A Woman’s Place?

Photographs by Mackenzie Stroh

We live in a golden age of chefs. Between your Batalis and Bouluds, your Vongerichtens and Riperts, your Masas and Morimotos, New York is bubbling over with cooking legends who not only practice world-class gastronomy but also manage to turn themselves into global gajillion-dollar megabrands. So here’s a question: Where are all the women? Despite the fact that women make up the vast majority of home cooks, and despite four-plus decades of modern feminism, women still run just a small percentage of top kitchens in New York and elsewhere. Never mind the Rachael Rays and Nigella Lawsons of the world. They’re TV personalities, not chefs. They don’t turn out hundreds of meals a night on a hot, high-stress line at one of the country’s most esteemed and critically scrutinized restaurants. To explore why so few women reign over the city’s leading culinary temples, we talked to seven prominent exceptions: April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig), Rebecca Charles (Pearl Oyster Bar), Alex Guarnaschelli (Butter), Sara Jenkins (formerly of 50 Carmine), Anita Lo (Annisa), Jody Williams (Morandi), and Patricia Yeo (formerly of Monkey Bar and Sapa). It’s worth noting that almost to a woman, the chefs we spoke to were at first reluctant to cite sexism as the reason there aren’t more women among the city’s elite chefs. In part, it seemed, they didn’t want to play the victim or be labeled whiny; in part, they didn’t want to believe it—the better to not let it stop them. “There are also a lot of men who can’t hack it in the kitchen,” was a common sentiment. But the more the women talked, the more it became clear that gender bias is still an issue. Not that they don’t embrace a stereotype or two themselves. The one thing the group agreed women do better than men? As Guarnaschelli put it: “Clean.”

What did you make of the most recent “Top Chef” finale? This is the show’s third season, and still, no woman has won. Why did Casey, the only woman in the finals, lose?
Rebecca Charles: Man, she had it in her hands. She had it! But she threw it away in the final round; her dishes just weren’t good enough.

The fact that she’s a woman had nothing to do with it?
Alex Guarnaschelli: I think the judges actually wanted her to win. I thought she would win. I’d chalk it up to an off day. That small thing—having a crap day—broke her chance. It didn’t mean so much to me that she didn’t win. I think she shattered the glass ceiling anyway.

Why aren’t there more women chefs in New York? Is it harder to raise money as a woman?
Anita Lo: I kind of get the feeling that there are boys out there who have people running after them giving them money.
Patricia Yeo: Because they play golf together or they play poker together. Maybe we should go play poker with them, I don’t know.
RC: It’s the boys’ club. It’s incredible, and I never used to buy into stuff like that.
AG: I have colleagues—male colleagues—who say to me, “Yeah, I just met with a big group of investors to open a restaurant.” I’m looking at them, trying to sip my coffee, like, “Yeah, bro, that must be rough.” And I go home and trade in the coffee for tequila. Did I do something wrong?

Why don’t women get the money?
PY: I think men aren’t as nervous about asking. They seem to be able to say, “Listen, this is what I want, give it to me.” Women, I think, have a harder time with it.

RC: Women are more unsure of themselves, no question, especially in terms of asking for money.
Sara Jenkins: It’s like a pride thing, too; you fought so hard to be in a certain place. And now to have to turn around and say, “Oh, but wait, excuse me, I need a million dollars, please.”
RC: Also, I’ve found that landlords will listen politely and then lease their space to a man with a track record. I had a long track record at the time I started Pearl Oyster Bar—twenty years as a chef, but not as a business owner. And that was the kind of track record they were looking for. I was lucky to find the guy that I found.

There must be some women-friendly investors out there.
RC: I do think there are businessmen in town that are women-friendly. But it’s because they see women as, well, I hate to say this, but as a gimmick.
Jody Williams: And that doesn’t mean they’ll listen to them or give them a real role.
PY: But it’s a double-edged sword; you get notoriety because you’re a woman, but do you really want the notoriety because you’re a woman? You want to be known just because you are a great chef.

What else keeps women from running kitchens?
RC: Some women seem to say that it’s too hot, it’s too much work. You have to give up a lot. That’s what’s hard for a lot of young women to understand. There are very few women who can have children and continue to operate restaurants, whether they’re owners or chefs.

Are there “women’s jobs” in professional kitchens?
RC: Pastry chef has always been the traditional one, and I think that’s still true today.
April Bloomfield: It’s an easy option for the girls to go into pastry.
RC: You’re not on the hot line.
SJ: You don’t have to compete with everybody else.

Is there a media bias against women chefs? Is it harder for women to get their names out there?
AG: You have to put on a pair of fishnet stockings, and you have to get yourself on television. I find myself hoping I can get on a TV show and then people from Oklahoma will come to my restaurant. Then I’ll be able to make enough money to open my own place.
JW: If you’re overenthusiastic, though, you’re a schoolgirl. I think that was printed about me.

Professional kitchens are traditionally shamelessly sexist. Is that still true?
AG: I worked in Paris for five years for Guy Savoy. And then one of the chefs was like, “You suck, you’re a girl, I hate you.” All the classic stereotypes. And Guy Savoy was like, “Will you just stop that crap and let her do her job? Let her cook the damn bass.” And then when I burned it, Guy was like, “Ahh!” But he still believed in me.
AB: I didn’t want the fact that I was a woman to be an issue, so I just put my head down and cooked and did the best that I could. I moved to wherever I was able to move. And one day, some guys came in and shook everyone’s hands, and I held out my hand and this guy just walked straight past me. It’s like, “Okay, fuck you. I’m gonna be better than you one day.”
RC: I mean, the delivery guy comes in the afternoon to deliver something and he looks over to my sous-chef and asks for his signature on the check. Am I just some dumb-ass holding a coat?
JW: My mail is always addressed to Mr. Jody Williams.
AL: That happens to me all the time. I get my mail addressed to Anito Lo—not an a but an o: Mr. Anito Lo. And customers ask me, “Can you tell us about the chef’s background? Is he from…”

Do women and men cook differently?
SJ: I think women cook different food, and I think women cook better food. It’s more from the heart and more from the soul. I look at this whole molecular-gastronomy thing, and I’m like, “Boys with toys.” They’re just fascinated with technology and chemistry sets. I think we make better-tasting food. I’m sorry, I know that’s politically incorrect.
RC: I have to agree. Women’s food is, for the most part, more accessible, it’s easier to understand, it’s friendlier, it’s more comforting, and it doesn’t get bogged down in all these nutty freaking trends.
SJ: I find there’s a lot of technique in male food.
AB: I have a friend from England who’s a cook, and he said the food that’s most moved him has always been cooked by a woman. Maybe because it’s comfort food or it’s very nurturing. JW: Or maybe he just liked the idea of a woman cooking for him.

April Bloomefield Chef-co-owner, the Spotted Pig. Photographs by Mackenzie Stroh

A Woman’s Place?