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Chefs Weigh In: Women and the Restaurant Industry

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Welcome to Hot Topics, in which food industry people chime in on a major issue in food.
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In the days since Time magazine published its male-centric "Gods of Food" issue, people throughout the restaurant industry — men and women alike — have been speaking out. They've been challenging editor Howard Chua-Eoan's explanation for the omission of women in the issue, as well as how the food media treats women. And they've been commenting about what's often described as a "boy's club" among some of the best-known male chefs. But how should the restaurant industry deal with this recurring lack of representation for women?

Here now, chefs Sara Jenkins (Porchetta, New York City), Marc Vetri (Vetri, Philadelphia, PA), Andrea Kirshtein (The Spence, Atlanta, GA), Tory Miller (L'Etoile, Madison, WI), Marjorie Meek-Bradley (Ripple, Washington, DC), and restaurateur Anna Weinberg (Marlowe, San Francisco, CA) weigh in on the issue.


Sara Jenkins

Chef, Porchetta (New York City)

One of the explanations the Time editor gave last week was that their article was representing the reality of women in the restaurant industry. So I wanted to ask you what the reality of the industry looks like to you.
I have to say that I really agree with Amanda Cohen that there's an awful lot of women involved in the industry and in chef roles. Obviously we don't get as much attention paid to us, but I don't think it's because we're not there.

Who do you think bears the responsibility for making sure a disconnect like that doesn't exist?
Such a complicated question, right? There's been so much interesting discussion about it. Consumers, diners, media, all of it. I mean, when Charlotte Druckman was writing her book Skirt Steak, somebody made a comment to me that since nobody cares about female chefs, they don't understand why anybody's going to care about that book. And kind of yeah, right?

You mean readers?
I mean readers, consumers of information, customers. If everybody is sitting around excitedly waiting to hear what the latest thing that René Redzepi did versus what Alice Waters did...

Do you think the media has an obligation to move beyond covering what readers are interested in?
I think that the media has an obligation to investigate and follow a story. I think honestly the problem is the prevalence of the media getting most of their information from PR agencies. And I think that's true in politics. I think that's true in technology. The old boots on the ground, gumshoe detective work that responsible journalists should be doing is hard to find. And I think Amanda's right. It becomes this eternal circle of media people and PR agents kind of feeding each other. And that's fine. But you're not really getting at what's really going on out there.

It becomes this eternal circle of media and PR agents feeding each other.

What, if anything, do you think everyone related to the industry can do about it?
I don't know, put some shoe leather to the ground I guess. I feel like — and maybe it's because of our social media era or whatever — everybody gets very excited about something and then it's just a self-perpetuating thing. Everybody is talking about this, everybody is looking at that. I think it's why somebody like Robert Sietsema is so admired because he's not busy opening up press releases. Or maybe he is, but he's out there trekking around, sticking his nose in places.

And finally, how do you feel about coverage of these issues in terms of doing women-only posts or lists?
Well, I'm on the fence about it because honestly I think that a lot of times we sound like we're complaining. We wind up getting portrayed like we're whining and sniveling about how nobody pays any attention to us and we're just as good, just as fabulous. So I hate sounding like that. But at the same time, if we don't talk about it, nobody ever talks about it, nobody ever thinks about it, nobody ever thinks there's anything wrong with it.

Yeah somebody I talked to yesterday pointed out she thought this Time thing might actually be good because it blew everything open.
Right. I mean, for instance, obviously David Chang and René Redzepi have had a huge influence on restaurants and cuisine globally, locally, inside their communities and outside their communities. To say that Alex Atala — who more or less is somebody nobody ever heard of until this Summer — is more influential than Alice Waters, that's pushing it, you know? Sometimes I wonder how much history journalists are getting. Alice Waters, I would say, transformed the way this country eats. Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck thirty years ago were the lone interesting people doing something different. They were the beginning of American cuisine. And maybe if you were still in grammar school thirty years ago, it's not as obvious to you. But, again, that's why good journalists study history and don't just read a press release.

