Posted by: kateybarley | March 10, 2014

Where are the Women Head Chefs?

From a young age, we have been taught that the kitchen is the woman’s domain. As we grow up, we may realize the faults in this assumption, but media and our society continue to perpetuate this ideal. “Women Everywhere in Food Empires But No Head Chefs” is an article recently posted on Bloomberg online that gives a good overview of the presence of women in the kitchen but their lack of leadership in the food empire. Although women are a majority of the food service industry, there are few women head chefs in restaurants.

The percentage of women in head chef positions at top-tier restaurants is especially low at 6.3% according to a Bloomberg study. Being a head chef requires hard work and to be one at a prominent restaurant requires even higher ambition. Because the job description includes long hours and late nights without a large salary, many women opt out of restaurant leadership. Sutton interviewed a few women chefs who said that the lifestyle of a head chef was not compatible with the family life they wanted. Women’s lack of leadership in the restaurant was framed as a choice. However, it was noted that the industry has failed to take steps, such as better maternity leave, to make women’s path through the labyrinth easier.

I found one quote particularly interesting. Jean-Georges Vongerichten is praised for employing a high number of women in leadership, and he said this in regards to his female chef de cuisine, Karen Shu: “She’s an excellent chef. Very committed. Very pretty girl. She should be a model, not a cook.” He speaks highly of her ability… and then he talks about her appearance. What are your thoughts on this? Should it be forgiven because it was a quip during an interview?

I thought this article was interesting considering the timing of our reading of the “Opt Out Revolution” and related articles. What do you see as the main reason women are not head chefs? Is it their choice or the structure of the industry?


  1. I also think it is very ironic how women are brought up in society as the cooks of our families, and stereotypically the only ones who cook in the home, but there are so few female head chefs in the country! I honestly never even thought about it…

    However, I can easily see why women would opt out of being head chefs. Every job I’ve held during my teenage years was in the food industry and it was stressful beyond belief. Customers take their food VERY seriously and head chefs have immense amounts of pressure on them at all times. If a woman wants to be a successful chef and mother, I believe it would be a very tough balance. However, it is not impossible by any means!

    In regards to the interview with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, I do not personally think that his talk about her appearance is unusual. Maybe he hired her for her skills rather than just to have an attractive chef. If I was Karen Shu, I would be flattered that my boss thinks so highly of me!

  2. I agree that it is interesting how women are supposed to be the ones in the kitchen yet there are very few female head chefs. This post made me think of the movie No Reservations with Catherine Zeta-Jones. She is a head chef with no children and no significant other. Her sister ends up dying and becomes the guardian of her niece. In the beginning you can see how hard it is to be a chef with a child because you do work last nights and it is very stressful, and the audience can see that.
    In regards to women being a head chef, we have spoken about how women have certain traits that they fulfill better than men. Multi-tasking is one of them, which is what head chefs have to be amazing at. So I don’t understand why there are not more female head chefs. I don’t understand why Karen Shu’s boss had to bring up her appearance. If she does a good job then say that and only focus on her skills, not her appearance. I’m not surprised he commented on her appearance, it’s just somewhat annoying that he did.

  3. I’ve never thought about it before how society tends to expect women to be in the kitchen therefore this is probably why we tend see a majority of female workers in restaurants. Because the media promotes this image of women in the kitchen, I found it surprising to learn that there are such few women leaders in the food industry, such as a head chef position, etc. From reading this article, I also found it to be interesting that many women aren’t obtaining leadership positions not because they can’t move up, it’s because they simply have chosen not to themselves.

    But, there was one statement in the article that makes me puzzled: “At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, female enrollment in the culinary arts associates program has risen from 28 percent in 2003 to as high as 35 percent in 2012.” The author wrote this in a way that makes it seem like women’s enrollment has drastically risen but I, personally, don’t think that rising 7% in 9 years is very significant. It makes me wonder if it’s less of a choice and that the structure of the industry is what actually makes it so difficult for determined women to move up on the leadership ladder in this field.

    I think that a possible reason for why we are seeing less and less women as head chefs could be due to how we learned that women (more so than men) try their best to avoid confrontation. Like Tori said, the restaurant business is often extremely stressful and because people tend to be particular about their food, customers can be quick to state their dissatisfaction to the chef who prepared their food.

    I also can understand how exhausting it must be as a woman to balance home life with work life when you have such a demanding position. My mother used to be a waitress before and directly after I was born, but she had to quit before I even turned one year old because she discovered that working in the food industry was too demanding of a field when she had an infant. And my mom wasn’t even a “leader” at the restaurant, she was just a server and thought that it was too much to handle!

