Why I Quit Cooking: Women in the Kitchen


Photograph via Reuther Library

There's been a lot of talk recently about women and professional cooking. New York chef Amanda Cohen posted a rant concerning female chefs, the Beard Awards, and the women's access to funding in the restaurant world, and EMD's Helen Rosner responded at her main gig on Grub Street by saying what many essayists on this topic have been trying to tip-toe around: the restaurant world is sexist.

I worked in the restaurant industry for six years, largely in the kitchen. I've worked the line (grill and saute), I've catered (high-end and, uh, less high-end), I've worked in menu development, I've worked in gourmet delis, and, yes, I've waited tables. You'll note the past tense; I quit the restaurant life about a year ago, and pieces like Cohen's and Rosner's have been making me feel guilty about it ever since.

To Cook or Not to Cook?

There's a discussion that occurs in feminist dialogue concerning choice: do women have a responsibility to improve the perceived status of their gender through working certain (influential, well-regarded) jobs, or does feminism mean that women have the luscious and heady freedom to pursue whatever career they choose? This conundrum pits second and third wave feminists against one another, and often comes up in the context of stay-at-home moms or sex industry workers. In this context, however, it makes me wonder: do I have a responsibility to feminism to continue seeking employment as a cook?

I enjoyed the work, and I believe that I was good at it. There were not practical concerns, such as pay or hours, prohibiting me from continuing in that line of work, although I do believe that it would be a difficult profession to maintain if I ever have children. So, was there some institutionalized aspect of it that made the career a hostile environment for me? If I had received more encouragement, financial or otherwise, as Cohen posits, might I be on the road to head chef-dom? Or is the misogyny of the industry too much, as Rosner says?

The professional kitchen is, of course, a boys club. The Anthony Bourdain phenomenon created more monsters than it quelled, and in my eyes, many male line cooks actually aspired to join his drunk, dick-joke making fraternity after reading Kitchen Confidential. These things have actually happened to me: I have witnessed kitchen managers lending 14 year old busboys porn. I have had jokes made about my 10-inch chef's knife being a surrogate penis. I have had cooks who were assigned to me for training tell me that they had no intention of listening to anything I said because they did not feel women should work in kitchens. I've gotten easier shifts and been continuously encouraged, even pushed, towards working in pastry*.

How much did these factors contribute to my decision to leave restaurants? Consciously, not that much. It was a point of pride to stick it out under these conditions, and there was a surge of joy that accompanied finally being accepted as one of the guys at every job I ever worked. During my time as a cook, I relished the fact that I was flourishing in a male-dominated profession. I was high on the fact that I could prosper where other women couldn't seem to hack it.

So why did I quit? The last food job I held was working for a woman-owned catering company with many female employees; in terms of pure girl power, there wasn't much more I could ask for. I didn't quit because I have boobs, I quit because cooking was hard, and I was tired, and frankly, the road ahead of me appeared nearly vertical. I quit because I wanted to write for Eat Me Daily more than my catering job allowed, and because I saw opportunities in the writing world that I didn't see in restaurants.

Says Cohen:

Women write about food, sure. Gael Greene and Ruth Reichl are in the living legend column, Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher are over in the dead legend column. Women write about food at the Village Voice, Time Out New York, New York Magazine, the New York Times and Saveur. One of the most famous lifestyle and food celebrities in the world is Martha Stewart and you can tell from her name that she’s a woman. Eater, the biggest online food gossip blog, even has a female editor. But it’s a sign of how bad women are in the kitchen that even these women can’t find much nice to say about them. Obviously, it’s because women can’t cook.

Cohen's "women can't cook" is facetious here, of course, but I want to say I can cook, I just can't cook for money. I wish that I could be one of what is hopefully a growing number of strong female voices coming out of kitchens around the world. I can't, though; for whatever reason, the bug just isn't in me. I would like to say that this isn't due to institutionalized misogyny in the industry, but I fear that, subconsciously at least, it is.

I will say this: as part of my debt to the women like Cohen, and like April Bloomfield, Gabrielle Hamilton, and Koren Grieveson, all of whom Rosner cites, I vow to champion women chefs, to the best of my ability, as long as I am lucky enough to have a podium from which to speak. Thank you for doing what you do.

*There is, of course, nothing wrong with working in pastry; my issue here is that the job is typically considered the most female-friendly in the kitchen. Also, sweets give me headaches.

