Readers of Anthony Bourdain's frequently lurid "Kitchen Confidential" might be forgiven for thinking of the professional kitchen as a testosterone-fueled boy's club. There is some truth to that, and women still account for a relatively low percentage of kitchen staff at all levels. However, enrollment at schools such as the Culinary Institute of America was approaching parity as of 2013. Some female chefs rank among the industry's leaders, earning major awards and Michelin stars.
Women have cooked professionally for centuries, often in private households. In the restaurant world, there was a clear line dividing the world of fine dining, with its male chefs, from restaurants serving homestyle food -- "cuisine bourgeoise," as it's called in France -- which were often run by women. Among the food-conscious French, these women often enjoyed national reputations. Renowned chefs including Georges Blanc and Jacques Pepin both grew up in their mothers' restaurants, and attributed much of their later success to the practical lessons they'd absorbed in childhood.
It's difficult to determine the number of female chefs working in the industry, relative to the number of male chefs, early in the 21st century. Industry surveys provide an estimate, and they say women account for approximately 20 percent of respondents to the American Culinary Federation's 2011 salary survey. Surveys in 2010 and 2011 by StarChefs reported similarly low numbers, with 396 female respondents in 2011 compared to 1,325 men. The 2010 StarChefs survey broke out respondents by gender and job title, providing additional insight. Sixteen percent of female respondents were executive chefs and 14 percent were CEOs or chef/owners, compared to 38 percent and 11 percent of male respondents.
The ACF and StarChefs surveys demonstrated clearly that the gender gap is alive and well in chefs' salaries. The ACF survey reported an average difference of $20,000 per year across all job titles, with female executive chefs earning $19,000 less than their male counterparts. The 2010 StarChefs survey showed a discrepancy of more than $16,000 between male and female executive chefs, though in the 2011 survey the reported difference in salary dwindled to $2,138. It's important to remember that these are statistically small samples, with 2,711 respondents participating in the ACF survey and 1,721 participants in the 2011 StarChefs survey. The numbers should be considered only rough guides.
Perception and Recognition
Some female chefs have achieved a high level of influence within the industry. For example, Alice Waters of California's Chez Panisse is widely credited with sparking the trend toward local and seasonal ingredients in American restaurants. However, relatively few female chefs receive recognition at the highest levels. New York chef and blogger Amanda Cohen tallied 15 women among the James Beard Foundation's 93 recent winners, and 15 women among the 110 "Best New Chefs" recognized since 2000 by "Food & Wine" magazine. Anne-Sophie Pic is the only female chef in France to hold three Michelin stars, and she was only the fourth-ever when she was awarded that distinction in 2007.
- On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals; Sarah Labensky, et al.
- Restaurant News: Chef Salaries Vary by Venue, Gender
- StarChefs: 2010 StarChefs.com Chef Salary Report
- StarChefs: 2011 StarChefs.com Salary Survey Report
- Dirt Candy: Girls Can't Cook
- CNN: "World's Best Female Chef" Shares Recipe for Success
- Kitchen Confidential; Anthony Bourdain
- The Apprentice; Jacques Pepin
- Simple French Cooking: Recipes From Our Mothers' Kitchens; Georges Blanc
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.