When James Beard Award Winning Chef Debbie Gold started working in the industry, there was a dearth of women holding positions in the kitchen. She identified this as a paradox of sorts.
“I always thought it was funny,” Gold says, “because if you read histories of chefs of the past, they all learned from their mother, or grandmother. But for some reason, when it came to restaurants, (people thought) we couldn’t do it.”
The lack of women in restaurant kitchens persists, especially when it comes to the most coveted positions. In 2022, The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that just 22.8 percent of head chefs in the U.S. were female. The inequity is even more stark at the country’s top restaurants: research by Chef’s Pencil showed that just 6 percent of restaurants that received Michelin stars in 2022 were led by women.
It’s an imbalance that is likely rooted in prejudice. Don’t believe it? Ask a woman who is a chef, and they’ll likely tell you a story about the obstacles they faced due to their gender.
“I was told early in my career: ‘You can be an amazing wife, an amazing parent, or an amazing chef,’” says Melissa Chickerneo, corporate executive chef at Behind the Scenes Catering. “‘You can do two of these things, but never three.’ And every day, I try to prove that person wrong.”
Kristine Subido, director of culinary at LinkedIn, Bon Appetit Management Company, concurs with Chickerneo’s sentiment, saying that being told what she couldn’t do has only motivated her to work harder. “If you’re also younger, you’re walking in the kitchen, you get a lot of looks,” she says. “They think you’re the salad, or pastry (chef)… but you want to win at the game, and prove them wrong. So you kick their butt on the line.”
She Brings the Heat
Smithfield Culinary recently launched a campaign, “She Brings the Heat,” designed to shine a light on women, like Gold, Chickerneo, and Subido, who have held or currently hold top positions at industry brands. The company strongly feels it’s a topic that should be discussed more often—and hopes that the discussion will inspire more women to pursue careers in the restaurant industry.
“If you read histories of chefs of the past, they all learned from their mother, or grandmother.”
“We’re already seeing more and more women in the foodservice industry,” says Charlotte Peck, regional sales manager at Smithfield Culinary. “But they’re not always getting the attention they deserve, such as this media attention. Because women bring a lot to the table in respect to things like creativity and leadership—and it’s important for other women to see that.”
The company believes equity and representation of all kinds can help organizations become better at what they do. Peck and her colleague, Amy Shesto, senior director of corporate sales at Smithfield Culinary, point to extensive research that’s shown better outcomes for organizations that strive toward equitable practices.
“A diverse group of people is a powerful thing,” Shesto says. “Having those different perspectives brings different, more positive conclusions to everything that you’re trying to do. Whether it’s a male-female, or right-brain-left-brain thing, it just changes the outcome when you’re confronted with a problem.”
Shesto also nods toward female chefs as a potential solution to one of the industry’s most pressing issues. If finding great candidates to fill back-of-house positions is truly a priority for restaurant leaders, she says, building an industry that is a fulfilling place to work for anyone and everyone should be a top-of-mind focus.
“Labor has obviously been everyone’s largest challenge since COVID,” Shesto says. “So how can we not only support women, but support people, in general, interested in the foodservice environment? If we have no chefs, we have no restaurants. So how can we begin to grow that number of really great applicants? This feels like a good place to start.”
An ongoing conversation connected to labor woes surrounds work-life balance—or lack thereof. As has been widely reported, many restaurant workers left the industry during the pandemic, with many reporting that they sought a more balanced lifestyle.
The long, grueling nights and weekends can be especially challenging for primary caregivers, or those who aspire to be. “Chefs are sometimes working 90 hours a week,” Peck says. “So work-life balance is a very real issue, especially if you’re trying to have a family.”
During a summit of female chefs that was part of a video series for Smithfield’s “She Brings the Heat” campaign, seeking a balance between a career and raising a family was an oft-discussed topic. After hearing chefs who were also mothers describe those challenges and how they overcame them, at least one of those chefs was feeling more bullish about her ability to have a family if she stayed in the industry.
“I’ve found myself wondering, ‘Is it possible, can I do it?’ in terms of having a family and a balanced lifestyle,” says Grace Goudie, executive chef at Scratchboard Kitchen in Arlington Heights, Illinois. “And hearing (from other female chefs) about their experiences is incredibly inspirational. Because it shows that it is possible.”
Goudie’s experience is exactly what Shesto, Peck, and the Smithfield team were hoping for when they first conceived of the “She Brings the Heat” initiative. “As with anything in life, success breeds success,” Shesto says. “More women leaders in the restaurant industry would make more younger folks aspire to follow that path.”
“Hearing (from other female chefs) about their experiences is incredibly inspirational.”
There’s evidence that this is already happening. For example, The Culinary Institute of America reports that nearly half of its current student body—over 48 percent—are young women studying with ambitions to enter the industry. Whether or not they get a shot at the top level will likely depend on how much support they receive along the way. A larger network of women to mentor young female chefs can only be a positive influence on those prospects.
“There are so many different pathways right now,” says Suzy Wagner, owner and head chef at The Chef’s Daughter. “The possibilities are endless. So if you’re interested in foodservice, (you ought to be able to) find a spot for yourself.”
She Said It Best
“When I started, there were very few women in the kitchen. Which I always thought was funny, because if you read histories of chefs of the past, they all learned from their mother, or grandmothers.”
Debbie Gold | James Beard Award Winning Chef
“I was told early in my career: ‘You can either be an amazing wife, an amazing parent, or an amazing chef. You can do two of these things, but never three.’ And every day, I try to prove that person wrong.”
Melissa Chickerneo | Corporate executive chef, Behind the Scenes Catering
“Starting out in the industry, I’ve found myself wondering, ‘Is it possible? Can I do it?’ in terms of having a family and a balanced lifestyle. And hearing (other female chefs), and their experiences, is incredibly inspirational. Because it shows that it is possible.”
Grace Goudie | executive chef at Scratchboard Kitchen
“There are so many different pathways right now. The possibilities are endless. So if you’re interested in foodservice, find a spot for yourself.”
Suzy Wagner | Owner and head chef at The Chef’s Daughter