The Whole Woman

Why Is the Cooking Industry a Male-Dominated Sport?

(l-r): Chefs Lisa Fox, Robin Rather,  Alma Alcocer-Thomas, and Betsy Johnston
(l-r): Chefs Lisa Fox, Robin Rather, Alma Alcocer-Thomas, and Betsy Johnston (Photo By John Anderson)

A few weeks ago, Austin pastry chef Lisa Fox was chatting with a successful New York chef who reportedly has more than 100 people working in his kitchen. As a matter of course, she inquired whether he had many women working in the kitchen. He responded that he'd had a lot come through, but none of them stayed, he said, "because they hadn't had the stamina for the job."

There's no denying it: Professional cooking is a male-dominated sport. Longtime female veterans of the business will tell you that it wasn't easy for them to earn respect in the boy's club environment of most kitchens in the Seventies and Eighties. One woman I talked to was actually denied entrance into France's state-run culinary institute because they did not accept female applicants. Another remembers being physically assaulted and kissed in one Houston kitchen. Other women have similar stories to tell; many of them have abandoned restaurant kitchens altogether, choosing instead the comparative flexibility of catering, which tends to be female-oriented and generally allows for more autonomy.

According to Ann Cooper, author of A Woman's Place Is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Chefs, a full 45% of people working in the culinary industry are women, yet women hold less than 10% of the top positions. In Austin, the ratio is no less slanted. Women account for only a handful of chefs, pastry chefs, and sous-chefs in restaurants. The few that are out there are largely unknown to restaurant-goers and foodies. Most people who follow food in Austin have heard of Jeffrey's executive chef David Garrido, former Fonda San Miguel chef Miguel Ravago, Brio Vista chef and general manager Stuart Scruggs, or Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival president Wm. Emmett Fox, but who here knows that Betsy Johnston is the chef at Tocai, or that Kerry Johnson works as chef de cuisine at Zoot? Who knows that it's not David Garrido, but Alma Alcocer-Thomas who puts the food out nightly at Jeffrey's as their chef de cuisine?

The profound underexposure of women among Austin's food luminaries causes one to wonder whether a certain locker-room mentality still prevails in kitchens around the city. On occasions when women try to point this out, many chefs -- male and female alike -- take offense, and insist that they have never encouraged discrimination in their kitchens. Obviously the issue is a sensitive one. A recent comment Chronicle Cuisines editor Virginia Wood made in her column about the lack of women participating in the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival prompted a flurry of impassioned responses from both male and female professionals, on both sides of the issue. The very intensity of those responses suggests that there may be no single truth to the matter. Thus, as part of a larger series on the making of a chef, we decided to investigate what in fact women chefs in Austin think about their roles in the industry. Do women really have a harder time of it than men? In a profession that was practically closed to women 30 years ago, today women account for almost 50% of all cooking school graduates. Clearly, women are attracted to the profession, but in what ways?

As part of my research, I talked to four women, all of whom have been in the field for over a decade, and all of whom now work in upper-level positions in restaurants. Rebecca Rather is the chef and owner of the Rather Sweet bakery, located on 12th Street. Alma Alcocer-Thomas works as Jeffrey's chef de cuisine, Betsy Johnston is the chef at Tocai, and Lisa Fox worked most recently as the executive pastry chef at Sardine Rouge, but is now in the process of opening her own restaurant with her husband Emmett Fox. I met the four of them at Rather Sweet Bakery to talk about what it was like to be a female chef in Austin. I was hoping to gain some insight into what it takes for a woman to make it the culinary industry. My initial phone calls for the interview elicited a variety of responses. While some of the women forewarned me that they might offer perspectives that diverged from what they thought I was expecting, others readily agreed that the male-dominated industry had frustrated them on more than one occasion. Going into the interview, then, it was clear to me that even among women there is no consensus about sexism in professional kitchens.