    And lastly, reading the part of the article about the Jean-Georges Vongerichten interview made me frustrated. It really bothers me how such minor details of ones appearance can make such an impact in society today. What gives this man the right to publicly state what a woman should be doing for her career? If she’s dedicated and is good at what she does, then that should be all that matters!

  4. I, too, have worked in the food industry, and although it was a fast food restaurant, I was still able to see the gender differentiation between cooks. In my 3 years at this particular restaurant, not a single female was part of the “grill team.” Sure, some of the female managers would step in to cook when we were super swamped, but other than that, it was always the men that were doing the heavy cooking. The females on the other hand, were more responsible for baking the desserts, such as the cookies and pies. I’ve also known a male chef who works at a very nice small restaurant and his hours are crazy. He runs a very demanding schedule because the chefs can get called in even when they aren’t supposed to work if the restaurant is very swamped or short-handed because they are the only ones who know how to make the entrees and keep the restaurant moving. Without the chefs, the survival of a restaurant would dwindle. In a way, it is like a business transaction because you are providing a product for a client that they can choose to like or dislike. I definitely think this goes along with the idea of women choosing to “opt out” of this career. You don’t normally think of a chef as being a very demanding job, but I think the stressfulness and pressure put on them may be why many women choose not to pursue it. Instead, I feel like many women choose to be bakers in bakeries or own their own small sweet shops because it is not as demanding on their personal and home lives. I also feel like the article tried to make it seem like there is a lot of progress occurring in this field, when in reality, it doesn’t seem like there have been great improvements. Having a less than 10% increase in female chefs over the span of a decade is really not that much of an increase. I don’t necessarily know how we will be able to allow for more women chefs to take over, but I think it just comes down to having a change in the way society views motherhood and the work/personal life balance. Although I think it’s great that Vongerichten makes sure to hire female chefs and praises their abilities, I also think that his comment about one of his female chef’s appearance still shows just how much women are judged more for their looks than men are, no matter what the field. This relates back to the double bind where women are expected to present themselves in a pleasing way, yet still manage a sense of strong workmanship. When it comes down to it, we are always going to have to work harder to showcase our abilities, but when it comes to working in a kitchen all day, away from most customers, shouldn’t it be more about the cooking abilities than how the woman looks behind the chef’s cap?

  5. I do feel that women deciding to stay at home or not take more leadership positions is a choice. However, the more we talk about this topic of opting out the more I see that while yes it is a choice women make, maybe they would make a different choice if the structure of the industry were different. I feel as though because America is so individualistic, focusing on money, power and how to succeed as individuals, there is little room for flexibility and accommodations for the family. Some women’s maternal leave is as short as three weeks and for men, there is no maternal leave at all. After maternal leave, the time taken off for women cuts into sick days and they are only given a very limited amount of days for that. In addition to these conditions, the economy we are in is not ideal. So for a woman or any person for that matter to just quit their job and immediately get a new one is very unlikely. Therefore, it is easy to see how women are forced into making the decision to not take on even more responsibility as a manager, or head chef or in some cases to even work at all. I know that in some countries both the father and mother have paid maternal leave for a whole year when a child is born. I cant help but to think that women would rethink their decision to stay at home, quit their job or not try to attain a higher position with those benefits. So maybe the issue here, the lack of representation of head chefs, is an issue that industries should pay close attention to. It is not just the woman’s choice but the industry’s influence and conditions that ultimately leads to a woman’s decision on her career.

  6. It is really ironic that women are taught that they have to be the chefs of the family and the kitchen is their domain, yet there are not many female head chefs in restaurants. I don’t find it surprising that women are opting out from head chef positions because the stress is unreal. I want to opt out and I’m only a waitress. There also isn’t any time for women to take out for family in the restaurant business because the restaurant depends so much on the head chef.
    I was also thinking of some movies that have women in the as chefs. “No Reservations” shows the main character, a female head chef, and her struggle to raise an adoptive daughter and her job. The stress and worry it caused was almost unbearable at certain times. “Ratatouille” had the female human as the one of the assistant chefs rather than a head chef, playing right into the statistics of the article.

  7. I think it makes sense that women are not choosing to go into the field for a career. I know I enjoy cooking at home (cannot wait to be in a dorm with a kitchen), but I would never want to be working the hours that they do! If there is true passion for the field, though, I feel that a woman would go through with it. It is like the directing article we read. Maybe women are choosing not to participate in that career because they want to. As for the interview, I find it kind of rude that he would start to comment on her looks at the end. I don’t think it should even come up in the discussion of abilities men or women posses in a field. If she wanted to be a model, then she would have been. She wanted to be a chef, and he should have respected that by not bringing up what she should have done with an unrelated quality to her workmanship.

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