Cover Story

From nine Honolulu women on and off the hot line, what’s it like and why did you leave?


Cover image for Sep 7, 2011

After the Aug. 3 Midweek cover story featuring the next generation of chefs, all nine of them male, some were left asking: where are the female chefs?

“Isn’t it funny how men can dominate a stereotypically female domain?” says Jennifer Hee, vegan baker at Kale’s Natural Foods. The irony is not lost on many of the women in the culinary field. If, as the adage goes, a woman’s place is in the kitchen, where are the women in the restaurant kitchen?

You’re more likely to find them working as pastry chefs, or in every other culinary field–as personal chefs, caterers, bakery owners, or food writers–than you are to find them running a restaurant. Anyone who has read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential knows of the restaurant kitchen’s notoriously macho atmosphere, an environment in which food quality is measured by how “hard” it gets you. From my experience in the kitchen, sexual harassment lawsuits are a joke much like workers comp and sick days.

In this testosterone-fueled environment, sometimes there’s sexism. “Women have to prove themselves and work harder to get where men are,” says Miya Nishimura, a sous chef at Alan Wong’s. “I think a lot of guys still have a misconception about working with females.” When she’s training males, she says that some have the attitude, “‘What can you show me that I don’t already know’… They’re not even paying attention to what I’m saying and afterward they’ll go and ask some other guy how to do [the same thing].”

But for all the women I talked to who left the restaurant hot line (the non-pastry side of the kitchen), it’s not the sexism that drives them away, at least not here in Hawaii, anyway. Abi Langlas, pastry chef and owner of Cake Works, began her career in the kitchens of England and France; in the latter, she “was the only female these young boys had ever worked with before,” she says. “Coming back home to Hawaii, local guys are a lot nicer than other kitchen lads.”

For Sabrina Sutherland, who has worked the hot line in Houston and Honolulu, and is now a personal chef, the male-dominated environment is even a personal challenge: She says, “You know what, these guys are in for a rude awakening… I kind of play games. I’ll ask the guy, ‘Hey, where are the potatoes at,’ and if he goes and gets them for me, he’s my bitch… I’m a big girl; I can do this.”

So what is it about the hot line that’s so inhospitable to women? There are the standard answers–the heat, the stress, the long hours, the low pay–a long list that any cook, male or female, will rattle off. At a certain point, the question becomes: Why would anyone stay? “Crazy” is a word that comes up often for women who continue to work on the hot line in a restaurant: Mieko Sasaki, the only female sous chef out of five at Morimoto Waikiki, says, “I like the creativity, but there’s a lot of stress of course. It’s time-consuming, you have to get a job done, right now…all the pressure. But somehow, I like it. Call me crazy.”

Opportunities Elsewhere

Seven out of the nine women interviewed had worked on a restaurant hot line before choosing their current career paths. Rather than being driven away from the restaurant hot line, it seems they are drawn by other, more appealing opportunities in the field.

Pastry, in particular, is an attractive and a different sort of challenge. Witness the Top Chef competitions, for example, in which it appears that every contestant’s Achilles heel is dessert.

Michelle Karr, the pastry chef at Alan Wong’s, says, “It’s just a different pace. The hot line is a little bit faster and pastry is a little bit slower, but you need more attention to detail. For me, pastry teaches and emphasizes patience, discipline, creativity and artistry, attention to detail.”

Rachel Murai, pastry chef at Nobu Waikiki, finished her degree in culinary arts (as opposed to pastry arts) at Kapiolani Community College (KCC), but when she started working in a bakery, she found “a new passion for pastry… I love the smells, the meticulousness, patience, and everything is really pretty,” she says.

But for those who love the adrenaline rush of the hot line, why they leave is a much more complicated answer than they “can’t take the heat.” Jill Dwornik, a personal chef and former line cook, chose to make her own schedule. She’s twice been on the sous chef track, but turned down a promotion because of the time commitment required. Her (female) chef at the W Hotel in Chicago said, “‘We need more women chefs in the industry.’ She was the one pushing me to be a sous chef in the kitchen. And I was thinking, well, maybe I’m going to pull back and be a personal chef… I like [restaurant work], but the whole personal chef aspect of it allows me to create my own hours, create my own menu…that was a big plus for me.”