Sara Jenkins. [Photo: Daniel Krieger]


Marc Vetri

Chef, Vetri (Philadelphia)

I wanted to ask your thoughts on the whole debate we've been having, starting with the explanation that the Time magazine piece was just reflecting the realities of the restaurant industry. What is that reality to you?
Yeah, I mean, they're not really reflecting the realities of the restaurant industry. They're reflecting the realities of their little microcosm of the chef world. I think there's a lot more going on then the lineage of four chefs. As wonderful as they all may be. I'd say 70 percent of the guys on that list, they're all amazing, but I don't think any of them believe they are better than anybody else. I understand everybody likes lists and that sells. You can make a list like that, but just have a little bit more information.

I mean it's a great list. I have more respect for most of those guys than anybody, but it's kind of insensitive. It's not any reality of the restaurant world. The real reality is it's not just about one style or group of chefs, you know? The Alex [Atalas] and the [David] Changs and the René [Redzepis] are doing one thing, and it's amazing, but there's a whole other world out there. If you want to write an article that's fine, but to say that that is the reality of the restaurant world is just not a fact. It's just one man's opinion. And I guess that's what all restaurant reviews are anyway, just one man's opinion. Or one woman's opinion for that matter.

Do you think that the media has a responsibility to seek out more women in its coverage of restaurants, or who do you think has the responsibility here for the kind of disconnect that that article seemed to evoke?
I don't think that they had to specifically seek out women to be on that list, women should have been on that list regardless. It doesn't make any sense that there weren't. If you are going to talk lineages and have a whole look at the restaurant industry, you should do that. You should have women on that list. Oh my god. All the ones that were mentioned. Suzanne, Alice, oh my god. There are women doing amazing things. And they are leaders and innovators just as much as their male counterparts.

This kind of controversy seems to crop up pretty regularly with women being excluded not just in media but also festivals and stuff. We all have this debate on the regular. Why you think this keeps happening, how we can address it?
I honestly don't know. I have a big event I do every year that I raise money for the Alex's Lemonade Foundation and for the Vetri Foundation. We have 45 chefs come and probably 25 percent are women. So, in my world, I don't look at them like they're excluded. I don't think about that so much, but maybe we should. I don't look at my list like, "Oh I need some women on this list." I look at who is an amazing chef who's also an amazing person who we really want to come to this event. And other events, I guess, they're just looking for the latest hot celebrity and everyone just kind of hops on the bandwagon.

Lately in my kitchens there has been a surge of women that have taken the lead.

And do you think it's mainly men who are in that category of the hot celebrity?
No, I don't. There are plenty of women chefs that are opening up and making a name for themselves. There are certainly fewer women chefs than there are men chefs. So organically there's going to be less. I just look at my restaurants. I have a lot of women line cooks. They kick ass, usually more than the guy line cooks do. I specifically look for women line cooks not because they're women and I want to have women work in my kitchen. It's just what I've noticed is they're mentally tougher than a lot of the men line cooks. So I would rather have them work in the kitchen.

What do you mean mentally tougher?
Working the line is a tough job. I'm married and I understand lots of women are very strong-willed and they're not going to fail. Lots of men are also. I'm just saying lately in my kitchens there has been a surge of women that have taken the lead. I see that in a lot of kitchens.


Andrea Kirshtein

Pastry Chef, The Spence (Atlanta)

It seemed like the Time editor said the chef family tree was just reflecting the reality of women in the restaurant industry. Do you agree that's the reality? What is that reality to you today?
I kind of understand what he was trying to say, but I think it came across in a really negative way toward women. There are the big guns that he put out there and, yes, some of them are guys. But there are other things that don't showcase the women that are just as huge as those guys are. When I think of big chefs, Nancy Silverton comes to mind. Suzanne Goin worked for her, too. So that was a little upsetting that they didn't include her. They didn't put Alice Waters on there, who I think is the main person — male or female — that should have been included.

