Getting more female chefs to the top of the food chain

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Why aren't there more women among America’s elite chefs?

Though half of all restaurant owners and nearly half the students at acclaimed U.S. cooking schools are female, a recent Bloomberg survey found women hold just 10 out of 160 head chef positions at 15 of the nation’s top restaurant groups.

“Balancing restaurant hours with little children is extremely difficult.”

As it turns out, that big exhaust fan in the kitchen ceiling is surrounded by glass. Women face numerous barriers as they move up the food chain.

TV shows like “Top Chef” and “The Next Food Network Star” give female chefs more exposure than they used to get, but the restaurant business is not much different from other industries. Women hold under 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions; there are notoriously few female leaders in the tech industry; and women still comprise less than 19 percent of members of the House of Representatives.

Why should top-tier kitchens be any different?

“Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons, special projects director at Food & Wine magazine, says a tough work environment bears some responsibility for the lack of women at the top.

She says life in the kitchen is tough for anyone – male or female – starting out in the business, but she notes that the gender ratio at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education, whose current enrollment is 57 percent female) was fairly equal when she attended, yet she was the only woman working on the line once she stepped into a professional kitchen.

Even Simmons’ mother, a classically trained chef, cooking instructor and food writer, discouraged her from pursuing a career in food. Standing on your feet all day and yelling orders are hardly considered feminine.

“It is very physically demanding, and my mother was worried about me,” Simmons told “She was always proud of me but knew I would struggle, because no matter who you are, making a living in the food world is a hard thing to do.”

Women get weeded out by an inherently difficult workplace that has long, family-unfriendly serving hours, low starting wages and limited access to health insurance. It’s also notoriously unpredictable: What’s hot today may be out tomorrow.

Kimmy Tang, a Los Angeles-based chef who owns all five of Hollywood’s hot 9021Pho restaurants, never had children. She says she focused on expanding her business instead.

“I tell people my restaurants are my kids. I now have five and I have twins coming, so I’m very busy,” she said, referring to the new locations of her Vietnamese noodle shops. Despite her sacrifice, Tang says she finds joy in mentoring young line cooks and looks for opportunities to hire women.

Being a chef doesn’t necessarily mean you have to forgo having children, but it could mean you won’t see them very often. Chef Shannon Bard, who owns Zapoteca Restaurante Y Tequileria in Portland, Maine, with her husband, went back to culinary school after a life in the corporate world – and after she had four kids. She says sacrifices had to be made, but she has no regrets.

“Balancing restaurant hours with little children is extremely difficult,” Bard says. “During the first six months, I spent twice as much time at the restaurant as I did at home. That's something that I'm not proud of as a mom; but as a chef, I'm extremely proud of the hours I worked.”

Simmons and countless others in the culinary world are working to address these issues and bring more women to the top.

At a recent panel discussion at the James Beard Foundation  moderated by Food & Wine’s Dana Cowin, foundation president Susan Ungaro and Simmons met with luminaries like Michael White of Altamarea Group and “Top Chef” Season 10 winner Kirsten Kish to widen the discussion of women in the culinary workplace. Topics included advocating for greater flexibility in kitchens, better female mentorships and using different media outlets to further careers.

Since her appointment in 2006, Ungaro has tried to create a dialogue about the lack of women in leadership roles, and she has taken an active role in recognizing women in the kitchen. She made “Women in Food” the theme of the 2009 James Beard Foundation Awards. In September 2012, Women in Culinary Leadership (WICL) launched, with support from the James Beard Foundation, with the goal of funding a yearlong or six-month training program for women who want to build their chef, restaurateur, entrepreneurship and management skills. (Applications for WICL are now open; the Beard Foundation hopes to accept five to 10 women in the coming year.)

But raising money for programs is just one step. Another, Simmons says, is taking advantage of a changing media environment.

“Food media now is so vast and so rich, which I think only allows for more opportunities for women,” she says. “There are more television shows, more blogs, more magazines – small and large – which mean so many ways women can be celebrated and showcased.”

Most panel members believe the intensity of professional kitchen life is unlikely to change in the near future, due to the nature of the business. They say there’s no silver bullet that will eradicate gender inequality in professional kitchens.

But Ungaro says avoiding the issue won’t make it go away.

“If you don’t think about it, it will fall through the cracks,” she says.