested a different place with less volume and notoriety. “You wouldn’t like it,” he explained, “It’s old school, darling.” He told me to try the smaller place because it would be a good learning environment. The instructor turned around and continued to congratulate my male counterpart on his ambition to go to New York.

Luckily, I had found a mentor in my protein-fabrication instructor who was himself a seasoned New York chef with the smarts not to disqualify my vision. He recommended me to the Italian restaurant.

While I practiced my pizza toss, I realized I was the only woman working the dinner shift. I began contemplating kitchen statistics while kneading the dough: Why aren’t there as many women cooking professionally as there are men? Is it because women don’t want to work the irregular hours? Give up their evening, weekends and holidays? Are women afraid of collecting scars on their hands instead of manicures? Maybe it’s the minimal pay and lack of health care benefits at most restaurants?

Obviously unable to relate fully with the women who won’t even try the profession, I’d like to address the females who’ve accepted culinary world - small paycheck, sharp knives, late nights and all. We’re out there. Why is it so shocking to see a lady in chef whites?

Ladies, you could try overcompensating for your femininity. You could try to distract the rest of the crew from the fact you have boobs. In my experience, it just doesn’t work. Don’t be a girl, but also don’t waste energy trying to be just like the rest of the men.

I tried to blend in with the all-male line team of a Spanish restaurant I worked at for a while - everything from regurgitating football trivia to showcasing my unusually grand knowledge of '80s metal bands. Despite my vigorous efforts to downplay my femininity, they were still stuck on my sex.

Poaching eggs seems like a straightforward task. Poaching 200 in an hour? A bit more complicated. The “big poach” at the Spanish place was a glamorous duty left for the garde manger to do before Sunday brunch. Two of us shared the prep duties for the weekend, which included handling more eggs in a day than most people will eat in their whole lifetime.

We found a rhythm to accomplishing our prep list, and, just as sliding the eggs in the poaching water became routine, the two of us became very efficient. After a few weeks of the groove, I took a weekend off to visit one of my brothers in California.

Upon my return to the restaurant, the weekend’s top joke floated down the line to my spot by the salads. “I dare you to guess who poached this?!” one of the cooks snickered. Another replied without looking up from his cutting board “Is it perfect? Caroline.”

Sweet! They finally accept me and appreciate my attention to detail, I thought to myself. I’d been trying to be one of the guys since I started, but no matter how many times I reassured them that I know plenty of ball jokes, there was an obvious lack of camaraderie.

I’m used to handling my two brothers and their teasing. Some kitchens I’ve been in are very much like a family ... or a fraternity. Break in the new kid and eventually he can drink beers in the parking lot with the other guys. Even as a seasoned younger sister, I couldn't find a method to break in this club of line cooks. After trying to fit in with no avail, I gave up. I decided to just get there early, work hard, learn their recipes and cook to the best of my ability.

The day I came back from vacation, I thought the guys had finally forgotten that I was a female and saw me just as a solid cook and member of the line team.

“We have to be on our best behavior when you’re around, Caroline,” the grill-cook admitted to me while I helped him skewer pork for his station. “We try not to swear too much or corrupt your innocent ears...” So, instead of seeing my skills as an asset, they saw me as someone stifling their usual banter.

Maybe I broke them in for the next lady who steps up to their line and they’ll take her more seriously. I’d like to think they appreciate me more in hindsight now that I’m not around to poach their eggs like a beast.

I believe that the ratio of males to females in the kitchen will someday even out, but perhaps we can accelerate this evolution by remembering how women sustain these gender roles. We can’t just blame the guys: we have to take some of the responsibility. Don’t over-apologize, don’t cry when your chef chews you out, keep composure when in the weeds and don’t shy away from responsibility. Expect respect, but steer clear of accepting chivalrous help when on the clock. Also, lift the heavy sh*t.

How can you men affect this culture and evolve our professional world? Don’t assume that the women who want to work alongside you are unwilling, incapable or less of an asset because of their stature or genteel appearance. Cooking is a beautiful profession but a tough business, and anyone willing to take it on as a career understands that it’s not going to be easy. Also, make everyone lift the heavy sh*t.

