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Female Chefs Weigh In on Always Getting Asked About Being Women

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Welcome to Hot Topics, in which chefs chime in on a major issue in food.
[Illustration: Eric Lebofsky]

Though female chefs are not all that uncommon, there's still a certain fascination with what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated environment. As many women at the top of the profession will attest, the question comes up in interview after interview: "What's it like being a female chef?" And, as Mary Sue Milliken puts it, "That question itself has sort of always baffled me. It's the same as it is to be a chef." Amanda Cohen says that, "It's really only the press who seem to feel that having a restaurant and a vagina is some kind of bizarre dual ownership situation." So what do female chefs think about constantly facing an interview question that their male counterparts would never get? Well, while some think it's "kind of sad" that the question comes up so often, others argue that the more it comes up, the better.

Here now, Mary Sue Milliken (Border Grill, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Las Vegas), Elizabeth Karmel (Hill Country, New York, Washington, DC), Kristen Kish (Stir, Boston), Christina Tosi (Momofuku Milkbar, New York), and Amanda Cohen (Dirt Candy, New York) weigh in on the issue.


Mary Sue Milliken

Restaurant: Border Grill — Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Las Vegas

What is it like to be asked what it's like to be a female chef?
I would imagine it must be kind of like being asked what's it like to be a redhead or what's it like to be a male nurse or what's it like to be a female brain surgeon. It's hard because I've been a female chef all my career. I went to chefs' school when I was 17 and I was one of two women in an all-men chefs' school. I think one of my coping mechanisms has always been gender blindness. And so I'm a terrible person to ask.

But what it's like being asked is dull, I have to say. When I'm asked about what it's like to be a chef, that's a question I love answering because I get to do my grocery shopping in the walk-in and it's mandatory that I eat on the job all day, which I love. And I get to wear a uniform, which is a fabulous perk. I don't have to worry about what I'm going to wear.

How often would you say people ask you what it's like being a female chef?
I used to get it more. There was a good 15-year period where it was quite something that we got asked a lot. By the press, maybe five times a year or something. By just people in the dining room, less. I think people wouldn't really ask that. But it comes up a lot when I'm mentoring people. I tell people my style has always been to just work circles around my male counterparts to prove that I could do it and never get flustered or lose my cool. I still feel responsible to sort of bring a female energy to the workplace and create an environment that's balanced.

And you get it less now?
I do get it less. I think maybe because I'm just older. But what I do get asked more often now is where are all the woman chefs and why aren't there more? Where are the huge, heavy-hitter woman chefs? So I don't get asked so much what it's like to be a woman chef anymore as much as I used to. Maybe once a year. It's an interesting topic for sure.

Do you think that it's good that we're bringing up the subject? Or bad that we're asking women about being women, a question we don't ask men?
I don't know. It makes people think, which is great. Like I said, it's great to be asked what it's like to be a chef because that I could rattle off a bunch of stuff. But what's it like to be a woman chef? That question itself has sort of always baffled me. It's the same as it is to be a chef. Except for, you know, you stand out a little bit and maybe you had to beat down a few doors.

But, in the end, after a couple of walls fall down ? Every kitchen I worked in, when I got in there, people at first would be like, "Oh God, here comes a girl. What kind of trouble is she going to cause? She's not going to want to pull the live trout out of the tank and smack it over the head and kill it" or whatever. And then you prove yourself and two weeks later, they treat you exactly the same as all the other guys. Or at least that was what I told myself. But I own my own restaurant now since I was 23. And I'm 55. It's hard for me to even remember. But it's great to be a woman chef. It's a little bit dull to be asked that question.

[Photo: Border Grill]


Elizabeth Karmel

Restaurant: Hill Country — New York, Washington, DC

What is it like to be asked what it's like to be a female chef?
I'm very familiar with that question. You know what, I don't mind being asked that question all the time at all because I'm one of the few women and maybe the first woman who really devoted herself to barbecue and grilling. Now there are some women on the barbecue circuit who are winning and everything, but I sort of led the way. I actually felt like it's been an advantage for me. So I like to answer that question because most of the time people tell the story that it's been a disadvantage and, in my case, it's really been a big advantage. Do you want me to tell you why?

