A Woman's Place: Women in Food and Beverage
“A Woman’s Place” is a series spotlighting the women making bold moves in male-dominated industries.
No one ever said working in food and drink is easy. Restaurant and bar jobs often involve grueling hours in a high-intensity (and often overheated) environment, always being on your feet, barely making above minimum wage, and rarely, if ever, getting so much as a break. In many instances, service industry jobs come without perks like health insurance, retirement plans, or even basic sick days. What’s more, the nature of service work means doing it all with a smile on your face, particularly in front-of-house roles where your take-home pay depends on it.
If that wasn’t hard enough, being a woman and/or marginalized person adds another level of sexism, racism, and bigotry within this mostly white male-dominated field.
Things are changing, however. The #MeToo movement has helped to shed light on the widely known back-of-the-house behavior from high-profile chefs and restaurateurs like Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, John Besh, and Mike Isabella, all the way up the chain to a massive walk-out at McDonald’s franchises across the country. And while it’s an embarrassingly late acknowledgement that women shouldn’t have to “lighten up” about predatory behavior on the job, there’s no denying that the impact is huge and opening the door for women to make career advances they might not have dreamed of even a decade ago.
The number of women-owned restaurants increased 40 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to a 2016 report from the National Restaurant Association, and issues impacting women have become a hot topic at industry conferences across the country, setting a precedent for a progressive future.
“20 years ago, you could be cursed at, you could be ‘lovingly touched’ by a superior — what I thought was completely normal behavior, I have seen it all,” says Gayle Pirie, chef-owner of San Francisco’s Foreign Cinema. “So at this point, we are very grateful where there is a movement to reach equilibrium, though it’s taking time and there’s still much to be done.”
ASCENDING THE LINE
Imagine this scenario: You’ve fallen in love with cooking and decided to turn it into a full-time career. You go to culinary school with grand ambitions of becoming a chef, ascending the line, and eventually becoming the next Alice Waters. Except, as soon as you enter the kitchen, a bunch of dudes shove you to the pastry station. Wait, what?
Pastry is the one area in the restaurant that women dominate, whether they want to or not. Women are frequently pigeonholed in this so-called “pink dungeon” — often seen as a more “feminine” line of work — and have a harder time moving up, simply because they’re not placed in positions supporting their intended career track. Teresa Montaño, chef-owner of Otoño in Los Angeles, learned this the hard way during her first couple of years working at her second restaurant, which, despite being owned by two women, had a roughly 95 percent male staff.
“I was clearly one of the best cooks and working every station, but they kept scheduling me as a pastry plater at the back of the line,” she tells us. “Friday and Saturday night, I was ready to cook on the line, but they kept putting me in the back. I would finish all of my work and prep, then I’d go on the line, and the chefs would say, ‘What are you doing?’ So, I was a nuisance until they taught me. I knew I wanted to be on the line and had to do what I had to do to get known.”
Along the way, she had to deal with harassment, slurs, and sexism. But men and women alike in the industry ascribe to the “suck it up” mentality.
“A lot of people were scared to speak up against the chefs in place. I personally never brought it up to them and in hindsight, I don’t know why. It comes with the territory. You deal with it, and if you complain, you’re being weak or something. As a young cook, I was the bottom of the barrel, so I kept my mouth shut,” she says.
Deborah VanTrece, owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in Atlanta, was warned before she even entered the kitchen. “My first slap in the face was culinary school itself. There were very few women, more so very few women of color,” she tells us. “In culinary school, they let you know what's going to happen. So, it wasn’t a well-kept secret; it was the norm.”
A former flight attendant who transitioned mid-career into the restaurant industry, VanTrece was used to working alongside a staff of mostly women. Idealistic and eager to learn everything she could about cooking, she not only had to fight against being relegated to the pastry station but also butted heads with male egos.
“As I’m going up through the ranks, some [male chauvinism] you can’t help but notice. Period,” she says. “The first position I got was an executive sous chef for a major catering company in Atlanta. I was ecstatic. I thought, ‘Look at me, I got a job as a sous chef!’