—Paula Forbes

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  1. chardrucks

    My article in the 10th anniversary edition of Gastronomica tackles the same issue in a different way. It's no longer a question of talent--we know both men and women can cook well. It's about expectations and accepted models for success.
    You can download it here.
    Otherwise, go here [http://www.gastronomista.com/2010/02/where-great-women-chefs-are.html] for further discussion.

  2. Moira

    I worked in a variety of jobs in the food industry for 9 years, and I,too, was happy to leave it for a job that paid more for less work, better hours, and long-term security. Food work is a very hard way to make a living, whether you are male or female.
    You are so right that the atmosphere in professional kitchens tends to be hostile. It just seemed to me that most men would put up with the crap longer than most women, and that it tended to be the younger guys with fewer outside responsibilities. Or old guys with a drug or drinking problem.

  3. tee

    I quit cooking professionally thanks to this crazy bias in the kitchen. I was continually passed up for promotions (not based on my skill, because I was more than pulling my fair share of the load), but because of my gender! Seriously, the fact that I'm a girl was cited as one of the reasons I wasn't rewarded for my hard work.

    I find it amazing that men are so chauvinistically willing to point out that a woman's place is in the kitchen...but only at home.

  4. tee, you get at the weird sexism of it, for sure. I wrote a little bit about this on my blog yesterday (also in response to Amanda Cohen's post). Short answer: Men make restaurant work into a crazy macho scene precisely so it _doesn't_ seem like "women's work." It trickles down everywhere.

    Here's my post: http://bit.ly/9dERCb

    And not to be super-snarky, but I think women are maybe just a little smarter in the long run: they don't want to spend the rest of their life swearing and making dick jokes, carrying on at the same level. For women, it's hazing to get through; for men, it's a lifestyle.

    BTW, there was also a good essay about this in Gourmet a couple of years ago, pointing out the difference in attitude in CA vs NYC: http://bit.ly/92tEPd. CA: tons more noted women chefs.

  5. brenda

    Too much feminism, not enough waves.

  6. dollywould

    This is something I discuss with my female chef friends over and over again. Between my two best friends and I, we have worked at Chez Panisse, Gramercy Tavern, Per Se, and Blue Hill, just to name a few, and despite the fact that we all love to cook, none of us are very happy. I think we all have our reasons why, and they are all fairly obvious, but some are more important to me than others, and some have to do with being female, while others have to do with being human:

    1. Pay and benefits - I don't care who you are, where do you get off not paying your employees for the hours they work? I have worked 60-75 hour weeks in Manhattan for four years now, and the only time I was paid overtime, was on shift pay, where I was still not paid hour for hour. Man, woman, whoever - how can you demand professionalism from your employees if you do not compensate them as if they are professionals?? I think Zora is right - when it comes down to it, women are smarter and less willing to take this kind of abuse, which is why they are typically the whistle blowers, and further ostracise themselves, or why they tend to leave quietly for greener pastures. And I stand by the belief that the only reason people make you feel bad for leaving an industry job is that misery loves company.

    2. Staff meal - how can you expect your employees to put love and nourishment into food and service for the guests, when they themselves eat (standing, no less) one, hurried meal in a fifteen-hour shift? Not to mention, they prepare that one meal themselves, at the cost of their own prep time, which may come back to bite their service...so, in most cases, they pass on the meal regardless.

    3. Misogynistic faggotry ('dick jokes') is what it is, but it is also so boring! I am not so much offended by it, as I am bored out of my mind. I just worked in two kitchens, back to back, that both produced amazing food, and the difference between me staying two years in one and nine months in the other, was that the first one was silent and focused, while the other was conversational and jovial - and quite frankly, if I would rather work in silence than listen to a broken record of dirty one-liners from a bunch of grisly-ass, thirty-something line cooks with Peter Pan syndrome.

    Call me a feminist, a hater...I probably am...but the truth is, I'm tired of working myself to exhaustion, so that a celebrity can make boatloads of cash off of signing cookbooks and making speeches, at the cost of my own passion for the trade. So what's a gal to do?? Keep pushing? Open her own? Change careers altogether and cook on Friday and Saturday nights? (Probably...let's be honest.) I just don't know...

    Brenda - we're all ready to hear your wave making suggestions...

    • Paula Forbes

      Agreed - I hope that this essay came across as me trying to take responsibility for the fact that, currently, I'm all bitch and moan and no action. Problem is, I don't know what to do apart from going back into the kitchen, which is not what I want. So, ideas? Anyone?