What struck me almost immediately about the four women I met was how sophisticated they are. They are tough, self-assured, educated, and articulate, and it became immediately apparent that they hadn't come to the interview to whine about sexual discrimination in the cooking industry. These women aren't complainers, and the fact is, cooking is a physically and emotionally consuming profession for anyone. Imagine spending up to 16 hours a day on your feet, chopping, lifting, pouring, stirring, whisking. Imagine doing this in kitchens where temperatures can reach upward of 110 degrees. Then imagine the stress of timing the preparation of each plate's component parts, plus the emotional pressure of making it all taste good. That's cooking, and that's not always very romantic, nor is it usually well paid. In Austin, the average starting salary for a line cook is $8-9 an hour; for a sous-chef it's about $12-13 an hour. Most line cooks start without benefits, vacation time, or sick leave.

All of the women I interviewed work long hours at a physically demanding job. Rather gets up at five every morning to open her bakery, where she is on her feet usually until seven or eighth at night. Alcocer-Thomas runs the kitchen at Jeffrey's five to six nights a week. She and her husband have completely opposite schedules, which makes it easier to care for their 11-year-old daughter, but makes it difficult for the couple to ever spend much time together. "It takes a certain personality," says Johnston, "to become a chef." Most successful chefs are fairly compulsive about their work, women no less than men. And it definitely takes that sort of compulsive dedication to advance through the ranks.

But is it really harder for a woman than it is for man? That was the question I asked. The responses I received were curiously mixed and not always consistent. On the one hand, the women I talked to seemed wary of making generalizations about women and their role as culinary professionals. "Men have to work just as hard as women in my kitchen," Alcocer-Thomas asserted. Fox insisted that in her 20-year career in professional kitchens, she has never once felt compromised or harassed because of her gender. On the other hand, the statistics speak for themselves, and when faced with the fact that the culinary industry is still very much a male-oriented profession, one has no choice but to consider the causes.

Only in the past two decades has cooking become a glamorous profession. With low pay, long hours, and hard labor, many professionally ambitious women in the past shunned cooking when making career choices. Fox remembers that it took her almost a decade to convince her parents that cooking was a legitimate profession. "I don't know what they thought I was doing," she muses. "It's like I had to validate what I did by sending them newspaper clippings." Like many in their generation, her parents believed that educated people simply did not become cooks. The image of the chef has changed radically in the past decade, though, and there is a certain romantic allure to the field. Today's chefs are educated -- many hold graduate degrees from Ivy League universities. They appear on television, travel all over the world, and lecture on topics relating to food, social science, history, and literature. But all of this is a recent trend, and many career-oriented women never thought cooking could be glamorous. After all, during the early years of the women's movement, many women chose professions that allowed them to get away from old stereotypes, and the kitchen -- even the professional kitchen -- was a place a successful woman might choose to avoid. Because fewer women elected cooking as a profession during the Sixties and Seventies, there are naturally fewer high-ranking female chefs today.

Moreover, Fox says, if women, especially female chefs in Austin, don't receive as much attention as male chefs, then it's probably because they don't want it. As she says, "It's what I do for a job, but I'm not that driven to seek attention for it." Johnston agrees that she would rather work behind the scenes than be out under the spotlight schmoozing and shaking hands. "I don't really need that kind of attention," say Alcocer-Thomas of Jeffrey's executive chef David Garrido, who spends much of his time participating in charity and promotional events. She seems happy simply running the kitchen and knowing that the food she creates looks and tastes delicious.

Rather, however, has different opinions. She's at the point in her career where she wants recognition for her skills and she's going after it. "I've had to fight sexism in almost every job I've had," she acknowledges. She does concede, though, that things have changed quite a bit in the past decade, and that women such as her, who really want to succeed professionally, can. Now in her own business, with plans for a cookbook and an article for a high-profile culinary industry magazine coming up, Rather seems comfortable in her professional skin. She is also trying to organize a local chapter of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR), the national advocacy group. "I just want to make a difference." And she believes it can help make a difference, not only for her own career, but also for the future careers of other women, because it offers national networking opportunities specifically for women. Curiously, though, she is having trouble attracting membership to WCR. It seems as though many women in Austin don't want to get involved; perhaps there is some truth to the assertion that Austin women chefs really don't crave professional glamour.