"About two months in, the male executive chef cornered me and told me that if he knew how good I was, he would have never hired me. For a minute, it kind of crushed me; I thought the purpose was to be good. But that was my first real dose of reality.”
Because she had the means to leave, VanTrece managed to make a quick exit. But when she tried interviewing for other positions, she encountered a whole new set of issues.
“There were quite a few times that I knew the interest was more in me than in what my skill was,” she says. “It was real obvious in interviews: ‘[Are you] married? Let me walk you to your car.’” Eventually, she was able to find a place working among other women before opening her own restaurant, but even entrepreneurship can present its own kind of gender discrimination.
WHO'S THE BOSS?
Why work for a crappy boss when you can be your own boss? Entrepreneurship allows women to set their own rules, but even that has its own gender-bias problems. For one, women can face barriers to accessing funding — which isn’t shocking, considering that even in more lucrative industries like the start-up world, female founders received a paltry two percent of venture capital funding in 2017.
VanTrece had already heard “No” enough times that she didn’t even bother going to the bank and opened her first two concepts, Edible Art Cafe and Catering and The Catering Company by VanTrece, with her own money. Despite her entrepreneurial expertise, she still had trouble finding investors when she wanted to enter the market for a third business.
“I think it’s easier for male chefs to find investors, and being African American, it’s another notch,” she says. “I’m watching people all around me, like they’re giving away candy at the candy store. The banks say no, and that’s the reality of that. It makes it harder to find people willing to invest. It’s a very white male-dominated industry.”
Even with capital, VanTrece encountered real estate issues within the highly segregated city of Atlanta, waiting five months before the landlord would agree to let her have her space for Twisted Soul.
”I can’t imagine if I had gone into an area that was all African American, if it would have taken that long. It just wouldn’t have. Unfortunately, those who do own Black-owned restaurants are systematically segregated and we don’t get to venture out much,” she says.
“Prior to the restaurant I’m in now, I fell on what I thought was a great opportunity to open in a very much white male-dominated community of chefs, and I was the lone ranger,” she continues. “And it brought back feelings of isolation, even now, because I thought better of the city that I lived in. But the way that I was treated, the way I was excluded, was real obvious to me that I was not a part of that gang. I chose another area that I thought would promote more diversity. I wanted all people, that’s how I grew up. I wanted all people to enjoy my food.”
Once everything is up and running, there’s also the issue of management. Every female chef we interviewed says they’ve encountered some form of male subordinates not taking as well to direction.
“As I became a stronger line cook and I was walking into the supervision/management world, line cooks who were men were a lot more difficult to corral,” says Pirie of her time ascending during the early ‘90s. “A lot more attitude, problems with certain people, more so than females. You just have to be strong. You want to respect the employee and work with them, and be judicious and fair, and you just get shunned if you’re a girl. I wasn’t an effective manager, but I did have to tippy toe around male cooks. There was ego.”
When Montaño eventually worked her way up to sous chef, becoming “one of the guys” meant dealing with being treated like one. “Some of them wanted to treat me like one of the guys, because I also like women. So, they thought I’d treat women and talk about women in the same way,” she says. “Some of them knew I was in a relationship, and my girlfriend at the time would come to the restaurant and they would comment on that. It was more like they wanted to treat me like one of the guys, and of course I’m not going to say disrespectful things about my girlfriend or colleagues. Just because I like women, doesn’t mean I want to treat them like that.”
Codified roles remain an ongoing problem on both sides of the house, particularly in the front of the house, where customers routinely exploit the role of female service workers based on appearance and temperament. (The tipping system, in particular, lends to a reward/punishment system often tainted by misogynistic entitlement.) Buckle under the pressure or don’t handle it with grace? You’ll be judged more harshly for that, too.
“Honestly, I left the front-of-the-house environment because it was so frustrating to me,” says Shelby Allison, who took a sabbatical from a decade-long career in the restaurant industry to work in hospitality writing and PR before moving into a leadership position as the co-owner of Chicago’s Lost Lake and co-founder of industry conference Chicago Style.