That whole little tree was just upsetting. I don't understand why Jeremy Fox is on there and they didn't include Kim Alter. She works for Daniel Patterson and she's an amazing chef. I ate her food when she was at Haven. She's amazing. I didn't really like what his reasoning was to neglect people. He was like, "Barbara Lynch is great, but she's not a David Chang."

Do you think that's valid?
No. I think David Chang has probably a lot of things that Barbara Lynch doesn't have. He has a bunch of restaurants in New York, and he has a really great PR team. I think PR and media help push certain people, and I think that plays a lot into it. When I follow people on Twitter or read articles, for every eight male chefs I see one thing on a female chef and then it's gone. It disappears.

What responsibility do you think the media has to address that kind of disconnect?
I think they just need to do a better job of focusing on the whole picture. Women work just as hard as men do. We're all equal. There's a bunch of women that are out there doing really cool things that sometimes get overshadowed by the one cool thing a guy is doing. Iliana Regan, she just got a Michelin star today at her restaurant [Elizabeth in Chicago], which is really cool. There's a lot of amazing women out there that are doing really great things. You know the magazine Cherry Bombe? They're doing a really great thing showcasing women and the cool things that we're doing. There's a lot of women besides a Sean Brock that are doing the exact same thing. I don't believe they get the light enough.

Right. This issue comes up time and again. How do we keep this exclusion of women from happening again?
I definitely think that it is a boy's club. I know in Atlanta there are not a lot of female chefs. In my kitchen alone, it's me and one other girl that work in our kitchen. So it tends to be a boy's club. I just don't understand why we have someone like from Atlanta, like Anne Quatrano, who isn't huge. So many people have worked for her that have also worked for Thomas Keller. I just think it's important to not put a gender on it.

It's really disappointing because you want women to be acknowledged.

Do you have any other thoughts on this?
It was just kind of infuriating, [Chua-Eoan's] answers to some of the questions. Just go ahead and neglect women just because, as he put it, there aren't hot restaurants right now. [That's] just kind of silly. I think there's a lot of women right now that are in hot restaurants, but I don't know where he was getting his rankings.

I see where he's coming from, but as a woman you just get frustrated. You want to be included. I look up to a lot of female chefs. For none of them to be included, it's really disappointing because you want women to be acknowledged. It's sad when you're seeing David Chang or Sean Brock all the time. I think they're amazing chefs, but I [don't understand why] Dominique Crenn or Elena Arzak wasn't on this list or Clare [Smyth]. These people are pretty amazing, and I'm sure these women influenced one of these males. To exclude them, it's just like, why even have the list? Why have the family tree? You can't have all males on a family tree. We're all equal and we all work really hard. If it's a male idea or if it's a female idea, it still can be an amazing idea. We're just hindering ourselves excluding people.

Andrea Kirshtein. [Photo: The Spence]


Tory Miller

Chef, L'Etoile (Madison, WI)

One of the explanations for why there weren't women in that piece was that they're reflecting the reality of the restaurant industry. To you, what is the reality of the restaurant industry? Were they right on that?
I think that there is a lot of that perspective in the restaurant industry amongst the chefs and men in the industry. But I don't think that it was right to say that there weren't women that have overcome that stigma.

What do you mean by stigma?
The whole idea that there aren't strong enough women to make that list — not strong, I shouldn't say strong, but I guess successful? I'm not even sure. I'm not sure what they're trying to say with the whole article besides just really pissing people off.

Right. What was your reaction to it? I saw you tweeted that you hated it.
My initial reaction was that it's super douchey. Chefs are already on the verge of becoming caricatures. All of us. You have to promote yourself, your restaurant, your food, everything you're doing, food porn-ing it up online, and all of the stuff that we do. We're douchey enough. And then you put the guys on the cover, the Gods of Food, and it's Time magazine. It's not like it's Bon Appétit or Food & Wine where they're doing best new chefs or best chefs in the world right now. It's Time magazine. It's like a real thing. To have them be so douchey and so weird, it makes a statement.

Chefs are already on the verge of becoming caricatures. All of us.