Yeah, please.
That's because, particularly the barbecue world, but also the grilling world is so male-dominated and male-oriented that when I was coming up in it and I was learning everything that I possibly could from the masters, they actually told me their secrets because they didn't think I'd do anything with it. That is the honest-to-God truth. I loved that and I loved that I got to learn the real secrets because I was someone who they thought would never do anything with the information. So I've had a positive experience.

How often would you say people ask you that question?
Not as often as people ask me where I'm from. In New York City, every single day someone asks me where I'm from, which I find so interesting as a Southerner. There's so many Southerners who live in New York. But everyone from cab drivers to people who I do business with, everybody says, "Where are you from?" Every single day. But I think people ask me how does it feel like to be a woman mostly around this time of year when people are starting to write grilling and barbecue stories.

So you get it mainly in interviews more than people you meet or friends?
Yes. Occasionally if I meet somebody when I meet people who are outside of the food industry, maybe they might ask me. But mostly I don't get that question except in interviews.

Do you think that it's good that we're bringing up the subject or bad that we're asking women about being women, a question we don't ask men? Or neutral?
Well, I think you can argue either side. It's like the whole gay argument, right? That someone's sexual preference or somebody's race shouldn't make any difference with what they do. But the fact that it's more unusual that we're the minority in the kitchen makes it of interest. I actually don't think it's a bad question for me because so many women tell a different story and that they've had a really bad experience. Lots of my female friends who are cooks have had bad experiences. So I consider myself really lucky that I've had such great experiences.

And I encourage women to [pursue cooking]. There are so many people men and women who really feel like women are intuitively better cooks and better in the kitchen. It just amazes me what a great job so many women who have done it far longer than I [have], and they've been unsung heroes of the kitchen because everybody heard about their male compatriots but nobody heard about them. And I'm thinking, "Wow, look what you've done."

[Photo: Official]


Kristen Kish

Restaurant: Stir — Boston

What is it like to be asked what it's like to be a female chef?
Oh God, right. That question happens a lot. I understand the intrigue and the curiosity behind it for sure. But at the end of the day it's all about just everyone is a chef, right? I don't think any differently of it, but I can understand the public's perception of it. So I'll happily answer it, but I'll always answer it in the form of, "Well, I don't even think of it that way."

Does it bother you to get the question?
You know, it doesn't bother me because, again, I know it's one of those social hot topics in the restaurant world. It doesn't bother me whatsoever. But my hope is that one day that question will kind of start to fade away because it won't be an issue anymore.

How often would you say people ask you?
Well after the whole Top Chef thing, it happened in nearly every interview. In regular real life it doesn't happen that often. Maybe a couple times a month.

So it's more in interviews rather than people you meet.
Exactly, yeah.

Do you think that the question is a good or a bad thing? Is it good that we're talking about women or bad that we're asking women about being women, a question we don't ask men? Or neutral?
I definitely think it's a good thing. People want to know about it and people want to talk about it. I wouldn't necessarily call it bad, but it's kind of sad that question is so often brought up. Or maybe if we keep talking about it, no one else will so it will kind of go away. Maybe go away is not the right word, but I'd like it to become more of a normal thing that it doesn't have to be asked as often.

And how did Top Chef change how often that comes up for you?
Normally in restaurants, sometimes you don't really see who's back there or all you know is the name. But, like I said, it's put out there again. Also this season, since it was both Brooke and I [in the finals], that it's not a surprise anymore a female chef happens to be successful. It's good that there's more light being brought to the fact that there are female chefs. That people watch and see that there really isn't a big difference.

[Photo: Official]


Christina Tosi

Restaurant: Momofuku Milk Bar — New York

What is it like to be asked what it's like to be a female chef?
What is it like to be asked what it's like to be a female chef? That's a really good question. I think, for me, it's sort of a non-starter in terms of conversation because I usually just laugh at the question. I guess technically I am a female chef, but I don't really think of myself as such. I don't think more about it than five seconds if someone asks me. Or it's like, "Oh I guess technically I am a female chef, but that really doesn't mean anything to me." Not from a place of no value and not from a place of value. Yes, technically that is a valid description, but there's nothing else about it that I really respond to.

So you skip over the question?
Yeah, I usually just laugh because it always seems to be a topic that people want to be a hot topic. It's almost sort of a leading question, where it's like, I don't know, what's it like to be a female editor at Eater? Yes, I guess technically that is an accurate description, but there are so many other ways in which I define myself. If you're trying to lead into this story, there are so many other ways that I define my path and my challenges and my successes and what I do and that doesn't really come back to being just purely being a female chef in the kitchen.

