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Women can stand the heat, won't get out of the kitchen
More females bring home bacon as chefs
By DREW STERWALD • email@example.com • March 12, 2008
Melissa Talmage lasted six months in the first kitchen she worked in after graduating from New York's French Culinary Institute.
She was the only woman in the kitchen.
"I got physically pushed out of the way," she recalls. "I was told by the line cooks to go to the corner."
Not anymore. After stints at such high-profile restaurants as Union Square Café in New York City and Commanders' Palace in New Orleans, she's running her own kitchen at Sanibel's RedFish BluFish (soon to be Sweet Melissa's Cafe).
Nonetheless, some customers assume Talmage's male sous chef is in charge. Even though they see her firing up pans in the tiny open kitchen. Even though she wears a shirt embroidered with the words EXECUTIVE CHEF.
"When people are walking out (after eating) they thank him," Talmage says. "They automatically ask him questions."
Talmage laughs it off, but the scene dramatizes how women face sexism, stereotyping, sometimes even harassment in the kitchen in order to succeed in the male-dominated restaurant world.
But it's not stopping them in their clogs.
"I'm not a quitter," says Gloria Cabral-Jordan, chef and owner of the 30-seat La Trattoria Cafe Napoli in south Fort Myers. "You might see me in a girlie skirt, but when I'm in the kitchen I'm a man."
in the minority
Cabral-Jordan and Talmage are still in the minority, though their numbers have soared in recent years.
The U.S. Labor Department categorizes chef as a "nontraditional" career for women - akin to construction worker, firefighter, mechanic.
Women make up only about 24 percent of chefs and head cooks in the United States, according to the National Restaurant Association. But their numbers have increased 44 percent from 49,000 in 2000 to 71,000 last year, the association reports.
"I think that increase reflects the growing professional opportunities in the industry, more culinary school graduates, as well as ownership opportunities," said association spokeswoman Maureen Ryan.
From magazines to television to restaurants, more women are seen running kitchens and creating dishes -and getting the credit. Half of the contestants on Bravo TV's "Top Chef" reality show are women -but men have won the first three seasons.
"It's really fabulous now to open Food & Wine magazine and see women chefs getting as much play as men," Talmage says. "Our general manager is a woman. Our owner is a woman. The staff (of five) is pretty much all guys under us."
Even if they've learned the same cooking echniques as men in culinary school, women historically haven't had access to the same opportunities as men when they enter the working world.
Female chefs say they feel nudged toward the role of pastry chef, concocting delicate sweets rather than flipping pans around flaming gas burners. Or they might be pushed to work the front of the house, schmoozing with patrons. Some go into catering, so they can control their hours while raising a family.
Although she has worked as a pastry chef at restaurants such as CrŸ in Fort Myers, Cabral-Jordan bristles at such stereotyping. Raised in Spain, she studied cooking in Europe, which she says is more open to women than the American restaurant industry.
"I want to be making sauces, and you have to be on the line to do that," she says, referring to the kitchen staff that does most of the on-the-spot cooking. "They think women are too fragile ... it's intense. Well, I'm not afraid of fire. I'm not afraid of heat."
When Cabral-Jordan opened her Spanish-Italian trattoria after working at many other local restaurants, she was finally her own boss.
She cooked the food. She answered questions about the food. She served the food.
"To survive in this business, you have to be a good cook but you have to be strong," she says.
Now, 21/2 years later, tables are hard to come by at La Trattoria Cafe Napoli without reservations on most weekends. Last December, Cabral-Jordan trounced her old CrŸ boss, Shannon Yates, in a paella throwdown.
Now, she's dreaming of opening another small restaurant.
A different world
The odds of such success in a man's world might be better outside the pressure-cooker world of restaurant hubs like New York City, theorizes Karen Hutto. She owns The Flying Pig catering business in Fort Myers and has worked with most of the chefs in the area.
"Locally, things are a little bit more relaxed," she says. "None of the chefs I've dealt with in the past eight years has treated me any differently than a male chef."
Hutto should know. She traded a female-dominated field for a male-dominated field. She worked as a nurse for 24 years — 17 in emergency rooms — before deciding to pursue catering. When she encounters sexist behavior - wandering eyes or patronizing attitudes — it's usually not from men in the kitchen but those outside.
"Working in the ER gives you a pretty thick skin," she says. "A lot has to do with your personality and attitude. People treat you the way you allow them to treat you."