Why are female executive chefs so rare?

Maybe it’s sexism—or maybe it has something to do with women’s own expectations

Missing in action

Photograph by Chris Bolin

In Calgary recently, catching up with star chefs Connie DeSousa and John Jackson over some small Latin plates (chorizo, gallina, oxtail empanadas, etc.) and drinks at Ox and Angela, a trendy downtown tapas bar, the conversation turned to the related topics of women in the kitchen and role models. For DeSousa is that rare commodity: she is both.

She achieved a national profile earlier this year as one of the final contestants on the inaugural season of the series Top Chef Canada. Meanwhile, in a highly unconventional arrangement, she is co-executive chef with Jackson at the enormously successful Charcut Roast House in Calgary, as well as its co-owner (with Jackson again, along with their respective spouses). Also in Calgary, where the New York and L.A.-spawned gourmet food truck trend is catching on fast, they operate a mobile burger truck called Alley Burger.

Recently a young girl, no older than four, turned up at the food truck to deliver a little homemade sculpture of a heart. Other days, mothers bring their young daughters by the restaurant proper in the hopes of introducing them to the high-profile female chef. A decade ago it was Iron Chef that got young kids interested in being chefs; now it appears to be the Top Chef series. So I asked DeSousa and Jackson who their own role models had been back in their shared, formative early days in the 1990s, when both worked in a Calgary restaurant called the Owl’s Nest.

“Nadine Thomas, our executive-sous,” they both volunteered without hesitation.“She was passed over for that promotion about five times for men before they finally gave it to her,” Jackson added. “That’s just crazy, when you think the right candidate was standing there the whole time.”

Crazy, maybe. But certainly commonplace. The Owl’s Nest was one of those old-fashioned French restaurants of the sort in which high-end North American hotels used to specialize, where the tartare was chopped tableside by a maître d’ or captain in a cheap tux, and the executive chef was invariably European—usually Swiss—and preoccupied with Old World hierarchies. Time and restaurants may have moved on since then, but the position of women in the kitchen, less so.

For every Angela Hartnett (Murano, York & Albany) in London, or April Bloomfield in New York (Spotted Pig, John Dory, Breslin Bar) or Anne Desjardins (l’Eau à la Bouche) in Ste-Adèle, Que., I can easily name 10 or more men in the same position. And my anecdotal instincts mesh nicely with industry statistics. While numbers are regrettably unavailable for the Canadian industry, in the U.S., only 10 per cent of those who reach the top, executive-chef level are female. Over in the U.K., the number is just six per cent.

Of course, those data have no particular relevance without knowledge of how many women are vying for the job. Enter Deborah Reid, a professor at George Brown College’s culinary programme in Toronto, and her research partner Lauren Wilson, co-authors of a just-released study called “Recipe for Success: Gender’s Role in the Career Expectations of Culinary Students.” Intake at George Brown’s culinary programme is about 40 per cent female but, as Reid told Maclean’s when she began her research project, “Somewhere along the line we lose a lot of them.”

As it often takes some 15 to 20 years of culinary experience to become an executive chef, the more pertinent statistic is not a gender breakdown of entry-level student bodies at culinary schools today, but rather, what they were 15 to 20 years ago. If, say, women had comprised just 10 per cent of students back then, the industry would deserve plaudits for the current rate of female representation in top culinary positions. But it seems fair to assume that quite a few more women were enrolled in culinary school, and that the current paltry number of female executive chefs can only mean that attrition rates for women have been much higher than those for men. And they seem to remain so today, when interest in pursuing a culinary profession has never been higher.

“It doesn’t seem that getting women to go to culinary school is a problem,” the celebrated New York chef Anita Lo (Annisa) explained via email. “Getting them to stay in the restaurant business is.”

The easiest and most traditional explanation for this is sexism, a theory that is tidily backed up with an old quote from a great French chef like, say, Fernand Point, who said, “Only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art.” Or perhaps an aperçu from the notoriously unenlightened Paul Bocuse, who in an interview with Le Figaro ventured that, “The chef who names a dish after a woman is a gentleman and a diplomat—the chef who invites that same woman into the kitchen as a colleague is a fool.” Come to think of it, back in 2007 when Anne-Sophie Pic was re-awarded the third Michelin star that her grandfather and father had earned (and her brother lost) at Maison Pic, and so became the only female chef in France equipped with the honour, a number of French chefs I know dismissed her accomplishment as Michelin playing politics and looking for headlines. “She’s just lucky she had a father who had [stars] before her,” one said.

All the same, every male executive chef I know—even French ones—states an emphatic preference for a mixed brigade. And they never express doubts about women’s general abilities to perform up to snuff in the merit-based professional kitchen. Some even say women are better chefs, be it for their delicate touch, more rigorous aesthetic, or because, as Jackson says, “They’ve had to work harder, and they do better because of it.”

I dipped into Reid and Wilson’s study and discovered that students at George Brown’s chefs school view sexism a little differently: 58 per cent of males but 69 per cent of females think there’s gender discrimination in professional kitchens. A distinct majority of females (61 per cent) believe they are under-represented in professional kitchens because of sexism.

The students do collectively assert the importance of mentors and role models, which makes a great deal of sense in such an old-fashioned industry, still rooted in Old World notions of training and apprenticeship. Intriguingly, neither men nor women cared much about whether their mentors were of the same gender (only a quarter of young women stated such a preference). This bodes well, for on the role model front, at least, the shortage of women cannot then be too damaging.

The survey does however highlight a Catch-22: domestic responsibilities. Get this: 89 per cent of young men and 87 per cent of young women agree that child-rearing responsibilities should be shared equally between partners. But when asked whether they expect to take parental leave, only 51 per cent of men said yes. To me, this either means that men who enter culinary school tend to be a bit dim—or, that they are highly gifted when it comes to talking out of both sides of their mouths.

Either way, when it comes to work/life balance, unionized hotels are certainly more welcoming to young female chefs than restaurants are. Bistros are not equipped with adjoining daycare centres. “It’s just the economics of small, marginal businesses everywhere,” Reid explains.

Most of the chefs I know who came up in the European system got their breaks at a coveted new station—jumping from the boring cold station, the garde-manger, to cooking fish or making sauce—only when some other overworked chef slept through his alarm or called in sick. If they did the job better, they kept it.

Jackson, who spent many years in New York and San Francisco, where he was the executive chef at the St. Regis hotel, assures me this is not the case in North America. “If someone left for maternity leave, they would come back to the same job—definitely. Whether it was saucier or whatever. Even if someone else had been doing it well in their absence.” That said, he notes that maternity leaves were typically as short as two weeks. “Here, now that we own our own business, we’d never dream of moving someone out of a position because they took leave. We try to treat our employees like family. After all, we spend far more time with them than we do our own families,” DeSousa added.

And that’s the last catch: the young women of George Brown make it clear that they actually expect to have a life as well as a career. In this industry, that one will be harder to arrange.

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