Every day, since I was a child, my mother would cook home cooked meals for our family. When she would call out to us, my siblings, my father and I would wait in anticipation for what we were eating. To say my mother’s food was delicious was an understatement, it was otherworldly. I cannot begin to understand how she could take simple ingredients and typical staple seasonings and blend them together to make all her humble dishes, including my favorite from her, baked mac and cheese. However, my mother was never humble about her cooking; she knew that what she did was good, and no one can cook like her, well, except her mother, my late grandmother, Emmer.
To this day, I am still trying to chase both of their shadows, while forging my own interest in cooking. I remember seeing my grandmother, a child of Mississippi farmers grow food in her own garden and use it in her meals. When she would visit us, or we would visit her in Wisconsin, we had food made from scratch — buttermilk biscuits, fried green tomatoes, and fresh orange juice.
On the other hand, my mother on the was less concerned with growing food since we lived in an apartment, but she did care about foods with complex flavors. So, her food was full of spice and flare. I’ve been inspired to mix the old and the new, my grandmother’s healthy and garden-fresh ingredients and my mother’s love of spice in what I care about, baking.
My family story is not completely unique; there are families all over the world who can point to stories where women were the original food creators in their home. This incredible representation of self-taught female chefs in our homes, unfortunately does not translate into the culinary world for those who become professional chefs because there are so few female chefs in the industry. How did we get here?
Where are all the female chefs?
A chef cutting a steak in preparation of a meal
There is no doubt about it, the culinary world, like many other sectors is male dominated. In 2017, The Boston Globe’s article “Chart: The percentage of women and men in each profession,” reported only 21.4% of women were chefs and head cooks, while men made up 78.6%. The numbers changed marginally in 2018 when the percentage rose for women by 11% based on data from Data USA. So, you may be looking at this data and wondering, “why aren’t there more women in the culinary world?” Well, the answer is complicated and nuanced.
It is safe to say that the culinary world is tough. It can be a struggle to run a team and given that society largely still operates under traditional societal expectations of women, female chefs are working and supporting their families. This “can I have it all” dichotomy, sets females chefs up to feel guilty about working and taking care of family at the same time. The other issue is listening to women. This is not an issue simply found in the restaurant industry, this is a larger issue that people have been socialized into based on what we perceive as societal norms. And that reality makes it clear that female chefs must work even harder just to get recognition in this business.
Then there is the issue of buy-in from other chefs, mostly male who have a lot of power in the restaurant world. In a 2018 Eater piece called “The chefs we don’t see,” by Meghan McCarron, she reports how male centered the profession is and how the power is disproportionate. “Men have a disproportionate share of power in the restaurant world for a whole host of reasons — male-dominated networks, male-centric kitchens, men’s preference for investing in other men — but underpinning and reinforcing all these is the core story that important cooking is done by men. Our culture’s desire for compelling male chefs, and discomfort with women cooking professionally, helped give rise to the ugly system we can no longer unsee.” It seems that women are “expected” or even assumed to be the ones in the kitchen domestically, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with a woman cooking for herself, in the home. However, the problem is when those same cooks’ food is considered insignificant and this view warps the idea of who can really be a “chef.”
Despite these issues, food media has done a great job with making sure they highlight female chefs in the food scene in cities everywhere. There is obviously more that can be done, but with articles from Forbes, Vogue, InsideHook, and other publications, recognition for female chefs is helping get their names out there. However, there is still a lot to be done if female chefs are going to get equal visibility in the field. While media is doing its job covering female chefs, the stats on how much they are promoted is staggering. Using a qualitative methodology, authors Deborah A. Harris and Patti Giuffre conducted in-depth interviews with 33 women who had experience as professional chefs and their media data included 2,200 restaurant reviews and chef profiles published across well-known newspapers published between 2004 and 2009.
The data from their research culminated in their book “Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen” Among their findings was that restaurant reviews and chef profiles from places like the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Gourmet, Food & Wine that “Women chefs [were] only the focus of slightly more than 10% of the articles that feature men and women chefs together, women are still only mentioned in around 22% of the reviews and profiles.” Here’s a table of the breakdown based on media reviews and profiles chefs.
Media Sources and Gender of Chefs Reviewed or Profiled (2004-2009)Number of men chefs reviewed or profiledNumber of women chefs reviewed or profiled Number of both men and women chefs reviewed or profiledTotalNew York Times1,2001201191,439San Francisco Chronicle3468620452Gourmet881244144Food & Wine931266171Total1,7272302492,206
*Found in Chapter 2 of Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen
The obvious argument people could make is that because there are so few female chefs in the profession that of course the numbers are low. This is true; the numbers are low, but what happens when major news spaces don’t push to create real equity for female chefs? It’s clear that women will continue to have problems finding opportunities to get their names out into the industry and make money off their brand. It is a hard world out there and there is so much more that can be done to fully have equitable opportunities and a level playing field for any woman interested in joining the culinary world, and for those who are fighting hard to stay.
How we help female chefs from the kitchen to the world
A chef stirring, surrounded by equipment
What I envision for the future of food is providing equitable opportunities for female food creators — chefs (professional or self-taught), home cooks, farmers, producers, artisans, bakers, breadmakers, and more. It will take the work of everyone to make this happen, and it is truly not a lofty goal. We can start by seeking out the stories of female food creators and listening to their stories as well as learning about their lived experiences in this world that provides barriers to their mobility. It’s also necessary to put more women in charge of positions that can influence real change and we must support staff at lower levels. It matters that we highlight intersectionally — women of color, queer women, transwomen and women with disabilities; all women food creators deserve to be heard and supported in this industry and we can do it one step at a time by giving them the platform to support or create their businesses and foster a culture of inclusiveness.
Educating people about privilege in the food industry and training people to be better allies to the most underrepresented and marginalized people is necessary to show real care. Once we seek, learn, create opportunities, and highlight diverse perspectives, we can get closer to a better realized vision for equitable food opportunities for women. That is where I believe Plates can help. This platform will allow female business owners level the playing field by gaining dedicated followers, through interested diners, and make money doing the work they love.
Visualizing a world where women can take control of their businesses is a world I want to live in for the foreseeable future. There is a beauty in empowering female food creators, self-taught or classically trained to take the leap to real ownership. Having female bakers, producers, artisans, and farmers make their mark on the world by centering their views on food, and making it known that their voice in the food industry is vital to keeping this industry alive.