“All of the roles felt very stratified," Allison tells us. "If you were white, if you were an immigrant, if you were old, young — the role was already planned out for you and I didn’t see a whole lot of roles that I was interested in or people like myself.
“I think in any field, you’ll find that women need to be more measured in their responses to situations. It’s very easy for people to view our reactions as being overly emotional, so learning to code switch into a meeting full of men so you’re not being ‘the over emotional one,’ that goes for any industry.”
'HAVING IT ALL' IN THE RESTAURANT INDUSTRY
It’s the epic struggle plaguing women since we entered the workforce on our own terms: Where is the balance between holding down a career and raising a family? It’s a tough question for any industry, but particularly in food service, where maternity leave and health insurance are non-existent and unpredictable working hours often run much later than childcare services.
After she divorced, VanTrece became the primary caregiver of her daughter. To keep the benefits of being able to provide her with insurance, she had to let her two restaurants go and segue solely into catering. “With catering, I had more control with the time spent preparing the food; she could be with me. I hired staff that could deliver and even cooked out of my home. But it made it a lot easier for me, so it’s something that I try to tell other females coming up,” she says. “The restaurant thing, it takes over your life, and I had to let it go.”
Pirie and her husband, John Clark, managed to raise two children while running Foreign Cinema, but she has watched many of her own female cooks leave to tend to their families.
“In the past, it has driven women to leave the industry and it has driven line cooks into corporate venues where the time has left,” she says. “Part of the logic of it is, there’s only so many years to be a line cook, and when you get older, administrative or executive. You don’t have line cooks that are 60 years old — I mean, you do, but there’s a beginning, middle, and end with a culinary career. You start doing things because you’re physically able to, and as it winds down, you move onto food styling or it’s all kind of fleeting. And then there’s an arc to people’s careers. That’s all understood.”
California is a rarity in the service industry, because grassroots movements have developed to provide benefits to help with paid leave and childcare. Occasionally, some restaurants will individually create their own benefit plans and work with employees to assist individuals. But overall, the industry still has a long way to go to address the type of limitations and commitment required to raise a family.
THE SILVER LINING
Despite the infinite list of hardships caused by the gender disparity in the restaurant industry, everyone agrees that airing its dirty laundry around gender has made a huge improvement in pushing forward change.
Otoño is only three months old, but Montaño has already started hiring a staff with an even male-to-female ratio in the back-of-the-house and female-heavy front-of-the-house.
“I just think it’s the responsibility of the chef or the owner to create a safe environment for their workers and that’s where it starts,” she says. “There’s a lot of finger-pointing, but I’m really delighted to see a generation of chefs and owners taking that role very seriously and putting it at the forefront. The culture of their restaurant dictates the outcome and what people feel when they walk through the door. That’s something I’m definitely passionate about.”
Social media has also had a major impact, creating an environment for more women in the industry to connect and help each other.
“For years, I felt like it’s just me, figure it out,” says VanTrece. “It’s not to say I’ve never heard of another female chef of color or just another female chef, in general, but you didn’t hear about them as often. Now, I can hit a search on the internet and a million come up. Every day, there are five or six I’m getting a request from. I see us helping each other. I now have a group of female chefs here in Atlanta that I didn’t even know really exist, and we have a camaraderie and we look for other chefs.”
Conversations surrounding #MeToo and intersectional feminism inspired Allison to co-found Chicago Style, which focuses on thoughtful conversations within the cocktail community in hopes of creating a more inclusive industry that factors in women, people of color, queer people, and people with varied immigration status.
“With the MeToo movement, things are changing across the board,” she says. “What I can speak to for the hospitality industry, women and other marginalized people are emboldened by the consequences that poor managers are facing, so this culture as a whole is starting to change. I’m not going to take credit for that — I only have a small corner bar — but I hope that by example I can help give people the courage to not stand for that kind of treatment at work, and I hope through Chicago Style we’re able to help people in other cities not to stand through. As a whole, it feels like there's a sea change.”
(Design by San Trieu/ Brit + Co)