Last week at Marea, a New York haunt of the powerful and the polished, Lauren DeSteno moved up from executive sous-chef to chef de cuisine. It may sound like a mere tweak of a title, but in a small way it is revolutionary.
The promotion puts her in charge of one of the highest-earning kitchens in New York, where four male sous-chefs and 20 other cooks report to her. And though previous generations of female chefs had to fight past widespread sexism and a locker-room work culture to reach the top, at 31 Ms. DeSteno is calm, confident and entirely unsurprised by her success.
“In a good kitchen,” she said (and she has worked at some bad ones), “male and female really doesn’t matter anymore. You get the work done, you handle yourself professionally — because kitchens can still be crazy places — and you go home.”
Ms. DeSteno is living an idea whose time may have finally come: that one’s sex has nothing to do with the real work of a chef. In baby steps, the American restaurant kitchen, a high-pressure arena that still bears the image of the tough-talking, pot-throwing male cook, is beginning to reflect that idea, especially in the places where the most promising young chefs try to get a foot in the door.
Lauren DeSteno, the chef de cuisine at Marea.CreditBenjamin Norman for The New York Times
A leading kitchen run by a woman is no longer newsworthy. But it is not quite commonplace, either; the tag “female chef” is still applied to Anita Lo, Barbara Lynch, April Bloomfield, Dominique Crenn (the first woman in North America to have a restaurant with two Michelin stars) and dozens of others. Certainly the most visible chefs are men, a fact made clear in November by a Time magazine spread that showcased its choice of the world’s most influential chefs, with not a woman among them.
But even though male chefs are still more prevalent in professional kitchens, particularly at the highest and lowest rungs of the industry, a new vanguard of American women like Ms. DeSteno is coming up right behind them. More than ever, women are filling the second- or third-tier jobs (chef de cuisine, executive sous-chef) that will produce the next generation of leaders in the nation’s best restaurants, according to statistics and interviews. And more women are entering the pipeline at elite culinary schools.
The reasons are many: High-end restaurants, which like others have historically lagged in providing health insurance, paid vacations and competitive wages for their employees, are becoming more corporate and professional; even a T-shirt-wearing, cheerfully profane chef like David Chang has a human resources team and offers paid maternity leave. An exploding food industry has created many new entry points for women, who once were largely limited to the “pink ghetto” of the pastry chef; that part of the business alone has grown so much in prestige and profitability that opportunities there have snowballed. And women themselves are pushing for the jobs, conditions and recognition they want.
“A lot of jobs have tough schedules; a lot of jobs are physically demanding,” Ms. DeSteno said. “Nurses work weird hours. Police officers have hard jobs. You deal with it.”
Tracking restaurant workers by gender is not easy in a $683 billion industry that employs about one in 10 of all Americans. Many of those are part-time or transient workers, and even the most expensive restaurants have extremely high rates of job turnover, as a new national study showed last week. But recently, some of the country’s fastest-growing and most carefully run restaurant companies — including Union Square Hospitality Group,Barbara Lynch Gruppo, Altamarea Group, the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group and Think Food Group — provided a head count of men and women cooking in their restaurants, from line cooks to executive chefs. (Front-of-house employees like waitresses and managers were not included.)
The numbers showed that 30 to 50 percent of the culinary staff in all those groups are women. And those companies run many kitchens where the next generation of chefs most want to work, places like Animal in Los Angeles; Lucques in West Hollywood, Calif.; Gramercy Tavern and Del Posto in New York; Toro and Menton in Boston; Minibar in Washington; Michael Mina in San Francisco; and Le Pigeon in Portland, Ore. One-third may not seem a large proportion, but chefs say it is a quantum leap from even the recent past.
“For the first 10 years of my career, I was the only woman in every kitchen I worked in,” said Michelle Bernstein, 44, the chef and owner of Michy’s in Miami, who started out in the 1980s. “And that was true for all the other women I knew.”
In culinary schools, women have long made up the majority in pastry courses, but are now entering general culinary programs at unprecedented rates. At the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute), the change has been striking: In 2012, nearly half the graduates of the culinary program were women — 202 of them, up from 41 in 1992. At Johnson & Wales University, the proportion of female graduates more than doubled over those two decades, and in 2012, men were the minority: 820 women and 818 men graduated that year. At the Culinary Institute of America, the percentage of female graduates rose to 36 percent in 2012 from 21 percent in 1992.
Many of these women have been drawn by an industry that seems newly glamorous, lively and creative. And smartly run restaurants are making new efforts to keep them by paying more attention to employees’ needs.
Except for union jobs, most of them in hotels, restaurants are notoriously disorganized or worse about providing workers with benefits or even sick days. Staying on the line with a second-degree burn or a sliced-open thumb has been part of the macho culture of the kitchen.
“At Lutèce, if you broke your leg, you leaned against a wall and finished your shift,” said Ivan Orkin, 51, the chef and owner of Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop in New York, who as a young chef agonized about whether to stick it out in prestigious kitchens or accept a low-profile job as a corporate chef, with structured hours and benefits. (He chose the latter when his first son arrived.)
