On being a female chef

I’ve been receiving a lot of media attention lately. You see, I’ve been nominated for a James Beard award in the outstanding pastry chef category. It’s an incredible honor, and one that has brought a lot of attention to my department at Blackbird, and me as a chef. More specifically, it’s brought a lot of attention to me as a female chef.

I’ve eschewed the topic of being a female chef in a male dominated profession, women’s chef organizations, and generally anything that projected my gender above the work I do. I’ve never wanted to be a female chef. Just a chef.

However, there seems to be a lot of interest currently by the media on the lack of recognition for female chefs by the james beard awards, which I’m gauging by the amount of questions I’m being asked on the topic by the media. I haven’t answered any of them. At first, I was a grump. My stance was that I have never felt held back by the fact that I am a female, so I wasn’t sure there was the roadblock to the top being described. Maybe the industry is changing, and we should look at the rising star category, not the outstanding chef category to find the gender balance our industry currently reflects.

I am nominated along with 4 other women in the outstanding pastry chef category, which makes it hard to see any gender inequality for women. And the company I work for is filled with female employees at every level, including our director of operations, sous chefs, pastry chefs, dining room managers, accounting teams, private dining coordinators, and media directors. So from my position, things looked just peachy, what was the problem?

But something about that didn’t sit right with me. And I knew that I wasn’t answering anyones questions because I didn’t actually understand the topic in general. So I sat down with a few different women I know better educated than me in the subject of feminism and asked them to show me what the diminished presence of female chefs in the james beard awards looked like through their eyes.

And here’s the deal. I still don’t want to open my mouth on the subject. It’s a grey zone, a big, murky grey zone filled with view points, opinions, and subtleties, and I’m a black and white kinda gal. I stick to things that either are, or aren’t, a quality that flourishes in the exacting world of pastry. But the more I listened to these women talk, thinking I’d never experienced any different treatment because I was a women, the more I realized I had.

In Seattle, a magazine was sent to photograph me for the Pastry chef of the year award they were bestowing on me. The photographer came in, and his first directive was to ask me to lick something off a spoon, or frosting off a whisk. I said no. He pushed the subject, saying it was a direct request by his art director. And again, I said no. I asked him if he would ever ask a man to lick something off a spoon. He kind of chuckled, and said, no, no he wouldn’t, and the topic was dropped. I have no idea if the art director was a man or a woman, but the idea that because I was a woman, my sexuality was available to use along with my professional identity is not something I was comfortable with.

Last year, I was nominated for the same award I am up for this year. As soon as the nominations were announced, I started discussing the most important topic with my coworkers and friends; what should I wear? I made a decision quickly to wear a tuxedo. I mean, when else would I get the chance to tux it up? I started looking at pictures of Janelle Monet, Bianca Jagger, Le Smoking by Eves St. Laurent, and all the pictures i could find of women looking amazing in tuxedos. As I sat looking at the photographs online, the general manager of the restaurant piped in and asked, “don’t you think a gown is more appropriate?” He pushed the envelope, reminding me that I was representing the company, and people like Janelle Monet could get away with it because they looked more feminine than me. Needless to say, I wore a tux, patched together by pieces I found in vintage shops, and a pair of turquoise italian loafers, no socks, in the style of my boss, the boss, Donnie Madia. And I loved every minute of it.

I realized, looking back, that it’s not the moments like these, glaringly obvious in their intent to force me into a gender role thought appropriate by someone else, easy to push through, that cause problems. It’s a story like this one.

At staff meal, a male server told another male server, “don’t be a woman about it.” And I didn’t think a thing of it. Infact, it went completely unnoticed by me, and if I had any reaction to it, I probably laughed.

It’s an insult I’ve heard a million times, and one I’ve thrown around with abandon. Don’t be a Pussy. Woman. Giant gaping vagina. Little girl. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I’ve seen people give tampons or women’s underwear as gag gifts to a man they consider sensitive. Or stick maxi pads all over their locker. And I probably laughed each time.

The comment above would have gone unnoticed by myself if another girl hadn’t spoken up and said, “don’t say that. that’s not ok” The conversation between the two continued, with the male telling the female that no one was a bigger feminist than he was, and that if she wanted to stay in this industry she better get used to things like that. He accused her of picking on him.

I realized, if we really want to be able to say that the ratio of women to men being given James Beard awards is an accurate representation of the quality of work being done, not the trickle down effect of a misogynistic male favored industry,  it starts in our kitchens, on our floors, by making sure everyone knows it’s not ok to use the word woman as an insult, or anything like it.  The tone has to be set by us, the men and women who manage the restaurants, every day. And the questions have to be asked to men too. It’s not just important for people to hear what I, a woman, thinks about underrepresentation of women in the awards and how to remove that road block, but to ask the male chefs what they think can be done to reduce overrepresentation of men, and how does that translate into the tone they set in their own restaurants.

I don’t think the James Beard Awards are the cause of the difference between men and women being awarded. I think it’s an accurate representation of who is left standing after 20 years of laughing at your own gender, and diminishing the qualities associated with it to adapt and survive the early years like I did, and those women braver than I was, who stood up and said “don’t say that. that’s not ok.” and pushed to the top despite the laughter.




5 Responses to “On being a female chef”

  1. Sylvia See

    The real test for the industry. Are you being paid the same, or in your case as an multiple award nominee/winner, more than your male counterparts?

    • Ted Niceley

      Incredibly well articulated, couldn’t agree more.
      I think you might be right about who’s left standing after 20 years.
      No doubt it will take at least that long to straighten out..
      Good Luck
      Ted Niceley

  2. Wendy DeBord

    Hi Dana,

    I’m 53 and have been a working pastry chef in the Chicago suburbs for a very long time. I totally relate to your thoughts, I don’t see myself as a male or a female pastry chef at all. I’m just a pastry chef. My entire career what I’ve always wanted, is to be just apart of the group working in one untied kitchen.

    You can only be a part of the group when the leader of the group wants you to be a part of their team. 8 years ago I started at a private country club, hired on by the gm who knew me. With-in the first week of working there the exec. chef came up to me to have a private chat. I thought that was cool, he was going to welcome me, etc… But the words that came out of his mouth were, “girls don’t belong in the kitchen”. He had worked with a female in another kitchen who sucked and he made sure her ass got fired, etc… . I took that as a anti-welcoming mat and found another place to work asap.

    I’m glad you haven’t had that kind of experience in your career. I tend to think that in general the real improvements in behavior are still only happening in the top starred restaurants. Hopefully the trickle down effect will come to smaller less known kitchens soon. I currently own a tiny from scratch wholesale bakery in the burbs. Usually I make my own deliveries as I’m also my own one person sales force. I go into a lot of non-starred kitchens. When I enter the kitchen with my pastry boxes I’m still the only female in the kitchen and now I’m also the oldest person too. I can only imagine what the guys think of me now…….I can see the questioning in their faces…..like, why is this old lady delivering food? can’t they find a younger guy.

    But one by one as the chefs get to know my food and judge me only by the food I deliver. I get a lot of respect. I’m not sure if they see me as a female or a old person……. and I don’t care. I’ve finally gotten the one thing I ever really wanted, respect as a person.

    I love and delight that you get the whole picture. Keep pushing to the top!


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