It's offensive in that regard, but then the whole explanation of why there was no women was just terrible. It's sad because, to me, not only in restaurants but just in this society, women have a tough road to travel. I see a lot of young cooks that come through my kitchen, young women. They're really great and you want to see them succeed and teach them as much as you can, but in the end there's always that question of do you want to have a family? It's one of those things where it's the reality, you have to make that choice as a woman. A lot of people are like, "I want to be a successful chef, but I also want to be a mom." And, of course, there's people that do it, but it's really sad it's looked upon as like a weakness, I guess, in society. Especially in the chef world where we're all about macho this and macho that: "I work 6 a.m. to midnight every day and I'm off on Sundays." It's kind of annoying when you think about what we as chefs have to go through and then as a woman on top of it to put up with that. It's really unfortunate.

Who do you think bears the responsibility here, if any, to address this representation of women in restaurants?
I think it's women themselves. If you're a woman chef, you should be doing everything that everyone else is doing as far as self-promotion, putting yourself out there and not be worried about anyone judging that. I think that's a first step. But yeah, there is some of that [responsibility] as far as media attention and all that goes along with it. You're always reading about the same guys or the same restaurant groups or whatever. I think this is going to be good because there's a lot of other publications now that are looking to do rebuttal stories as far as where are the women chefs and who are the ones that deserve to be the gods or goddesses of food, as it were. Because there's definitely a lot of them.

Tory Miller [Photo: Facebook]


Marjorie Meek-Bradley

Chef, Ripple (Washington, DC)

One of the explanations for why there weren't women in the chefs family tree was that they're reflecting the reality of the restaurant industry. Is that the case? What is the reality of the restaurant industry to you?
For me, it's definitely not. Yes, there are more men than women, and I think it is truly harder to get yourself out there as much as a woman. But I think it's kind of two things. One, my kitchen here, I would say it's 80 percent women. It didn't start that way when I took over Ripple about eight months ago. There were no girls in the kitchen, actually. And it's interesting because I think I've had quite a few come to work here who were drawn [to it] because there aren't many opportunities to work for a woman chef.

But I worked at Per Se in New York and there was another girl, Kim Floresca. She was a badass. She could out-cook anyone in the kitchen. And she went on to be a sous chef in Napa at Meadowood, and now she and her boyfriend have moved down to [ONE] Restaurant in Chapel Hill. She's a prime example of a woman who worked under Thomas Keller and has gone on to do really good things and do them on her own, you know what I mean? And so to me, yes, maybe there's not as many, but they're certainly there. His comment about Alice Waters was what upset me the most. Maybe she's not as showy as somebody like David Chang, but she changed the way Americans looked at food. She really revolutionized an entire generation of people.

Whose responsibility is it to address this disconnect between women chefs and the attention that they receive? Is that the media, festival organizers, restaurants themselves, chefs themselves?
My friend and I were talking about this last night, actually. As a woman chef, I have a lot of other friends that are as well and we've been talking about it over the past week. One of them said, well, women are by nature almost self-deprecating. We're a little more humble, I think. I mean, not always. (laughs) To me, somebody compliments me or the restaurant or whatever, and I just say, "Oh thank you," and kind of look down. I don't know. But I think we're just a little more humble, so we don't always get as much attention because we're not shoving ourselves out there as much as maybe some of the guys are.

Right. So do you think that women ought to change in that respect?
Some of the most talented chefs I've met are the ones that are in their kitchens paying attention to what they're doing. Somebody like April Bloomfield or Thomas Keller. I've worked at two of his restaurants, and he's not a super showy person. He's not going on every TV show possible. To me, those are the people that are truly talented. So to get recognized is great, but it's not necessarily the most important thing. Of course you want to be recognized for what you do, and if you are very passionate about it and care about it, it feels good to have that affirmation.

We have a responsibility to younger women that are in culinary school or just starting out.

So is there anything that we need to do going forward? You said you weren't even upset about the article itself at first. Is this seeming exclusion of women from listicles and festivals a problem that we can do something about?
Yeah, I think it would be better. We kind of have a responsibility to younger women that are in culinary school or just starting out to show them. To me, he just took us 10 years back. If I was an 18-year-old girl reading that article, it might intimidate me or it might make me nervous. So I do think we have a responsibility to make it known that, yes, there are a lot of males, but there are an equal number of females and we can be so successful and it doesn't really matter.

