What Do Women Want? Conversations From the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Conference

Chef Elizabeth Falkner
Chef Elizabeth Falkner
All photos courtesy of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs

First, it was an article in the New York Times.

Chef Dan Barber had held an event where "luminaries in the food world gathered in Westchester to discuss using seeds to explore a new frontier of flavor." When only one of 24 chefs quoted was a woman, chefs, writers, and editors took to Twitter, challenging the absence of women in pivotal media pieces. A few months later, Time magazine came out with the "Gods of Food" issue, which rocked the boat when not one female chef was listed as a "god" — readers and eaters took note. When the editor of the piece concluded in an interview on Eater that the kitchen is a "boys club" and that the magazine had gone with "name recognition" above all else, that boat capsized.

Here was my personal conundrum: At the time I had been penning a weekly chef-interview column for almost two years, with women making up about 29 percent of my subjects. I never asked gendered questions, and no one ever complained. From this period I concluded that complete stories of chefs who happen to be women battle the quantifiable gender disparity, crude language, and harassment still happening in kitchens with greater force than stories on gender disparity, crude language, and harassment.

But many pieces written by publications great and small in response to those Times and Time magazine pieces had challenged how the media is responsible in shaping "narratives we see as important." I hadn't yet felt comfortable asking women working in the field flat out: Is there an issue about being a woman in this field you want to express that no one has asked you? But maybe it was time I did.

What Do Women Want? Conversations From the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Conference

Taking It to the Source

So I took that question to the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Conference recently, ready to find out what women in food care about right now. Panel conversations were titled "Taking a Bigger Bite Out of Your Career," "Business Matters: Strategies in Business and Career," "Dancing With the Media," and the like. "Celebrity" chefs like Alex Guarnaschelli, Lidia Bastianich, and Donatella Arpaia spoke alongside journalists, product producers, program directors, and executives of worldwide companies. I boldly asked if gender affected their jobs on a daily basis, and what stories they want told. A broad picture started to take shape.

We're in the Business of Food

A conference about pushing women forward in the business of food obviously prompted much discussion about business in general. A misconception was presented: It's assumed that men cook professionally because they're craftsmen and artists, while women who cook professionally are either motherly nurturers or masculine lesbians.

"I want people to give me a story because I'm an amazing businesswoman, I put out phenomenal food, and I'm a fantastic leader, not because I'm a female," said Sarah Simmons, chef/owner of Birds and Bubbles. When she started City Grit, the culinary salon that hosted tasting menus by chefs from out of town, her focus was on broadening their platforms and introducing them to a scene peppered with greater media coverage so that they could improve the strength of their businesses at home. Now Simmons is working on a business that will specifically introduce ways to make the management part easier on chefs opening restaurants so that they can focus on the part they love most: the food. "We're figuring out how to set people up for success and allow them to do the administrative work while doing what they most care about," she said.

Simmons sees the lack of confidence in running a restaurant to be challenging for both genders. But overall, the concern for how women can be bigger players financially in the field was a major talking point throughout the weekend. Financial opportunities for women are still minuscule when compared with investment in male-run businesses.

"Women need to make that financial connection" and not be idealistic, said keynote speaker Bastianich. Twenty-three years ago, she had a double whammy working against her: "I brought my husband with me to get the loan to expand my restaurant," she said. "Had I been alone, they'd have looked at me as an immigrant woman only." Second only to educating themselves, she encouraged attendees to "think about your economic situation, your platform."

What Do Women Want? Conversations From the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Conference

The Money/Media Link

Success in business is often linked with success in media output: Restaurants with more money can hire publicists to connect with journalists and get the chef's story out there. "It's really challenging for people who don't have a budget to be backed for things like media," said WCR president chef Elizabeth Falkner. "People with small restaurants can't get away to have a conversation with [journalists], or to cook at festivals. Those chefs are doing really cool stuff, they're just not getting the attention."

"There's a perception of what or who a chef is from the stories you hear in the media, and a lot of big players represented are male," said chef Colleen Grapes of Oceana. "But it's a matter of society being woken up to our realities; we can manage media as much as they can."

The irony is that women hold a lot of executive positions in media. The powerhouse "Taking a Bigger Bite Out of Your Career" panel featured Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation; Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine; Kat Kinsman, editor of Tasting Table; and Melissa Clark, journalist for the New York Times. Women dominate publicity departments in New York and have, possibly, risen a bit more prominently in journalism than in restaurants.

"I think since the 'Gods of Food' article came out the media has done a great job in responding by giving more attention to female chefs," said Simmons. Falkner agreed. But there's still more that can be done. "I got some media training, like when a dog goes to obedience school," Guarnaschelli said at her panel discussion. "I needed it. We all need it — you're lying if you think you don't." "Go on Instagram and Twitter," suggested Falkner. "If you're making some really interesting food and talking about it, people will start paying attention. It's an inexpensive way to get that out." "The media is smart," said Arpaia. "You can't fool them. You have to show up day after day and do the best you can. But I learned that if you have something to say and it's your story, you'd better be the first one to say it. It's not the media's fault if you don't."

What Do Women Want? Conversations From the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Conference

De-Masculinizing Kitchens

Yet a big missing link for many female chefs, still, is the somewhat masculine energy obtaining in some kitchens. There was a debate as to whether women should dish back crudeness with crudeness, as the young chefs I'd interviewed prior claimed they'd done, or embrace the traits that make them more "feminine." How could chefs embrace traits often seen as "masculine" or "feminine" when leading their own teams?

"I think there's a lot of confusion and gray area that young people have to face regarding gender roles now," said chef and writer Diane Kochilas when I asked her about how gender relations differ in her kitchen in New York's Molyvos versus her work at home in Greece. "In Greece women are more comfortable being women and using the feminine tools that they have, as opposed to here where women compete by using more 'masculine' tools."

For Grapes, it's a balance: Women still need to lift the 50-pound bags of flour and not try to play "the girl card," but recognizing that women do have a certain softer side is not a disadvantage, either: "Women have patience. Women are caregivers, more so than men. We can understand our staff a bit more; we can be aware. You have to know when to push and when not to push, and that's when a woman's approach of being a caregiver can help."

"Traditionally, women have been in the kitchen nurturing and nourishing, but we can't make this gender-specific," said chef Jesse Cool of CoolEatz in California. Her kitchen doesn't tolerate rudeness, crass language, irate anger, or ego, opting instead for teamwork and support from both women and men. "When I started 40 years ago, there was a certain way to do things or cut things, standards as to what it means to be a 'good chef' that came from Europe, all from men. There's not only one way to make stock; that's not the issue, and it never was. I think this new generation of cooks understands integrity, and will move forward in the culinary world blending old culinary traditions and new, and not just because they have an ego or it's the way it's 'supposed to be done.' "

Chef Lidia Bastianich
Chef Lidia Bastianich

Overcoming Fear

Accepting that only 29 percent of the subjects in my column were women made me face my responsibility as a female journalist in increasing those numbers outright. Yet fear was holding me back — fear that my choices to feature more women would be delegitimized because they were political. And fear, it seemed, was a common thread throughout chef concerns as well.

"If you're in this room, you chose a really scary thing to do as a living," said Kinsman, addressing the crowd at the "Business Matters" panel. "I admire that. I like people who take chances and wake up every day knowing the whole day is laid out with a lot of unknowns, and you do it anyway because it brings you joy." When Kinsman first moved to New York she realized she "was doing everything in the world but making my own art, because I was afraid of being rejected...I was afraid of doing my own thing." Getting robbed on her doorstep helped her realize "you can be scared of getting mugged, or of an earthquake, but you shouldn't be scared of your own passion and possibility." She channeled a renewed energy for her craft into writing and eventually editing, constantly working harder to accept both wins and losses without letting the fear of falling into the void stop her from working. It's a craft she still practices today as editor of one of the country's top food sites.

"It's safer to stick with the road we know, and the road we're on," said Ungaro at the same panel. "But it's not the way to continue on a road to success."

For these ladies, fear was recognized as something to be faced down and overcome. When Cowin started at Food & Wine, her job was offered with an air of, "If she's really bad, we'll just fire her, too!" She battled by being "pathologically positive," and, despite not having any personal cooking skills, barreled through leading the magazine in a new direction, one down which she continues today.

"As a businessperson, I listen to Jay Z's 'You Don't Know' because he says,'I will not lose ever,'" said Simmons in a later interview. "I just lost a deal that I put my heart and soul into. I lost it, but not because I didn't do everything I could do to get it. My takeaway from that experience is that I have a lot of things going on, and it was the universe prioritizing for me. Taking a loss and turning it into something else is something I think women don't do enough."

The Takeaway

"What is the media missing?" I asked, over and over. And I got no singular answer; women still have a bit to go when embracing the skills and personality traits that make them just as bankable and successful as men within the food field, and they're out there tackling those issues with elbow grease and high heels alike. There is no right or wrong way to tackle feminism in the industry. But echoed again and again was a desire for women not to be dissuaded by not having as big investors, or giving in to crude kitchen energy, or being afraid to support one another or their goals:

"Women can and should be a lot nicer and more supportive of each other," said Arpaia. "I'd like to see that and be a part of the solution to that. I always strive to be extremely positive. I get a lot of pleasure in helping and mentoring colleagues, and seeing women grow."

"When we were just starting, women were on their way up. You got an X on your back and were more vulnerable to your success," said Mary Wagstaff, founder of Wagstaff Worldwide Public Relations. "It's a different situation since we've evolved. I always battle 'is it about reactive media or proactive media? Do I urge my clients to take care of what's in front of them, or go after things that are defining moments?' It's a balance of the two: Do what comes naturally and go after your goals."

Women are winning James Beard awards, Michelin stars, and Sofi prizes. They're publishing books and producing products. They're focusing on sustainable food and nutrition in schools and reframing hospital food.

"Women are clearly running global companies and making massive global food decisions on a corporate level," said Falkner, stressing that bringing producers and executives in the food field to the conference was a top priority for her this year. "I feel like we need to ask the bigger questions, like where are we going as a species, globally? There are big questions, and I think women need to tackle them. And we do tackle them; we're the ones focusing on them. So I would love to see that bigger question in the media overall."


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