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A woman’s place is in the (five-star chef) kitchen

Foodie legends, including Martha Stewart and Susan Ungaro, converge for the inaugural meeting of Women in Culinary Leadership

A fiery cadre of prominent female chefs, cookbook authors and restaurateurs are banding together to fight a “gender imbalance in the food industry” and battle what some say is a long tradition of discrimination against women in professional kitchens. A newly minted $20,000 scholarship for female chefs is just the first in a series of measures by the group designed to break what they’re dubbing the “Gastro Ceiling.”

At the first meeting of the Women In Culinary Leadership, the brasserie-burners assembled included Martha Stewart, Lidia Bastianich, and Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, which hands out the food industry’s “Oscars.” Rohini Dey, co-founder of the group and a former World Bank economist, promised a “brutal, candid, no-holds-barred discussion.” By the end of the evening, everyone had toasted the future with fruit-flavored cocktails, and bitched about snobby old-school French chefs, and Stewart had dubbed herself “a hard-ass”—but we’ll get to that.

(left to right) Rohini Dey, Martha Stewart and Susan Ungaro
Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/PatrickMcMullan.com

Attendees (mostly women) were told that only eight of the 46 James Beard Awards for “rising” or “outstanding” chefs have gone to women. The odds are even worse for the “Best New Chefs” designation handed out by Food & Wine magazine annually: 38 out of 240. But women make up the majority of students in culinary schools, and 52% of workers in the food business—even though attendees complained many get assigned to the industry’s equivalent of “women’s work”: the cold station, salads and pastry.

Bankers, Frenchmen and critics came in for a fat slice of the blame for all this. Bastianich, who co-owns del Posto, Felidia and Becco in New York and other eateries across the country, plus Eataly, New York’s cavernous department store of food, remembered that when she stared in the business “the banks didn’t listen to you.” Her partner-husband essentially had to front for her to get financing. Stewart, who began her career in the brokerage business, noted “I had to stand up against a lot of male bankers.” Dorothy Cann Hamilton, CEO and founder of the French Culinary Institute, recalled being told “women do not speak” early in her career and said the only way she made it in the business was that “I didn’t know the odds.” James Beard president Ungaro chimed in “I don’t want to batter anyone…,” effectively opening the floor for Michelin and Zagat to get singled out as restaurant guides which may give women chefs short shrift.

Everybody agreed, especially as wine was poured, that women should get tougher and had to be pretty strong and determined to succeed. “I’ve certainly heard people say that about you,” said CBS correspondent Martha Teichner, to Stewart. “That I’m a hard-ass?” asked Stewart. “Sometimes. But I’m a mother figure for 600 people,” the employees who work for her company, she said, and sometimes that means having to be tough.

The women shouldered some of the blame for the sex’s slow progress themselves, in part for being too optimistic about the odds for success. “If you build it, they will come,” is not true of the “fickle” restaurant business, noted Dey, who admitted she almost regretted going into it in the first place. But Hamilton said, “I don’t want to make ‘the woman thing’ any bigger than it is…the Achilles Heel is that a lot of people who go onto food have an artistic nature.” Bastianich agreed most eateries open under-financed, and warned that you need at least $1 million for a medium-sized restaurant these days.

Going forward, the plan is for the dishes of a handful of notable chefs to be highlighted at Dey’s two Vermilion restaurants, in New York and Chicago, in coming months, with proceeds from the sales to go to the scholarship. Michelle Bernstein of Michy’s in Miami, Lorena Garcia, Emily Luchetti of San Francisco’s Farallon and Waterbar, and Sue Torres of Suenos in New York are among the stovetop volunteers. And there will be more rabble-rousing meetings, the group agreed, and probably more fruit-flavored cocktails.

In the closing moments, pastry chef and “Next Iron Chef” runner-up Elizabeth Falkner talked about her recent move to New York from San Francisco, and her move from pastry to pizza at her new Brooklyn eatery. Hamilton urged patience: It might take 20 years to see women fully represented at the very top of the industry, she said. And Stewart just wanted everyone to know that her cooking show begins Oct. 6 on PBS.