What would you like to see the media do?
I don't know. You always want it to be equal. You don't want to be like, "Oh there should be a woman's food festival" or something like that. I don't think that makes sense. It is tricky because [if] you do just female things, well that's weird. Or you say you have to fill a quota, well that's stupid. I think people continue to be more open-minded. The response to that article is wonderful because everybody is talking about it in the industry, men and women. I think that it almost did [women] a favor because it blew it open. Usually [list-makers] will include a female. And by not doing that, it drew so much attention that I think people are like, oh wow, wait a minute, that is wrong. Look at all these talented people. I've been introduced to probably 10 women I'd never even heard of across the country through Twitter because last Friday everyone was tweeting each other different female chefs. That in and of itself helps in a way.

Marjorie Meek-Bradley. [Photo: Ripple]


Anna Weinberg

Restaurateur, Marlowe (San Francisco)

One of the explanations of the Time article seems to be that it's reflecting the reality of the restaurant industry, but I'm curious what to you is the reality of the industry when it comes to this issue?
Well, I certainly hope this is not the reality of the industry as a woman with a female business partner [chef Jennifer Puccio] who owns three restaurants in San Francisco. I couldn't be any less subjective, but all of those three are absolutely amazing. I've certainly always paid a huge amount of attention to the women who are changing not only the way that we eat, but also the industry. So I've never felt like there's been a shortage of women to look to. In San Francisco, we have Nancy Oakes from Boulevard, and her whole entire team is female. And then here in Los Angeles, we are about to go to one of her restaurants today, Suzanne Goin. Who is as important and as relevant as anybody else. So I've never felt like I've been scrambling to look for women.

However, by the same token, I know we often get talked about as kind of an anomaly in the restaurant business as females. I certainly hope that's not the case. I feel like there's some amazing young women who are coming out to work for us that are important in the industry.

Is there anything specific you'd like to see changed in the way the media or festival organizers approach women and that sort of thing?
Definitely. I will say with regards to things like the high-profile festivals, the female chefs who tend to get invited are TV chefs. Great female restaurant chefs don't seem to get offered. That might be because they don't have that much pull, but I absolutely think that they do. And so perhaps that is one thing that I'd like to see change. It's really hard for me because I feel like [Puccio and I have] always been treated so well, and I have had so many female heroes. But when you look at a list like that, it does start making sense that maybe... As you know, every list is subjective and those three [male chefs] make for a great cover, and a great read. But, again, it's one writer's story. It's our responsibility as restaurateurs as well to support our community, and to support women.

It's our responsibility as restaurateurs to support our community, and to support women.

I feel like people are always talking about how women need to network and raise other women up. But are you saying that this is a responsibility of the whole community?
I mean, sure. But, more specifically, it should be our responsibility to support each other. And especially, the one thing that is more tricky, I will say, is getting young women into our kitchens. It just doesn't happen as much. There's much fewer opportunities to mentor young women because they don't come through the kitchen as much. But when I see them, I know we have to take them, and take care of them, and make them part of the industry because it's an easy industry to drop out of pretty early.

And finally, since this debate seems to crop up every few months or so, do you think there is anything else specifically we can do to prevent these kinds of controversies from arising again?
Well I mean, probably not, seeing as how they get so much play, like everything right? If it gets this much attention they are probably going to do it again. Why don't you write your own list? Counter with that.

Well then there's the debate about whether it's a good thing to talk about women when it's only about women. Do you think a "Goddesses of Food" list is the right answer?
I don't know if it's the right answer, but it's a valid response, for sure. It's also not just the food industry. We are used to working 18, 19, 20-hour weeks, and I have a seven-month old baby. So it's like what women go through in every other industry. Men can travel all around the whole world, and more of that kind of thing. Not many [women] can live that lifestyle.

Anna Weinberg. [Photo: Marlowe]

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