Then there’s the money. The personal chef schedule and pay appealed to Sutherland, especially as a single mother attending culinary school. She says, “raising a toddler, it was hard for me to take on school and then take on a restaurant job making $7 an hour. I couldn’t survive on that.”

Leslie Ashburn, also a personal chef, says “My personal choice was the economics of it. If I was going to go work in a kitchen, I was going to make minimum wage… [And as a business owner], when you invest in a physical location, you have to pay the rent and all the overhead for the space… If I eliminate that cost and just do the part that I enjoy…i can achieve what I want to achieve without having to invest a lot of my resources.”

Though the strenuous schedule and low pay are factors in these women’s decisions, they don’t exactly answer the question of why restaurants are male-dominated; these are burdens upon both genders. If these circumstances affect both equally, shouldn’t there still be a more equal ratio of sexes in the kitchen than there is now?

A Healthy Philosophy

There are some answers to be found in another culinary culture that’s currently drawing a lot of women: food predicated on health as well as flavor. Eateries like Kale’s Deli and Peace Café are both female-run kitchens. In this realm, a different philosophy prevails: One which contrasts the adrenaline highs and ego battles that fuel typical high-end restaurants.

“Chefs spend 14-plus hours in a kitchen,” says Hee of Kale’s Deli. “For me, I cut myself off at eight hours so I can go home and cook for the people I care about. Family’s a huge part of my life… I don’t know [for] other chefs what their goals are exactly, but I imagine they have nothing in common with my culinary goals: to always make simple but extremely nutritious food for the people that care about it, to create a community, to teach people how to take care of themselves in a way, not to cook them a super fancy five-star meal or whatever.

“Maybe [for a guy], if he didn’t achieve all the way, he would never have been satisfied. He couldn’t just be a cook; he couldn’t just have a deli. He has to go all the way to the best restaurant, to the executive chef. Maybe [males] feel more pressure of having to achieve to the very top… That’s not my end goal,” so says the Harvard grad.

Media Bias: Chefism

I’ve been trying to develop an article about female chefs for three years, waiting for enough women to rise up the restaurant ranks. There was also a fear of painting each sex in black and white, while giving the perception of a piece based on gender rather than merit. In the process of waiting for a great female restaurant chef, however, I realized it’s not sexism that colors the media, it’s chefism.

Media focuses on the rock stars, not the music teacher. We write about the actors and actresses, not their agents. And so we write about male chefs in the kitchen, and not the females (or males) in the broader culinary field, even if the latter’s sphere of influence is much greater. It’s not sexism, it’s that in this age of the celebrity chef, the restaurant chef with burn scars up and down his arms is a sexier subject than the macrobiotic personal chef teaching people to eat healthy. Even restaurant pastry chefs, male or female, are rarely featured in a media more attracted to fire and sharp metal, like the horrific car crashes in the nightly news.

Chefs in professional kitchens can reach a lot of people, but only of a certain type. So yes, the chef that promotes local food may have a great impact on local agriculture, but is it really more than the female culinary activist who brings Electronic Benefit Transfer (food stamps) to farmers’ markets?

So where are the female chefs? Absent from the restaurant hot line (at least mostly–Nishimura and Sasaki are very successful in their restaurant careers), but the culinary world is much larger than that. In our fixation on restaurant chefs, perhaps we’ve ruled out the possibility that they are not the best representatives of our food culture. Maybe equating restaurants with food values is a little misplaced–some restaurants are actually driven by what we used to think of as their secondary characteristics: adrenaline addictions, achievement, ego and celebrity. So perhaps the most important result of asking the question “where are the women” is that it encourages us to look at the entire breadth of the food industry–from artisanal food entrepreneurs to food educators to even whoever helms the home kitchen–and how it influences our food culture. And in these other realms, women are well-represented.