Why should an industry so in-tune with the harmony of flavors be happy with cooking in such an imbalanced, male-dominated work place? Just as a top-notch dining experience takes advantage of all senses, and a quality menu calls upon many techniques, our kitchens would benefit from more perspectives and an evolution of what is expected, accepted and typical.

I have confidence in the American kitchen. We all want to cook delicious, interesting dishes, right? Let’s not only introduce diners to food they should be eating but let’s redefine the “normal” composition of a professional kitchen staff while we’re at it.



soundoff (162 Responses)
  1. Silla

    In general for anything activity dominated by women, once there's an opportunity to make money and have fame with it without having to dress and act in a hyper sexual manner, society will automatically reward the men for the job.

    January 2, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Reply
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  3. Stew

    Arguing on the internet gets you nowhere :o) honk honk

    November 24, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  4. DClark

    I have a question for the professionals and or careerists out there. In full disclosure I have no culinary experience aside from the TV and a few books. Why would anyone in their right mind go through the abuse that I've read about here or have seen/read about working in a kitchen. I mean in the military, boot camp is supposed to be rough to introduce you to military life but until you either become the owner or become The Chef, life is misery filled with blood, blisters and barking chefs.

    August 14, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Reply
    • Kristin

      We do it for passion, for love.. Cause we can't picture doing anything else with our lives. But being Exc Chef is only more responsibility were you lose most sleep worried about product in the middle of the night. Having to deal with every line cook and there problems including "Papa, I am in jail, come bail me out" once you finally got to bed. It 14 hours a day 6 days a week. with consist worries. There days were you leave the house at 8 am and not return until 2 am the next day. You can forget out a normal relationship, cause they pass out way before you get home. But at the end of the day you love what you do. and can't think to do anything else. All we sacrifice to follow a crazy dream... we are very very passionate people
      It easier to never let your hands go soft, you abuse them until you have no feeling left them. The cooks be a very odd nonfunctional family that all you have to do a give a look and all know what page your on and what to do...

      September 2, 2013 at 3:55 am | Reply
  5. unurtuppy

    I just got a new tattoo and tried H2ocean and it burned my skin and tattoo is scabbing..Anyone have any ideas on something that actually works?

    August 11, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Reply
  6. chef

    Caroline,

    While I can empathize with your predicament, I have been an executive chef for nearly 25 years and we want one thing from our chef de parties.... slavish, unwavering, hezbollah-like dedication to your tasks. We do not care at all, in any way, about your politics, gender, bad days, dying relatives, or family dramas. Do what I pay you for... or I will bring in the next eager candidate and try and break them as well. This whole process has a military ring to it for a reason. ONE unit functioning in perfect harmony. Spend more time honing your skills (which may be formiddable!) and less time moaning about a hierarchy that has been in place since the days of careme, and you may find that you no longer will be viewed as someone who has a misguided sense of entitlement simply because of gender. If you are a man or woman, this is immaterial... if your food is uninspiring, you will be chewed up and spit out. I am sorry that you had to learn all of this from a "school"... I prefer to hire those that are self taught. They are far more malleable and competent.

    This is a man's world, but I am excited about the future of ALL qualified candidates. Perhaps this may change too, no?

    April 24, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  7. Annielicious14

    Thank you so much for this. I'm a chef in Toronto Canada. It's like you were talking about my experiences. I love this life so much, and am so passionate about it, and that's what keeps me going.

    April 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  8. Amy

    Wow, I loved reading this thanks so much for sharing! I am so lucky to have you as a friend and to have had you cook for me many times!

    April 1, 2011 at 10:45 am | Reply
  9. Michael

    Just my point of view...

    I've been a cook for 13 years (started when I was 16). I was just saying to my wife this exact subject. I find it odd that the traditional view of "a woman's place is in the kitchen" doesn't carry over to professional cooking. (I don't believe that for a second. My wife and I share cooking since I work 5 days a week until 7:30pm).