“This has been a transient industry, but the best employees are not people who want to live a transient life,” said Ahmass Fakahany, chief executive of the Altamarea Group, where 50 percent of cooks and 44 percent of all employees in its American restaurants are women. Under the culinary guidance of the chef Michael White, the company has opened 13 restaurants in five years. Altamarea employees, like Ms. DeSteno at Marea, get medical, dental and vision insurance and paid holidays.
At the nine branches of Momofuku in New York, employees who remain with the company for one year get free health insurance, paid vacations and maternity and paternity leave.
“The restaurant business has to change, to accommodate real life,” said Alice Waters, who cooked full time at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., until 1983, when her daughter, Fanny, was born. At Chez Panisse — not a typical restaurant, but an influential one — Ms. Waters has pioneered job-sharing programs between parents, instituted a six-months-off furlough system for head chefs and put time and money into building a deep bench of cooks, which allows employees to move in and out of her kitchens as their lives change.
Still, in most restaurants, benefits are a pipe dream and pay is meager. Entry-level jobs, even for chefs with culinary degrees, can pay as little as $15 an hour, once 80-hour workweeks are factored in. Last week, the first in-depth study of business practices in the American restaurant industry confirmed that low pay and job insecurity have led to an exceedingly high turnover rate, compared with other businesses. This is costly for restaurateurs and chef-owners, who contend that they cannot afford to offer higher wages or benefits.
“Women are disproportionately affected by these problems that plague the industry as a whole,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an employee advocacy group that conducted the study along with Cornell University, with money from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations.
Hand-wringing about the low status and low numbers of women in the culinary world has been constant since professional cooking changed from a menial trade to a respectable career, beginning in the 1980s. (Today, the lack of gender diversity is not the only concern: All groups except for white men are underrepresented at the top of the profession.)
For decades, chefs of both sexes believed that inequality was inevitable. The same stereotypes used to keep women out of armed combat, off the judicial bench and out of medical school were invoked to explain why women didn’t stick it out in the kitchen. The work, it was said, is too physically demanding and psychologically grueling; the hours were too incompatible with family life.
But a younger generation isn’t having it.
“Leaving was not an option for me,” said Alex Raij, 44, who owns three popular Spanish restaurants in New York with her husband, Eder Montero; the couple have two children under age 5. “I don’t know how to do anything else.” Like many of her contemporaries, she carved out a niche where she could be in charge of her own hours and her own food.
Many female pioneers — Jody Adams, Suzanne Goin, Odessa Piper, Lydia Shire and, until her death last year, Judy Rodgers — also stayed in their kitchens though children and divorces, fires and floods. Yet for every successful empire-builder like Barbara Lynch, who runs seven restaurants in Boston, there are a dozen Michelle Bernsteins, women who might have become the next Mario Batali or Andrew Carmellini but retreated under the pressure of being a multitasking modern chef and mother at the same time.
When her son was born, “I made a decision to pull back on restaurants and expand on other things,” said Ms. Bernstein, who at one point was in charge of four restaurants. Now she has one, Michy’s; two bakeries; and several consulting gigs that have flexible hours. “To run a restaurant with the perfectionism of a Thomas Keller is a job that takes 18 to 20 hours a day, and I’m just not going to do that.” (Many men don’t want to, either.)
One big question — why even women who make it to the top rank of chefs struggle for recognition — has often been posed, and never fully answered.
It’s true that male chefs get more media attention than their female colleagues — especially on the global stage, now dominated by clubby events like Cook It Raw and power lists like the World’s 50 Best, where female chefs are still a tiny minority. There have been conferences and doctoral dissertations on the subject; support networks like Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and Les Dames d’Escoffier; and a flash mob of female chefs in Boston who showed up at a food festival in October just to demonstrate their sheer numbers.
Many others were galvanized by the recent Time magazine spread, which arrived in American restaurant kitchens like a blast of ice water, chilling the women who have seen real change.
“It simply did not reflect the reality that we see in the industry every day,” said Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy in New York, who wrote a scathing riposte on the food blog Eater.
“It was a turning point,” said Kerry Diamond, a founder of the female-focused food magazine Cherry Bombe, which had published its first issue, financed by a successful Kickstarter campaign, when the Time article appeared. “And now food is definitely having a feminist moment.”
One example is the recent founding of the Toklas Society, a network for women who work in the restaurant industry including some chefs, but also many women whose jobs are high on glamour but low on pay and job security: chefs’ assistants, publicity managers, event planners and administrators. As cooking has become a more creative field, more educated women have flooded into the business, looking not for a job but for a career; the Toklas Society aims to help them find a way in.
“No matter how much of a strong feminist you are, it is hard to work in such a male-dominated industry,” said Sue Chan, the group’s founder, who has worked in the Momofuku group since 2004. She decided to name the group after Alice B. Toklas, the woman who cooked and kept house while her partner, the writer Gertrude Stein, received the world’s accolades.
“We are the quiet power behind the throne,” Ms. Chan said. “But sometimes everyone gets tired of being quiet.”