Alison Barshak was the chef at Striped Bass in Philadelphia when it was awarded the title of best new restaurant in America by Esquire magazine in 1994. She was one of 15 chefs on the PBS TV series, America’s Rising Star Chefs. She was on the cover of Philadelphia magazine in 1996, and by 2009 she had two of her own restaurants, Alison at Bluebell and Alison Two. Today she’s no longer a restaurateur.
A lot of things contributed to her decision to leave the business, not least of which was that she was a caregiver to an ailing parent. “My father had cancer,” she says. “I had two restaurants and I was his advocate. I would wait six hours in the emergency room and he was always happy. Then I’d have a customer say they had to wait 15 minutes for a reservation. My perspective changed: I wanted to be with family at night. Different things are important to me now.”
Barshak was one of many females in the restaurant industry Time heard from after it ran a feature (a cover story in the international issues) on people who were making news in the culinary world called the Gods of Food. Among the 13 so-called Gods, there were five men who were celebrated for their cooking. Of the four women on the list (full disclosure: I wrote about one of them), none were chefs.
There was also, in the international editions, a kind of family tree that showed how the innovations of five chefs had traveled around the world through the young cooks who had worked in their restaurants and then carried their traditions to new places elsewhere. Of the more than 50 chefs mentioned, none were female.
What’s going on here? How in 2013, would there not be a female chef in this mix? The number of women enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, the country’s oldest nonprofit culinary college, is at an all-time high. They now make up 47.1% of the student body, from less than a third in 2000. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than a fifth of the chefs or head cooks in the U.S. are women. As a mirror of the world of food, TIME’s list was flawed.
But if you scroll through any list of top chefs or restaurants and you find remarkably few females: the San Pellegrino list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants has two, both of whom are one half of a male-female team. Of the seven New York City restaurants most recently honored with three stars by Michelin, none have female chefs. The last seven Outstanding Chef awards from the James Beard Foundation have gone to men.
“Women are just not thought of as capable as men,” says Alice Waters, a longtime goddess of food and the proprietor chef of Chez Panisse. “Maybe a few in the pastry department rise up but that’s not even considered an important part of the meal, that’s just dessert.”
According to Amanda Cohen, the owner chef of New York’s Dirt Candy, that’s largely the media’s fault. “I haven’t encountered any sexism in the kitchen,” she says. “The media chooses not to write about women. If there’s a male chef and there’s a female chef, the journalist will always choose to talk about the male chef first.” Because the women don’t get the press, they don’t attract the investors and they can’t hire the PR people and the whole thing rinses and repeats. Other chefs, including Teresa Montaño, the proprietor chef of Racion in Pasadena, disagree. “It’s a male dominated industry and it’s always going to be,” she says. “There are very few women cooking at that level.” Female chefs, she believes, are held back, harassed and discouraged at every turn and don’t necessarily have the tunnel vision needed to succeed as a superstar chef. For example, at 31, she would like to think about having kids. “I’m just not sure how it will fit in.”
“One of the issues is motherhood for sure,” says Waters. “I’ve had that struggle in my own life, whether to sacrifice motherhood for being in the kitchen.” In response, she tried to reorganize the way the kitchen ran at Chez Panisse so that women could have time to do both. People don’t leave her employment—so in any analysis of how food trends spread Waters is effectively penalized for being a good boss.
Female chefs face a lot of the same issues that women in any fast paced, highly charged career face, especially in industries that were for many years dominated by men. Many women in the industry speak of the daily sexual harassment they experience on the line. Cooking is a physical job and some guys find it harder to take those kind of orders from a woman. The women note wryly that there are all sort of networking, promotional events and symposia like MAD or Cook it Raw that always seem to feature the same one or two female voices. And employers sing a familiar refrain about how guys like to specialize in sauces or butchery but decline to do the less flashy jobs like the ordering or expediting, so they fall to the women. All of these issues would be familiar to anyone who’d even taken a cursory glance at Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.
But being a chef is also different from most professions, because cooking is something that women have always done. “When you see women in the kitchen you think it’s a domestic thing and when you see men you think it’s a creative thing,” says Waters. “That’s what we need to change.” When Barshak went to claim her Best New Restaurant award, she brought the owner of the restaurant. Everyone assumed he was the honoree and she was his date.
Barbara Lynch, the chef-owner of eight Boston establishments—whom many people suggested might have been considered for inclusion in a chart purporting to show influence—had a similar experience when pitching her cookbook, Stir. “Publishers said, well you’re not going to get very much money because you’re a woman and you’re not on TV and you’re not in New York,” she says. In other words, she just wasn’t prominent enough to sell cookbooks. Sure, she’s not strayed from Boston. That might have diminished her footprint but it has helped her retain staff.
At first, she didn’t want to be famous. But recently Lynch has changed her mind. “I used to think the fame part was a pain in the ass. I thought it took too much and it was too phony. Now I will grasp the fame and the public image because I think I can inspire people,” she says. “It’s not about me anymore. It’s about the next generation. We need more women in this business.” She’s encouraged the female chefs who work for her to go on shows like Top Chef. And they’ve done pretty well.
Waters isn’t so sure fame is the answer. “I think it’s a matter of how we go about our reviewing of restaurants. Is it really about three star places and expensive eccentric cuisine? The restaurants that are most celebrated are never the ones that are the simple places.” In her view a chart that simply looks at what restaurants spawn what other restaurants is too narrow. “If you think about that differently and include writers and cooking school teachers and of course farmers, you’re talking about different kind of family tree in the end. They aren’t the superstars but those are the people who are the backbone of really great food.”
That kind of soft power doesn’t lend itself readily to lists. It’s less noticeable to the media. It’s the kind of power that’s much harder to trace back and identify, that leaves no obvious fingerprints but a slow permanent impression on the DNA of a culture and a cuisine. One could argue it’s the kind of power wielded by the non-chefs featured in Gods of Food package. “When I saw the cover of Time I saw three people that I really admire,” says Waters. “They’re people who are very principled. People who are doing important work whether it’s in the rainforest or in the schools. But I felt like the things that are important to me and to many people on the planet were not celebrated in that article. If we celebrated food for what it should be celebrated for, women would just naturally rise to the top.”