    I have worked with female cooks over the years and find them just as good if not better than some of their male counterparts. I've said this many times over the years about many areas...I want the best person for the job doing whatever it is that they're doing...they can be white...african-american...man....woman..

    March 31, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Reply
  10. CollegeFood101

    "Why is it that our culture accepts women as the Executive of the home kitchen, but much less often in the professional kitchen?"
    The article in its entirety is so poignant and well-developed, but this question in particularly really made me think. I've never consciously realized or pondered this juxtaposition of sorts. As a proud woman who loves to cook and hopes to be a part of this industry, this article has made me even more excited about the future. You are helping to change that stereotype and I hope I may too. Change can happen with one woman at a time.

    March 31, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  11. countrygal1

    in the kitchen where they are supposed to be!!!

    March 31, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
  12. brad

    Having gotten four kids out of bed, fed, dressed, and to school for fifteen years without female help, I don't care where the women chefs are. I don't care where any women are. Went back to Venus hopefully.

    March 31, 2011 at 9:21 am | Reply
    • Cupid

      Have you met Jackie?

      April 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Reply
  13. Julie

    Wow, what a great outlook. I learned a lot, thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. I feel so privileged to have had you cook for me a number of times!

    March 30, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  14. Notorious P.I.G.

    How did the woman cross the road?

    Who knows? The real question is how the heck did she get unchained and loose from the kitchen?

    March 30, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  15. Sy2502

    Many of the comments are quite troubling to me. They seem to simply accept the sexual discrimination, and put the blame on the woman by telling her to "stop crying" or "learn to lift the heavy stuff" or "just do your job". Are we truly at the point that nobody decries sexual discrimination in the work place? Nobody is actually blaming those men who discriminate? Are we truly at the point we have accepted it and tell people to live with it? That's incredibly sad.

    March 30, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Reply
    • Truth@sY2502

      I used to be the only male teacher in a private school. I fyou think it is only men who discriminate against women, you are crazy. Some of the worst cases I witnessed were women who were threatened by other women.

      March 30, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  16. Popeye

    For a second I thought Caroline Jann Dunbar's article was a worthy beef. Cooking isn't all peaches and ice cream. Then I started to think of Rosie the Riveter and the conditions those ladies toiled under, their work was hot and hard and they weren't making mashed potatoes. Then I started thinking about some of the women I've worked with, both the dainty and the brash. My conclusion is this: no matter the occupation a persons personality is going to determine if the work environment is right for her/him. If you blush at a minor swear word or complain about the constant crass language, then that place is probably not for you.

    I understand Caroline Jann Dunbar's instructors opinion about the Italian restaurant. It'd be all about the pasta and pinching girls bottoms. They do that in Italy.

    Maybe Caroline Jann Dunbar is in the wrong part of the county. After Austin is in Texas and Texas is full of the cowboy mentality where women should be wearing a dress. Caroline could do much better than cook in Austin, both on the West coast and the East coast. She is battling perceptions and culture during a time where she doesn't have to.

    March 30, 2011 at 10:51 am | Reply
  17. Elizabeth

    In all honesty, the low pay and hours simply aren't worth it to me. I've taken culinary school classes (did not graduate, but earned all A's and I already hold a BA and MS in anthropology) and can spend 7 days a week cooking part-time at home while making a much better living for my family and being there for them. I don't cook full time, of course, but some weekends I "go on a bender" and spend 20-25 hours in my kitchen making my own veal stock, baking bread, steaming tamales, making pasta, sauces, etc. At the end of my effort, I share the fruits of my labor with friends and family and can take the apron off before 11pm.

    In culinary school, I saw the sacrifices one has to make in terms of family and lifestyle and I just couldn't make those my priorities. My friends in the industry (even working at Beard-award-winning restaurants) have had their children go without health insurance and live at daycare. The chances I would make it big and get to the exec. chef level at a hot spot with a comparable salary to what I make at my company were slim.

