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Maybe it came as a surprise to diners, but when exposés revealed cultures of harassment in kitchens run by nationally recognized chefs like John Besh and Mario Batali, I wondered if the moment had come when we could finally change our industry — and how women are able to shape our careers within it. Maybe, I thought, we wouldn’t have to be so damn quiet and pleasant anymore.
Not every woman in the restaurant industry has endured the type of harassment outlined in those exposés. But most of us have experienced its misogynistic culture, the concrete floor — and the glass ceiling — upon which so many restaurants and careers have been built.
When I first began cooking professionally I had so little experience (read: none) that if I was noticed at all by the cooks around me, I was simply part of the chaos of a large kitchen with one other woman on the line. Higher up the chain, all of the chefs and sous chefs were men in a company exclusively run by men. I thought nothing of it at the time.
But as I became more serious and began to excel, I was met with hostility and a sense that I was somehow cheating the process. (Most women who have cooked in high-level kitchens will know the type of side-eye and not-quite-under-breath comments I’m talking about.) You’d think that simply doing a good job would be the way to show I belonged, but there cannot be an industry that abides harassers and predators without an acculturation that creates consequences for dissent. I learned early and quickly that rising professionally meant that I needed to make myself more palatable; that adding charm, a little flirt, and occasionally pretending to not know what I was doing went a long way to keep myself in the category of acceptable and nonthreatening.
The message I heard from the men around me was clear: It’s ours, and if we don’t like you, we won’t let you in.
The balancing act didn’t pay off. Eventually, I was refused an opportunity to work the grill station, the station in the kitchen where mistakes result in the immediate loss of revenue for the restaurant. It was obvious: I couldn’t be trusted with the “big boy” job. It felt like I got doubly screwed: Doing the work to make myself likable didn’t square with proving myself capable of ascending to the hardest station. I ended up leaving.
I spoke with several female chefs about how likability impacts their professional lives. Across the board, they recognized that the longevity and success of their careers were tied to being liked by the public and by their peers in the industry.
But it’s easy to think of men in our industry who don’t have this problem, who go on to create personal brands without considering their own likability. In part, that’s because the dining public understands what it takes to become a chef more than it ever has, thanks to the proliferation of chef- and restaurant-related shows. It’s generally agreed upon that kitchen work is grueling, physically demanding, and mentally taxing. Bad behavior has been the accepted consequence of this career — for men. We allow male chefs their brutish, snarky, and downright abusive conduct; we find it entertaining and we reward it with television shows and big-city restaurant deals. (Not to mention that male chefs’ appearance also goes largely unscrutinized.) But is there a female counterpart, a woman who’s invited to yell or have a devil-may-care persona and still find blinding success by personifying those qualities? Not yet.
Let’s rewind to my television debut on the first season of Top Chef, which is almost too-perfect an example of this double standard. I chose to compete as a litmus test for the progress of my career and talent. I couldn’t have anticipated finding myself in the eye of the storm that came when the show was edited and aired. I certainly made mistakes during the competition, but my skills are what got me to the finale. Still, I was called a bitch and a snake on television, both epithets making it through final edits.
As I look back on that period of my life, it feels like producers never had the intention of risking the success of a new franchise like Top Chef on a feisty, competitive woman winning the first season. The safer bet was a “good guy,” handsome and innocuous. In the years since being painted as Top Chef’s first villain, I’ve had to work overtime both professionally and personally to prove that I am not, in fact, the devil. If I had a dollar for every time I have been cordial to complete strangers approaching me and laughing while saying, “I’m not your bitch, bitch,” I would be flush. (On a personal note: if you are tempted to say that to me, don’t. The phrase is tired, the beliefs behind it are tired, and I’m fucking sick of it.)
We are starting to understand the correlation between likability and success is inverted when it applies to women. As Sheryl Sandberg has repeatedly pointed out, “as men get more powerful they get more liked by men and women, and as women get more powerful, they’re less liked.” This is the shitty reality of implicit bias for women: They must be likable enough to advance. Then, when they’ve made it through the meat grinder of their early careers, they face a catch-22.
Once a woman has the opportunity to run her own kitchen or restaurant, the idea of harassment and subjection to “bro culture” should be in her rearview. Unfortunately, act 2 is just beginning.
Act 2 is the perpetuation of the cycle. At this stage, a female chef’s charge, still, is to find a nonthreatening way to assimilate with their peers, the media, and the public thirst for all things chef. She must be recognized, be a part of the mostly male community of chefs, and walk the tightrope of maintaining personal integrity without ostracizing herself from male acceptance. She can try to suggest to her peers that they take it easy on the sexist remarks. She can stop following, liking, and commenting on the social-media posts of male chefs she knows to be jerks or even predators. She can even demand more pay and work for gender parity.
But she will be seen as a disrupter, someone who exists to simply make trouble, not someone who believes a cultural shift in the treatment of women will elevate the industry as a whole. Fear of change from the beneficiaries of the status quo is powerful, and often manifests in the ostracization of the change-makers.
I knew that owning my own business was imperative to my staying power in the restaurant business. And in my experience, you don’t fully call the shots until you’re a majority owner. Even so, no restaurant is an island. We live in the context of our culture. I still feel some of the same skepticism directed my way as a chef-owner as I did coming up as a cook: that I must have somehow made the process easier if I, a woman, found success in it; that surely my work isn’t equal to that of my male counterparts.
The time has come to address this head on. Women represent more than half of culinary school graduates, while claiming only 21 percent of head chef roles in America. Only 33 percent of restaurant businesses are majority-owned by women. These inclusion gaps repeat in the national food-festival circuit. While food festivals may seem like a party wrapped in industry clothing, they provide access, networking, and national visibility. (And I’ll exclude, for now, the pass that married male chefs get for their raunchy behavior when attending.)
We are quick to attribute the lack of ascent in women’s culinary careers to the desire for families, but in the post-Besh, post-Batali moment, we are finally considering that a culture of misogyny can be toxic enough to push women out — regardless of whether they want to have children. We must also consider that the burden women in kitchens are under to remain likable contributes to this toxicity as well.
Even in this moment of #MeToo, it’s still hard to risk being disliked. (I even hesitated before agreeing to write about this topic.) It is vitally important, nonetheless. We may be doing the work of maintaining our likability for a chance to sit at the big table with the very same people who, consciously or not, seek to exclude us. And before the cries of “not all men” start: No, not all men. But it’s time for the good guys to get loud, too, to step in and create, through their actions and words, support for the community many of them profess to love — for all of us.
As for us women, perhaps if we worry less about how we are seen and whether we are liked, we can harness this movement into something meaningful and lasting. Regardless of how we’ve been complicit and how we’ve allowed this culture to thrive, we must now be honest. It’s time to correct our own behavior and assumptions. It won’t be easy. Change never is. But maybe, hopefully, the next generation of women will run more restaurants, grace the covers of food magazines, and be rightfully acknowledged as the Gods of Food. Perhaps we can simply be respected without having to worry about how people feel about us so damn much. We have better things to do with our time, and quite frankly, so do men.