Brooklyn, NY

The Gender of Culinary Opportunity

Alyssa Levine

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Women make better homes than restaurants.

This is just one of many discriminatory remarks Dana Morrissey, the Co-Owner and Catering & Marketing Manager of Bar Crudo and Chela in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, heard on a daily basis from a previous employer. Furthermore, comments of that nature were a common occurrence.

"The owner was unapologetically sexist" Dana recalled, "he announced at every staff meeting that women are too emotional to lead."

There's no HR department when you're working in a kitchen...

Many women share these experiences with sexism and inequity, as well as sexual harassment. Sadly, many come to believe these occurrences are an unavoidable certainty they must grit and bear to survive in this field.

Disheartened with an industry that doesn't adequately support them, amidst male-dominated kitchens and a lack of equal opportunity, many women end up leaving these roles to pursue new career paths. While they [women] make up more than half of the culinary school graduates according to the U.S. Department of Labor, they make up less than a quarter of working chefs, and a mere 7% are in leadership roles such as restaurant owners or executive chefs. These numbers are even more staggering among expectant mothers and those with children, who are often not given the accommodation or support they require.

So how do we change it?

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"It wasn't until I met my now husband [Co-owner, Sommelier & Operations Director, Ronny Jaramillo of Bar Crudo & Chela]" Dana added, "and we opened our own restaurants that I even resumed a managerial role after the experiences I had. But we made our own culture, and a female friendly environment."

Dana Morrissey and Ronny Jaramillo (both pictured in the photo above) created their own opportunity, and built the change they wanted to see. Not only for themselves, but those they would come to employ, resulting in two thriving restaurants (with wonderful food, might I add) and an incredible team of women and men.

I decided to work for myself, to be in control of my own destiny, and get paid what I deserve.
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Chef Reva Alexander-Hawk (pictured above), Celebrity Cake Designer, TV Personality, and owner of Merci Beaucoup in Eatonton, Georgia made a similar leap in her career: "I worked with a bakery for a few years where female employees received significantly different treatment, and pay. So I decided to work for myself, to be in control of my own destiny, and get paid what I deserve."

While these experiences lead to Chef Reva taking charge of her career path through entrepreneurship, she has fond memories of the first position she landed out of culinary school: "The company was run by a woman - come to think of it, other employers I had early on were as well. It's not the norm, I was pretty lucky, and it made for an amazing work environment."

Are women in leadership roles the answer?

I went on to work in other restaurants where I had great experiences with both men and women who trained, supported and mentored female chefs.

Women in positions of power may cultivate change in their professional environments based on their experiences, but some - despite their own hardships, may on occasion be culprits of perpetuating these obstacles as well.

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Kimlai Yingling (pictured above), Culinary Producer, TV Personality, Host, and Editor of EatinAsian.com, recalls experiencing this form of internalized discrimination: "My first kitchen job was at a small cafe. I was ecstatic, I thought it would be a great place to get my feet wet, yet it ended up being my worst experience. I was hired by a woman, harassed by a woman, and fired by a woman."

"That being said," Kimlai continued, "I went on to work in other restaurants where I had great experiences with both men and women who trained, supported and mentored female chefs."

Our society was built on the bones of patriarchy, the remnants of which are still learned, taught and repeated, regardless of gender. It is all of our responsibility to be forces of change - by speaking up, becoming advocates, and being intentional with our actions.

What steps need to be taken to challenge gender inequity?

It's been the good ol' boys club for a long time, and change will never come fast enough, but the progress that has happened is something to be proud of.

"Change in restaurants needs to happen from the top down," Kimlai proposed, "and it also needs to happen outside of the kitchen. Culinary Organizations need to better support female chefs. More accolades are given to men, more articles are written about men, more cookbooks are published by men. It's been the good ol' boys club for a long time, and change will never come fast enough, but the progress that has happened is something to be proud of."

There is no doubt gender equality in the work force has come a long way. With every passing year, we narrow the disparity between men and women in jobs, leadership, and pay. Though that disparity is much larger in the culinary industry, there is still progress being made every day, and more on the way.

Today is #InternationalWomensDay featuring #ChooseToChallenge as this years theme, one that applies directly to the culinary realm, among other fields as well. We must challenge those in positions of power within the industry to implement necessary changes, and those in power must challenge biased practices. Not simply through the absence of encouraging it, but by actively creating safe environments that will not tolerate it.

Equality is not simply equal treatment, but equal opportunity. We must challenge those who perpetuate discrimination, and those who turn a blind eye to it - challenging one another, and ourselves, to create the change we want to see tomorrow.

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I'm a food writer, blogger and "foodtographer" with a focus on the restaurant industry. Every dish we try had a journey, from the families who passed it down through the generations, to the places they originated from, a history that is uniquely its own. Food gives us a way to celebrate culture, remember the past, and travel the world, even when we can’t get on a plane, thanks to the incredible culinary professionals who share their stories through their food. These are the stories I look forward to sharing with you.

Dover, DE
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