"Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?" is the question Charlotte Druckman posed in Gastronomica. After investigating why "female chefs do not attain the same recognition or critical acclaim as their male peers" for the article, she went on to interview 73 female chefs about working in professional kitchens for her book Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: We've heard an awful lot about women in the kitchen. How did you approach this book?
Charlotte Druckman: I wanted to write -- I say jokingly, but it's not that much of a joke -- the anti-"woman-chef book" book. I do think that we tend to have the same conversation every few years, and it doesn't seem to be helping. That conversation is usually coming from a defensive or negative point of view, which is to complain about how difficult it's for women, how there aren't any women out there or why they all leave.
If you look around, you find so many women in professional kitchens. Not as many as men, but still more than I think people realize. I wanted to look at it as a norm and look at this group of women who have made great strides and have them talk about how they've done that.
LRK: How do you define this word "chef"?
CD: It is so hard, and that became I think the biggest question of the book. Originally chef was a trade, it was a craft or an art that you honed. Now it can be as micro as learning how to chop perfectly and how to work a grill station perfectly, and working you way up through that. But it can also mean not just running a galley, it can mean running a whole restaurant, owning multiple restaurants, creating a line of products, being on television, writing a book.
For the book I used a very specific definition: anyone who had been in the position of an executive chef or who had been in charge of a galley.
LRK: How hard was it really for these women? You talked to 73 chefs.
CD: You run the gamut -- some of it's chronological I think. A lot of the women who were rising in the ranks in the 80s and early 90s will tend to have stories about really being treated not kindly at all in the kitchen. Beth Aretsky, who is best known for having been the character called the "Grill Bitch" in Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidential, will talk about how that's what she was really exposed to often.
But then you'll talk to chefs who are working now -- either it's not happening as much or they literally tune it out, which I think is also interesting. It's almost like they put blinders on, they just look straight ahead and get their job done. They don't have time for it.
You'll have some chefs who -- I think Nancy Silverton is a great example. She avoided all of those typically French, male-dominated kitchens being on the West Coast. She just had these really lovely -- I know this is an annoying word when you're talking about any kind of women's-related topic but -- nurturing experiences from a lot of male chefs.
LRK: That's an interesting take. The boys' club concept, is it still alive and well?
CD: I call it now the new boys' club because it's a different set of boys and it's a different club. I think they think of themselves much more as rebellious and envelope-pushing, but they mostly tend to be boys. I don't think that they're thinking about it that way.
I don't think that anyone is walking around actively discriminating against women. I just think they've all found each other, they like to hang out. Once you have that kind of circle that has a certain amount of clout to throw around, it just all tends to spiral from there. They just keep picking up more traction.
LRK: What were you hearing from the younger women who are now established in food? I'm thinking about people like Amanda Freitag or Alex Guarnaschelli, who you see on Chopped.
CD: It's funny because I almost think of it as there being three generations in the book. They represent to me the middle generation, which in a way is like your adolescent phase, it's almost awkward. They grew up while the term "chef" was going through the most flux. When they started, there wasn't much of the celebrity thing or television, but as it developed their careers were developing, so they had to adapt with it. I think it makes them really great commenters on how that works.
Alex, who is so smart, notes in the book that to be on television as a woman who cooks usually means that you are put in a framework where you are considered an expert in the home. Whereas the male chefs are given the credit for being experts in the professional kitchen. She's someone who is such an accomplished professional chef. She even knows that's what's happening, and she's part of it.
LRK: Wouldn't that make you crazy?
CD: I think so. But I think on the other hand, in any profession if you want to succeed, you're going to do whatever it is you need to do to get the kind of agency you need to be able to express yourself. If it's going to help you get more money or more attention, then you can somehow use that to get whatever your personal message is across. I think that's how you have to do it.
You can say, "I'm going to stand above it," but then that also means that you may also never get heard. So you have to decide at what point you're willing to bend.