Torchon gripped tightly, I struggled a little to carry my plate to the presentation room. The executive chef—my adjudicator—watched my wrist shake and smiled in an indulgent, somewhat disparaging way. I imagined what could be going through his head: I'm not ripped like the 6-foot-5 man I work next to. I'm barely old enough to attend culinary school. I'm one in the vast sea of Asians who go to Le Cordon Bleu to take summer courses.
At first, I struggled to be noticed at Le Cordon Bleu. With one-and-a-half locker rooms for men and four for (mostly Asian) women, there was an obvious gender imbalance that favored men in terms of standing out. Finding myself in a sea of aspiring female chefs in 2013, I still saw the culinary world as largely one of white men. Food & Wine's most recent list of America's “Best New Chefs” included only one woman. Both “The 15 Most Influential Chefs of the Next Decade” from Elite Traveler and Epicurious' “The World's Most Influential Chefs” were completely bereft of women. Women are asked to make a sandwich, but why not magrets de canard à l'orange?
Gender stereotypes certainly hurt women in their pursuit of high-end culinary positions. It's evident that a large part of society sees women as cooks, in the role of a traditional homemaker. But chefs? Chefs are men. The distinction between cook and chef is, really, how much one respects his or her work. The stereotype of a home cook is often a wife or mother icing cupcakes or perfecting a basic turkey breast. Top chefs have eight burners and two ovens on, brunoise peppers dramatically, and turn out 300 meals in under an hour—oh, and you didn't even need to be told that this description was of a man. Maybe it's this gender reversal that helps male chefs wear the top toques: They've taken an activity that often feels like a household obligation and made it into an art form.
Moreover, it's a common trope for women to be attracted to men who can cook. A college guy can whip up something more sophisticated than ramen? Major plus. If he can ciselé five shallots in under 20 seconds, then make a duxelle (and know what a duxelle is)? Damn. But it seems gastrosexuality only works in men's favor. They can successfully remove the “household chore” connotation from cooking in a way that women can't, turning “sauté” into a pickup line. What makes it so hard for women to do the same?
One night during the summer, a male friend from Le Cordon Bleu told me that he had noticed how “women essentially have to act like men” to be successful. The kitchen is oftentimes a hot and uncomfortable place, full of people accidentally cutting themselves, standing for nine hours a day on two hours of sleep, and hitting their heads against the too-low ceiling. Amid the insults and competition (for pay, promotions, or pride), being in possession of a traditional feminine trait such as passivity would be a handicap. During a panel on chef's horror stories in the Taste Talks Food Conference in Brooklyn, I asked Carl McCoy, owner of Gwynnett St., if he had ever seen female hazing. He laughed and proceeded to proudly flex his biceps, saying that it didn't tend to happen because the women who worked in the kitchen were like that—tough, with a knife in hand. And that more or less sums it up: In a kitchen, it's tough love. If you're not made of the stuff to put up with it, you'll be replaced with the next person in line who will.
I myself had to put up with a man at culinary school who told me “the woman's place is on her knees in the kitchen,” and that “no man will ever love” me if I didn't hide the burn marks from deep-frying pommes dauphine or scars from filleting fish too fast. Women must be strong enough to lift a pot of bouillon with about 14 kilograms of water and roasted veal bones by themselves, and will be “put in their place” if they can't do so. A male colleague would be outraged if I pointed my chef's knife at him and quietly asked him to please stop talking. But consider the loud-mouthed, short-tempered Anthony Bourdain types—the men whose fame seems to grow with every insult inflicted—and it becomes evident that women are being held to a double standard.
The obstacles don't end there. One chef at culinary school told me that several of the restaurants he had worked at didn't like to hire women because they tend to let emotions influence their work in the kitchen. In a place where food is made by intuition and precision, employers maintain the sexist superstition that a woman's moodiness may interfere with the quality of her work. Admittedly, relationship issues played a part in my shaking hands as I imperfectly piped éclairs onto a baking sheet, but an unintentionally pregnant girlfriend crept its way into a male colleague's mind as he almost took off his thumb instead of the brill's head. After all, men can suffer from the same exact emotional setbacks and losses of focus as women do.
However, I refuse to believe that only a handful of women can endure the life of a female restaurant chef. Like all other careers, it requires a thorough assessment of the obstacles and risks involved, and a bit of soul-searching as to whether you're willing to push through those walls. Cooking professionally can deteriorate relationships, and returning home after the kids are asleep is difficult for any family-oriented individual.
Rachel Goulet, the sous-chef at Amali on the Upper East Side, is a perfect example of someone who has done so. “I've always felt I would never have to choose my career over having a family,” she states, “and for a simple reason: I choose my partner, my boss, my co-workers. ... I know, right now, if I wanted to start a family, not only would my boyfriend support me and split every responsibility down the middle, but James (the owner of Amali) and Junior, the executive chef, would make it possible for us to do that and still work.” Goulet's boyfriend happens to be her junior sous-chef, so she's “kind of his boss,” which doesn't hurt. “I'm fortunate,” Goulet adds. “I'm sure some women have had to make harder decisions.”
But there are still difficulties. Goulet spoke of a time when she was promoted faster than male colleagues at a male-dominated kitchen with an often-absent female executive chef. Soon after, said colleagues “would purposefully mess up an order or send out shitty plates to mess [Goulet] up.” No one can give concrete evidence that this wouldn't have happened if she were a man, but the fact remains that she was made a victim by male co-workers because of her superior cooking ability.
Eliminating the double standard will require women to take responsibility for their place in the professional kitchen. Some undoubtedly want to avoid making a fuss, and therefore quietly work at their stations while remaining unnoticed. But, as Goulet puts it, “I know a lot of my fellow lady chefs who think that eliminating the distinction [between female and male chefs] is what we need to find equality. I humbly disagree. I believe that in order for us to nix that distinction, we have to make it in the first place. And be fucking loud about it.”
Women can't enter the profession with gritted teeth and a constant paranoia of standing out too much, but it's also society's job to debunk the passive-woman-in-the-kitchen myth. Organizations such as Women Chefs & Restaurateurs hint that such change might be coming, but there remain distinct, unfair stereotypes of the woman in the home and the woman in the restaurant.
I eventually got my torchon to the table, shakes and all. The chef sliced through the escalope de veau, sampled the tomato concassé, and curled a piece of tagliatelle around his fork. He took another bite. Then another. Putting down his utensils slowly, he nodded at me, then shook my hand.
Maybe I won't ever be a part of the boys' club. But, I, for one, would like to see my place be the kitchen.