    March 30, 2011 at 10:43 am | Reply
  18. Jeremy

    What is sad to me about this article is that we as a culture can't seem to raise ourselves above junior-high humor. Why should anyone, male or female, have to degrade other people or accept degrading humor toward themselves to be accepted?

    March 30, 2011 at 10:42 am | Reply
  19. Jackie

    men are such PIGS! i just hate them so much. thats why me and my partner have chosen THE life we did. i HATE MEN.

    March 30, 2011 at 10:31 am | Reply
    • Goober Grape

      You do? Really? Tell us all about it.

      March 30, 2011 at 11:01 am | Reply
  20. Chef, Engineer

    As a male having worked in two male dominated fields, I can tell you why many women have difficulty advancing in those professions. As a amle we learn early on that in order to be part of the team and build a team rapport, we have to conform and hang out with the guys outside of work. The individuals whom we calll "introverted" or "unsociable" don't succeeed as part of the team. Sometimes that means going out to lunch regularly, sometimes that means grabbing beers or talking about sports that you only started watching because your co-workers do. And there lies the crux of the problem. Women in those fields do not enjoin in such activities. Often, the concern that the in hanging out with a co-worker is starting a relationship gets in the way. Often, the view that the person is not someone they want to hang with gets in the way (we as men still hang with those "lame" co-workers because we have to work with them). And sometimes the focus on raising a family, managing a household, raising or having children are also blockers to hanging with the team, but in the end the result is the same, the women are individuals and not teammates. In an environment like a kitchen where you have to rely on others, you do not feel that you can quite trust the individual as much as you can trust the guy you spent last Friday commisserating about the Cubs always letting you down and that is the real reason women do not advance as quickly.

    March 30, 2011 at 9:39 am | Reply
  21. Rick

    I'm happily married to, and co-own a restaurant with, an amazing female chef. But I will admit, twenty years or so ago, female chefs were a rarity on kitchen lines across this country. Things are on the up and up. Keep fighting the good fight, ladies.

    March 30, 2011 at 1:58 am | Reply
  22. Lida Saunders, Private Chef

    Yes, the commercial kitchen has been a man's domain but more women are graduating from culinary schools and change will ultimately occur as more women prove they can handle the rigors of kitchen life. It is hard work, demanding, hot, sweaty and not very glamorous. You must have passion to cook well, with confidence and authority or just be downright "crazy" to be in the business but here I am loving it. Women, just do it with love and comittment and the accolades and promotions with come.

    March 30, 2011 at 1:50 am | Reply
  23. Mike

    I work in a commercial kitchen. There are women who do great work (and I love working with them) and women who do terrible work (and I hate working with them). Same can be said for the men.
    There is one woman who is really competent and quick, yet is really petite. She recognizes this and asks her male counterparts (usually me) to move the items for her. She is also better at some things than I am, so I ask her to do it for me (like making spring rolls).
    There is also a Sous-Chef at work who is SO competent et humble that is always a pleasure to work with her. I'm convinced that she could do her daily job AND mine that I would be able to go downstairs and take a nap. She also has such great knowledge about food that I ask her for the answers. She has also helped me on my knife skills that it is because of her I am able to tourne a potato.
    I say, you ignore a woman's ability in the kitchen at your own peril. Each person in the kitchen is an idividual and can be competent or incompetent, fast or slow, or any other combination of skill levels.

    March 30, 2011 at 1:04 am | Reply
  24. Jinx62

    I too am a culinary school graduate, have been working in the industry for over 20 years and a male. This might help. First off, stop crying sexual harassment every time one of us smiles at you. Don't forget, the primary reason more employers shy away from hiring female chefs, is that there is a greater fear that they may be sued for something, they know it will just be a matter of when, not if, it will occur. Secondly, Caroline was right on here- if women want equal work and equal pay as men, for goodness sakes, don't wait for us to lift all the heavy sh*t. And there is tons of it in the profession kitchen. ;)

    March 30, 2011 at 12:20 am | Reply
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