The answer may lie in nurture versus nature debate.
Some of Calgary’s top restaurants have few female executive chefs, a fact that may be due to working long hours and wanting a family if not outright discrimination, according to female chefs at other restaurants.
The discrepancy between genders in the restaurant industry starts early. For example, at SAIT’s culinary school Rupert Kaupp, the academic chair of professional cooking, says 40 per cent of students are female, while 60 per cent of students in the hospitality program are also female. Though Kaupp says in the coming year, numbers are expected to be 50 per cent for both genders.
Nevertheless, in some Calgary restaurants a gender imbalance appears to remain. In the top 10 Calgary restaurants listed by Avenue Magazine in 2014, only one restaurant had a female executive chef: Brava Bistro, home to Andrea Harling. The 2015 list doesn’t include any female executive chefs although a few restaurants are owned by women, such as Blink (Leslie Echino) and Il Sogno (Patricia Koyaich).
Calgary is not alone in its lack of female chefs. According to Bloomberg News, women occupy just 6.3 per cent, or 10 out of 160 head chef positions, at 15 prominent U.S. restaurant groups.
Texas State University sociologists Deborah Harris and Patti Guiffre interviewed 32 female culinary professionals and found that discrimination may be behind this difference.
On The Feminist Kitchen blog, Harris and Guiffre said the chefs reported “their male supervisors often had preconceived ideas that women were not physically and emotionally strong enough to work in the kitchens and would give them fewer high-status jobs.”
The Guardian gives an example of that discrimination by paraphrasing chef Tom Kerridge, who said that the industry wasn’t right for women because they don’t handle pressure or get things done. Give the reader a quote from this story because this is an incredibly ridiculous thing to say.
Many articles from sites such as sexyfeminist.com and Macleans have quoted chef Fernand Point, who is considered to be the father of modern French cuisine. When asked why there were no women in the kitchen, he replied: “Only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art.”
Photo couresy of Andrea RobertsKoyich, owner of Il Sogno and an instructor in the SAIT culinary program, says this way of thinking could stem from the past when men did the cooking in royal households while women did the pastry, baking or serving. Apparently the stigma that women had to be hostesses and servers stuck.
Koyich has experienced this kind of discrimination first-hand while working her way through the ranks of Calgary’s fine dining culture.
“Once I got in, there was always a stigma attached to that kind of title and some of the men wouldn’t even say hello because they felt like you should be in the cocktail lounge or be serving.”
Chef Liana Robberecht, from the Calgary Petroleum Club, has been in the industry for about 24 years and also experienced discrimination when she first got into the business.
“I was called a C*#T often to my face, because I was a female. My male co-workers never had this treatment, ever!”
Robberecht overcame these obstacles by pushing herself. She has spoken with other female chefs who have said they dealt with mistreatment by becoming “one of the boys.”
“Why should we as women have to become one of the boys to be accepted in a position we have trained, worked hard, and earned? It makes no sense,” Robberecht says.
Paul Rogalski, culinary director and co-owner of Rouge and Bistro Rouge, is aware of the discrimination in his industry.
He never understood why others had a problem with women as chefs because he believes discrimination is unacceptable.
“We are all family. We all work very hard,” Rogalski says.
In recent years, according to chefs interviewed for this article, local restaurants have tried to bring about a more equal atmosphere.
The younger generation of female chefs, such as Harling and Connie DeSousa, co-executive chef at Charcut Roast House, say they have not experienced such blatant discrimination.
However, Koyich, Harling, DeSousa and Robberecht all agreed that one of the biggest reasons why so few women lead Calgary kitchens may also lay with the desire to have a family.
Koyich explains that due to the long hours and difficult work, people get a sense that female chefs cannot have the top job and have a family. This means fewer women join the industry, believing they may eventually give up what they have worked so hard for if they want to raise a family.
Harling, who has been in the business for about 15 years, agrees with Koyich.
“You get there, you are close to your 30s and your body is saying you want to have a baby, so at the plateau of your career, before you become an exec chef, you think, ‘Oh, am I going to keep working 15 hours a day, six days a week, or do I want to start a family?’” Harling says.
Koyich adds the long hours have been a factor in dissuading female chefs from taking their career to the executive level.
“The perception is that you can’t have it all,” she says. “It is the mentality that you have to sacrifice being a mother for the other instead of programming ourselves that we can actually have both.”
Photo courtesy of Andrea RobertsAccording to Harling, “There are a lot of female chefs who have a successful career and a family. It can be done but it is all about balance. It’s a tough balance though.”
Robberecht is an example of a female chef who made the decision to stick with her career.
“I do not have children, and I have a failed marriage. Is my job responsible? No, I don’t think it is. I made that decision, at that time I chose my career over my personal happiness,” Robberecht says.
On the other side of the spectrum DeSousa, who has been in the industry since 2000, manages to have a successful career and a family life.
However, she too agrees that the divergent lifestyles of being an executive chef — a mother needed at home and the boss needed in the kitchen — “is not very conclusive with raising a family which is probably why you don’t see a lot of women in that role.”
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