Why Are So Many Professional Kitchens Run By Men?

Every month on Kitchen Stories, we’ll be putting our food knowledge under the microscope to find out if what we think we know is really true. Have a food-related case that you want cracked open? Leave a comment underneath the article!

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Think of the culinary greats–the chefs, television personalities, or food writers you look up to. Mostly men, right? Why is that? Are fewer women interested in working as chefs, or is the food industry systemically tougher on women trying to succeed?

Women are doing some truly amazing, creative things in the culinary world these days—from our own Kitchen Stories founders, Verena Hubertz and Mengting Gao, to Anne-Sophie Pic and Elena Arzak, who each won three Michelin stars for their restaurants, and Maria Rose Belding, who works to end hunger by matching food donations at food banks.

Now more than ever, women are leading a revolution to change the restaurant industry and create more opportunities and safer working environments for themselves, and others.

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What’s Going Well for Female Food Professionals

Women have a number of incredible role models in the food industry to look up to—whether it be master chefs like Dominque Crenn, Alice Waters, Christina Tosi, April Bloomfield, Gabrielle Hamilton, and Margot Henderson, spectacular food writers like Ruth Reichl, Nigella Lawson, Samin Nosrat, and Claudia Roden, and some of the most influential women in food who will not be forgotten like Julia Child, MFK Fisher, and Elizabeth David. They are James Beard award winners and Michelin star holders, helming their own kitchens, and sharing their own stories.

Unfortunately, women are still generally underrepresented when it comes to key positions, awards, accolades, and overall media coverage.

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What Needs to Change in Professional Kitchens

While misogyny occurs in all industries, the food industry seems to be especially plagued by it. Some male chefs make public comments questioning women’s ability to work in kitchens at all, while others create or foster work environments that range from toxic to criminal.

In one restaurant in Canada, a female chef filed a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal for sexual harassment, arguing that her bosses both physically and verbally harassed and humiliated her in front of her colleagues. When she sought help and support from her superiors, she was further victimized for speaking up and complaining.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated problem. The Restaurant Opportunities Center United, an American non-profit working for the rights of restaurant workers, published a report finding that 90% of female restaurant staff had experienced sexual harassment at work, whether from customers or other staff members. Many women in the industry felt the need to speak up after the human rights tribunal case in Canada–from chefs and servers to bartenders and hostesses–all with similar stories to tell.

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So, what has bred this extreme reality? Traditionally male-run workplaces, the kitchen is a fast-paced, hot, and high-stress environment, run on a hierarchical system and often unregulated, which has created an environment notorious for harassment of both sexes, as well as bullying and even corporal punishment.

Of course, much depends on the restauranteur and the head chef themselves and whether they a prioritize a positive and respectful environment, or are instead oblivious to or openly encourage abusive behaviors, using the pressures of succeeding in the food industry as an excuse.

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The Future for Women in Food

Seeing prominent male chefs like Noma’s René Redzepi disavow machismo and sexism in kitchens and advocate for safer work environments is a positive step. More so, as women continue to break through the ranks, running kitchens, restaurants, and food companies, thereby simply increasing their numbers in the industry, they are individually and collectively working to create a new hospitality culture.

From female run conferences that address safe and inclusive workplaces, to forums focused on women’s visions in gastronomy, to non-profits dedicated to helping food industry professionals deal with addiction and other stressors inherent to the industry, and of course the new generation of extremely talented female chefs, writers, and culinary activists—it sounds like the future really is female.