This is certainly the case for Fox Fox, who began her career as a line cook but was quickly disillusioned by the long hours and complete personal sacrifice required to make it up the line ladder. When she was offered the opportunity to do pastries, she took it not only because she was attracted to the job's palpable creativity, but also because it gave her more flexibility. She loves her job, she says, but she doesn't want it to dominate her life.

During the interview, there seemed to be a general consensus at the table that women, in general, are less inclined than men to subsume their personal lives to their career. Alcocer-Thomas and Johnston both agreed that while they see the men they work with giving themselves over completely to the insular social and professional microcosm of the restaurant, the women they work with more frequently attempt to navigate outside its perimeter. It's not that women don't work as hard as the men; on the contrary, they see women working even harder. However, most women they know insist on setting limits for themselves.

This could explain why there are more women working as pastry chefs than in any other capacity in the kitchen. The flexible schedule of doing pastries, coupled with the relative autonomy pastry chefs have in the kitchen, allow women to maintain satisfying careers without sacrificing their personal lives. Catering offers the same sorts of advantages. Many of Austin's older generation of women chefs eventually chose this or a similar path after being disillusioned by the relentless harangue of the male-dominated restaurant industry. In fact, the majority of Austin caterers are women. However, the private, behind-the-scenes world of catering rarely attracts the public attention of the high-profile restaurant industry. Indeed, there seems to be a real tension between the two. Some restaurant chefs don't consider caterers to be real chefs, while many caterers feel as though their skills go largely unacknowledged. It was curious to me that the of four women I talked to that day, only one felt strongly that discrimination continues to be an issue in the professional kitchen. Of course, all four women are sucessful, and at this stage in their careers may have little about which to complain. It may simply be that each individual feels the pricks of discrimination at varying intensities, and that it takes a woman with particularly thick skin to withstand the discreet jeers and subtle forms of exclusion of the culinary workplace.

One thing was made clear during the interviews: In the very demanding cosmos of the professional kitchen, it takes a certain type of personality to make it as an executive chef in a restaurant. It requires dedication and perseverance. Women especially must be doubly committed. Johnston, for instance, had to work her way up the line in at least five different kitchens in Austin before she finally landed a chef's position at Tocai. This was in spite of the fact that she had already worked as a chef in Dallas before she moved here. Alcocer-Thomas started at Jeffrey's as a pantry chef eight years ago. Both consider each step in their careers to be necessary labors on the path to success. Along the way, they have had to make definite sacrifices in their personal lives. For women who want families, or who crave the safe normality of a conventional job, restaurant cooking may be an especially difficult choice because, for most people in the field, cooking is more than a career: It's also a lifestyle that pervades one's very spirit. It is true that, historically speaking, women who attempted to break into the field discovered forbidding attitudinal barriers set against them. But this has also been the case in many professions. Now, as more women make it, those barriers are beginning to tumble down. Yet women who are unwilling to persevere may still find the professional waters just as difficult to navigate.

Before we ended, I asked what advice each woman would offer to young women just entering the field. They all agreed that it was important for anyone who thinks they might want to cook professionally to try it out first. "Find a restaurant you like and apprentice yourself there," suggested Fox, "because there's no substitute for practical experience." Johnston added that for young women, it is especially important to always remain professional. Restaurant kitchens foster notoriously informal workplace environments. While it seems okay for men to harass each other to a certain degree, a woman has to be more vigilant when it comes to setting limits on the amount of horseplay she will tolerate. It's too easy for a woman to lose the respect of her colleagues if she doesn't insist that others take her seriously. Rather suggested that management and business skills are essential for anyone working in the field. All four women agreed that too often, chefs enter the profession completely unprepared for the managerial and bureaucratic tasks demanded in upper-level positions. As Alcocer-Thomas stated as a last piece of advice: "Women who want to work in professional kitchens should never, ever wear nail polish to an interview." end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Rachel Feit
Kitchen Ghosts
Kitchen Ghosts
Unearthing Austin's culinary history: Schneider Beer Vaults

May 20, 2016

Walking the Fine-Dining Line
Walking the Fine-Dining Line
How much is too much for Austin diners?

May 6, 2016

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle