Supper Is Served: Gender from a Chef's Perspective

GenderAvenger recently called out the NYC Wine & Food Festival for its October lineup dominated by men. In response, they pointed to “Supper is Served,” featuring women chefs and billed as “a gathering of women in and out of the kitchen”. So, women chefs will indeed be featured, but in a pink silo. This got us thinking about the food industry. According to data gathered by Deloitte*, 78.4% of chefs and head cooks are men (and are most likely to be white men) and they are paid almost 20% more than their women counterparts.

Today, chef Bren Herrera shares her thoughts on gender from the home to the professional kitchen.


I cook — among other things — for a living. I learned how to cook from my mother who learned from her mother. All of my basic and initial training was at the helm and direction of my mother, in our large, family-style kitchen. While my father cooks well, 90% of our family meals, from the time I can remember to now, were handled by my mother.

My story is not unique, however. It’s part and parcel the narrative of every chef I know. Even those uber celebrity names with a hefty catalog of cookbooks and TV shows recount a very similar story when sharing their roots in their kitchen. Specifically, Giada De Laurentiis and Rachael Ray come to mind, both of whom celebrate and have cooked alongside their mothers on their respective shows.

For centuries across the globe, regardless of race, religion and ethnicity, women have organically and traditionally assumed and executed the role of ‘Master Chef’ in their homes, communities and villages.

Growing up in a Latin American and Caribbean home, my mother has been the cornerstone of our culinary experiences. There is a natural nurturer and caretaker persona that comes with being at the helm of the kitchen. In turn, the experiences we and our guests leave with is one weighing on the understanding that our mother is inherently responsible for our connection to food and eating. I’ve had the same experience in every friend’s and colleague’s home I’ve ever entered. Without offering any empirical research, it is safe to argue our humanistic expectation is to see a woman extending out her arms with a cup of the proverbial ‘Soup for the Soul.’

It’s true that the culinary and restaurant industries are made up mostly of men. If we consider only the numbers, then it follows that events and opportunities both in the public and private sectors would yield a male-dominated outcome. Numbers don’t lie, as they say.

But there’s one big problem with those numbers that most gloss over but one GenderAvenger understands and supports in me bringing to the surface: the Irony. I like calling it the big pink elephant in event planning meetings, restaurant empire-building and other spaces occupied by chefs. Isn’t it ironic that we as chefs and those working in the culinary industry share and even gloat with all its merited glory about our collective narrative, and yet, when it comes to making business decisions and curating talent, women are excluded from the glory that catapulted every one of us?

In a recent exchange with the Food Network’s Wine & Food Festival in New York, their response to GenderAvenger’s valid concern that the chef lineup was remarkably absent of female chefs barely addressed the real concern. In fact, it underscored the false and harmful perception that a women-only kick-off around the theme of “supper” would suffice as a commitment to gender equality.

Sure, not every food-related venue or event demonstrates a glaring bias towards male chefs. I’ve appeared on the Food Network alongside an equal amount of women. I’ve been the only featured female chef at well-attended events in and out of the country. Those moments shouldn’t be unique and special, but rather par for the course in an industry where mothers are revered as the inspiration for a chef’s journey.

There are many layers to be addressed in this scope of fewer women in the corporate kitchen, not the least of which should be surprising. When there are fewer women present in the food space, the invitation for sexual harassment is exponentially exposed. We have seen this play out too often, and in the wake of the #MeToo movement the tipping of the scale is even greater.  Celebrity chef Mike Isabella, whose restaurants in Washington, D.C. I frequented and really enjoyed on a culinary level, has spent his summer defending a huge sexual harassment case wherein a female top level manager sued his company for sexual harassment and misconduct. The lawsuit, which was settled for an undisclosed amount, claimed the environment was toxic as it was run mostly by men, both cooking and in management.

But that’s just one piece of inequity puzzle.

If more women were rightfully invited to the table, we’d all reap the benefit of those experiences we are eager to share the beginning of our careers.

The bottom line is, hire us. After all, we are teaching our young boys the skills they’re going to use in order to become star chefs.


 
 Bren Herrera

Bren Herrera (@BrenHerrera) is a Cuban-American, award-winning private chef; food and travel writer; recipe developer; TV spokesperson; and owner of BrenHerrera.com, where she pens the culinary blog Flanboyant Eats. She’s been featured on the Today Show, CNN, CBS, ABC, FOX, The Discovery Channel and Telemundo, as well as print publications including Glamour magazine and The Washington Post. Bren is currently a contributor and show co-host on FOX 5. She lives in Washington, D.C.