How Female Chefs Are Breaking Barriers


The “Gods of Food” in America’s restaurant industry are starting to reflect a more gender equal pool, according to a New York Times profile on the next generation of female chefs, and the changes that are allowing them to succeed in this profession.

In direct response to last year’s Time cover feature on influential chefs that failed to include a single woman, the Times article profiles chefs like Lauren DeSteno, who was just promoted from sous-chef to chef de cuisine at Marea. In her new position, she has 4 male sous-chefs and an additional staff of 20 reporting to her.

A recent national survey of the restaurant industry show that 30-50% of culinary staff are now women. Many fill “middle management” positions like chef de cuisine, but are poised to move up into even higher leadership positions.

One significant reason that this is happening is because of explicit efforts to help women gain entry:

One example is the recent founding of the Toklas Society, a network for women who work in the restaurant industry including some chefs, but also many women whose jobs are high on glamour but low on pay and job security: chefs’ assistants, publicity managers, event planners and administrators. As cooking has become a more creative field, more educated women have flooded into the business, looking not for a job but for a career; the Toklas Society aims to help them find a way in.

The food industry’s recent explosive growth has also allowed for structural change that benefits women. The most successful restaurant groups now offer good pay and benefits, including paternity and maternity leave, so that male and female chefs alike can get that work-life balance that was previously unheard. Chef jobs that were known as “pink ghetto” positions like pastry chef are now garnering their own prestige, and motivating women who enter the industry through these jobs to jump over to general culinary work.

These problems persist, though. Most restaurants fail to provide pay and benefits that can get entry level chefs to stay long enough so that they can move up in the industry, while allowing them to juggle responsibilities outside of their job. However, if the efforts of prestigious restaurant groups and institutions like the Toklas Society catch on, celebrity chefs who happen to be women, like Barbara Lynch, will no longer be exceptional for their gender.

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