Q&A: James Beard President Susan Ungaro on Gender and Lack of Women in the Culinary World


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Many a dude has graced the winner’s circle at the James Beard Awards. That’s fine and good, but where the ladies at? James Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro weighs in on the absence of women in culinary leadership roles and what she and other female culinary stars are doing to help change things.

You’re a woman working in food. What’s it like being the president of a foundation that celebrates a male-dominated industry?
I think all women in the food world — just like women in the business world or the banking world or the legal world — they’ve all had the same struggle that they’re out there proving ourselves. Despite the great leaps we’re taking, the numbers still show we’re not running the country (yet). And that’s definitely true of the restaurant and food world.

The upcoming “Women in Culinary Leadership” panel has quite a few famous culinary women. What’s the idea behind the event?
I was really delighted when Rohini Dey of Vermillion told me that she wants to encourage more women and diversity in the culinary field. She and I talked about creating the James Beard Foundation Vermilion Women in Culinary Scholarship to encourage young women who are going to culinary school by giving them scholarship dollars that will help them pursue their dream.

Rohini and I basically cooked up this idea: Why not launch this with a really interesting panel discussion of top women talking about why we need to see more women in the world of food? That’s what we’re doing on September 18.

Why do you think it’s important to award chefs? Is the success of their restaurant not enough?
I think the truth is, whether we’re teenagers or young adults or even middle-agers, we all need role models for our lives, for our dreams. If your dream is to be the best bar chef or the best restaurateur or to make it on television, there are great examples of women who’ve done it. It’s important to share their stories and know that they’re rooting for their gender to succeed just as they have.

Do you think kitchens run by women are different than those run by men?
Obviously, I’m not a chef, so I really cannot speak from the perspective of being inside the drama and the excitement of 200 covers a night, but I think there’s a different aspect of teamwork. It’s like sportsmanship — women are different in sports than men. I think the kitchen world is a lot like the Olympic-sports world. I haven’t seen it from experience, but I can imagine there’s probably a little more nurturing and teamwork in a female-dominated kitchen than in a male-dominated kitchen.

Why focus on women in food specifically?
I’m a woman; I’m in publishing; I was the editor of Family Circle; I’m a mother; I have two sons and a daughter. I want my daughter to have all the same opportunities and all the same exciting future possibilities that my sons have. I think that’s really the key behind any of these kinds of programs. This is not about discouraging our men that we promote and love. It’s about making sure no one is held back because of their gender.

The James Beard Foundation and Vermillion will host the Women in Culinary Leadership Dinner on September 18. General public: $135 menu with wine pairings ($100 without). $100/75 for JBF members.