Why Are Top Female Chefs An Endangered Species?

Catherine Zeta-Jones in "No Reservations" as an Executive Chef at a New York restaurant

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”
Julia Child

Though we are constantly watching female chefs like Giada De Laurentiis, Rachey Ray, and Ina Garten on our television screens, this is not an accurate image of what is happening in restaurants across America. Despite a 50% increase in the number of female-owned restaurants in the decade between 1997 and 2007, as reported by the National Restaurant Association, women who run kitchens are still a very small minority. We decided to ask a few female chefs why is this the case?

Only 1% of Michelin Starred restaurants have women chefs. The Best New Chef lists created by Food & Wine have featured 92 men and 11 women in the last 10 years (89.3% male, 10.7% female.) And the accolades tend to go to men. One of the highest culinary awards for chefs is given by the James Beard Foundation. Of 51 finalists this year, only seven are female.

Though the Culinary Institute of America, the nation’s premier culinary school, didn’t accept women until 1970, but now 44% of its students (out of 3,000) are women. This means, like many jobs for women, there is a drop off after school.

Like most industries the primary caregiver role gets in the way and restaurant jobs are particularly demanding. Francesca Hong, the executive chef at 43 North in Manhattan, said in an interview, “Restaurant work is so incredibly demanding. I’ve already made some sacrifices … I want to balance career and family, and I think in the restaurant world it’s getting more and more difficult to do that.” She is one of only a handful of female executive chefs.

Jessica Young is a private chef based in Manhattan. Her first job out of culinary school was at a very exclusive, very busy 250 seat restaurant in the city–as a dishwasher. She told The Grindstone:

“It’s a hard lifestyle–physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. Not a lot of women can keep up with the physical aspects of the job. You are on your feet for 9-10 hours a day, lifting heavy cases of vegetables and foodstuffs up and down stairs. And the hours are terrible! You are on the opposite schedule of the rest of the world. You start working at 4 pm when everyone else is getting off of work. Vacations? Forget it. You work weekends while your friends are headed for the beach. It’s hard to maintain friendships with people outside the industry.”

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    • Lastango

      Not only can it be crummy work, it’s also low-paying. And some environments don’t seem to appeal much to women. I once asked a construction project manager about women in construction engineering in the field, and he said he had never had one apply. “They go for jobs in architect offices in cities,” he said.

      …and what are all-male kitchens really like? Oh…