Does it bother you to get the question?
No. I mean, honestly, I feel like everyone's path is a little different and everyone's experiences are a little different, so I understand how it could or would be a hot topic. I have an older sister and maybe it's because my mother is sort of very high up in her position. We were always raised with a "You can do whatever you want to do and you get to define who you are and how you do it." So it was never a topic of conversation in any part of how I was brought up before I worked in a kitchen.

And I was actually pretty fortunate. I worked in a bunch of really tough kitchens, but when I got yelled at and screamed at it wasn't really for being a woman. It was just for making a bonehead mistake. And I never took it as there is this man yelling at me, I'm a woman. Maybe it's because I just chose to turn a blind eye, I don't really know, but I feel like I got treated just like any other bonehead new cook or experienced, seasoned, valued cook.

And maybe I chose not to take it as such because it was never a point of topic or a point of identity for me one way or the other. I identify with some girls just like I identify with some guys. And I don't really put it out there from a "Oh I'm a girl so I identify with just girls" or "Oh I'm not a boy, but I identify with men just as much as I identify with women." It doesn't make me mad because I understand that everybody has their own experiences, every kitchen is a little different. And it really is how you choose to look at it. There are other things that set me off a lot more than what it's like to be a woman in the kitchen.

Like what?
Oh that's a good question. I don't know, like, what's the next trend? One of my theories or philosophies to how we do what we do is to not compare ourselves to others. Because I think that you get too close to either being too heavily influenced by someone else, or by some trend, or you just lose the honesty of point of view when it comes to food and cooking. It gets too grimy and too dirty. I like trying to keep as honest and straightforward of a point of view in our kitchen as possible. So I'd say the food trend question. It doesn't burn me, I'm not going to start cursing, but it's definitely more annoying of a question than the female chef question.

How often would you say people ask you the female chef question?
I would say it's a lot more in the past year or two and I don't know if it's because — speaking of trends — the trend is for this movement of "how come all these guys are getting covered and no one's covering any female chefs?" I personally don't feel that way, but it's become more or a hot topic or a hot trend. You could theorize anything until you're blue in the face, but it's definitely been a more prevalent question in the past year or two. I don't think it's because of anything I've said or done. But it's definitely the question we probably get asked once a week in an interview.

Wow. And mostly in interviews? Not from people on the street?
No. I don't think I probably give off the vibe one way or the other that's a question that? you know what I mean. No one really asks me that question in person. It's usually just an interview question where it's trying to wade into this topic.

Do you wish we would drop the topic?
I'm fine answering it because I think my perspective is just as relevant as somebody who has a really passionate perspective on it in a different way. My perspective is it's about who you are as a person and how hard you work and what you choose to be your passion and your path. That for me makes no difference whether it's girl or boy.

I did not feel like my experience is any harder or any easier because I'm a girl. I definitely got yelled at early on when I worked in kitchens, but I think regardless of whether you're a boy or a girl, someone's going to make a comment to you that hurts your feelings. And it might be gender-based, but I never really felt discriminated against. I didn't feel like my time was any harder. If anything, I was like, I'm going to surprise you more if you're trying to look at me from a gender perspective.

[Photo: Gabriele Stabile]


Amanda Cohen

Restaurant: Dirt Candy — New York

What is it like being asked what it's like being a female chef?
It feels the press are finally waking up to the actual world we live in.

How often do you get the question?
Not often enough.

Does it bother you / do you wish we wouldn't ask?
Nope, I have no problem being associated with female chefs. I don't find being a woman an insult.

Why do you think this comes up so often?
Lots of women work in kitchens, but I think it's still a novelty to the press. Other chefs don't ask me about it, regular people don't ask me about it, customers don't ask me about it. It's really only the press who seem to feel that having a restaurant and a vagina is some kind of bizarre dual ownership situation. Because female chefs get so little press coverage it's easy for food writers to believe they're as rare as unicorns, but if they just looked around a little bit they'd find plenty of us out here.

Why do you want to get that particular question more often?
The more questions, the more interviews. The more interviews, the more the press needs interview subjects. Eventually they'll have to start finding female chefs who haven't been interviewed yet to get fresh answers, and that in and of itself will make a (small) difference.

[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

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