  7. In any profession that you enter with males you will have a certain percentage of those males who want to bring you down because you are a female. I found this in real-estate and being a chef. I know a lot of extremely talented male chefs who treat every women as their equal. It seems to me the males with less ability have more of a tendency to treat women as their inferior. Being a mother it was very hard to be in that line of work but staying true to my passion I also chose to write about food and teach other to cook through my website http://www.painlesscooking.com/about-me-food-careers.html

  8. I worked in professional kitchens for most of the 1990's and yes, ran into some of the issues you mentioned. I had line cooks treat me with disrespect because I was younger than them and female. That didn't last long because I was also their boss.
    But I didn't stop because of that. I stopped because I wanted to have a life outside my job, which as a chef, male or female, is almost impossible to do. As Zora said, women may just be smarter. I realized early on that I didn't want to work 70 hrs a week on my feet and that I'd be physically broken before 40 if I did so. Now I sublimate my cooking desires with a food blog and cooking for friends and family.

  9. I think your article rings true for everyone woman who works in a demanding, male-dominated field. (I'm in hedge funds.) It's whispered in the ladies' room: most of us don't want to work 70+ hours a week with a bunch of people whose main interest and topic of conversation is their work (and office politics). Shoot me, but I think that most women are just not ambitious (or one-dimensional) enough to want to make the sacrifices necessary to make it to the very top levels. Now I'm really setting myself up, and I pop in all the caveats about gross generalisations here, but I think that there are more men out there for whom, the status, the money, the competition, make it worth while to do nothing but work, while most women (apply caveats again) - at least over time, and particularly if kids come into the picture - want more out of life than work success. There are exceptions, but this is my personal observation, and the conclusion I came to in my own life.

  10. Chef Pete

    Hey ladies, make me a sammich ;0

  11. Very good article and I enjoyed reading the comments, too. I am also in a male dominated field (engineering). Though there aren't any dick jokes, I have to admit that now that I'm a mom, I'm not interested in the 45,50,55,60,65 hour work weeks. 40, 42, that's fine with me. And I'd prefer 30 if I could get it without ending up being "mommy-tracked".

  12. Jenny

    I thought I was the only one who felt like this!
    The main thing that rang alarm bells for me was when I realised "unisex" chefs jackets, even in extra small, swamped me and made me look like a child in her mother's (or should I say father's)clothes playing dress up... that's where it started. The only thing I would say is that I received half the "stupid" and "bimbo" comments the waitresses did.. if that's saying anything!
    The next time I cook in a professional kitchen it will be my own restaurant, and all my chefs will be women! :p

  13. As a project manager in the environmental remediation field, I truly relate to the hardships experienced by the women sharing here.
    I have spent many hours scraping mastic off a floor along side of illiterate Mexicans who were thrilled to be there. We shared our lives in Spanish and I came to realize the meaning of gratitude. I swallowed my self-indulgent pride and opened my ears to the ideas of each soul who bloomed where they had been planted. I continue to learn about the best of life from the people who appreciate being here now.

  14. Amen to everything dollywould said! I was a Pastry Chef for more than a decade in San Francisco, Beverly Hills and Hollywood and in my experience, "Pastry being female-friendly" was part of the problem. In the majority of the kitchens, my "Pastry Department" was part of the main kitchen. Not only did I get the pleasure of listening to adolescent dick jokes for 15 hours a day and get to grab my chef coat from a porn filled closet, I also was dismissed as just the pastry girl. I would find that my products for that nights dinner service had been raided with the attitude of "Oh, it's just dessert she can make more." Or finding that all of my housemade ice creams had been taken out of the freezer and left on the counter because someone needed room to cool down their roasted veal bones.

    One of the defining moments of my time as a pastry chef came at a 4 star hotel in Beverly Hills. I had been the pastry chef there for about a year and a half when the Executive Chef and both sous chefs quit, leaving the kitchen with no leadership. The hotel general manager came to me and asked me to step in and run the kitchen for a 2 week period until they hired replacements. The 2 weeks stretched into 4, during which time I took over all of the scheduling, the ordering, assigning prep, and creating nightly specials. All of this was on top of my own duties, needless to say, I worked 15 hours a day for almost 30 days straight. When it finally came to an exhausting end, the general manager called me in to his office and told me he "was proud of me", then handed me a box containing a shirt. A low-cut, tight, mother-effin' shirt, "In thanks for all of my hard work." I went back down to the kitchen in time to witness all 12 of the cooks whooping it up because they had just received $500 bonuses for their "hard work". I did not get a bonus. I got a shirt. That was the beginning of the end for me.

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