Perhaps we too often think of women in the kitchen as just that: women (moms, wives) in the home kitchen, baking cookies and making dinner for their families. Whether this is because the “Chef” title has been dominated for so many years by men, or if it’s because we – those of us in the dining room, far away from the heat and toil of the galley – simply don’t think about how many, if any, women are actually preparing our meal, is up for debate (though it’s probably a little of both). Thank you to Charlotte Druckman for bridging an important industry conversation to us laymen and laywomen. There are not enough women in professional kitchens. Druckman’s cerebral, meticulously researched work, Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen highlights some of the problems and how (some) of this is changing today.
Women are the minority in most professional kitchens, often the only female on a crew of many. Professional cooking is a difficult, physical job with long hours, weekends and holidays dedicated to work in a very hot environment. It’s more than a job. It’s a lifestyle. As in many professions, women have to make choices between work and family. Societal demands and family responsibilities sometimes curtail how a woman can CHOOSE to do her job. Additionally, women are often subject to sexual harassment, intimidation, and unfair standards—and at times these situations go unobserved and unchecked in the late night environment that surrounds this industry.
Most “famous” chefs have been men (until today). Most chefs currently highlighted on television are men. Most chefs with restaurant empires are men. And yet, there is a rising, growing force of Real Women pursuing roles in the culinary arts, and specifically, professional kitchens. These women are using their voices and skill to change an industry.
With Skirt Steak, Charlotte Druckman delves into this growing voice and gives us an in-depth and often times quote-driven (voice-filled) story of over seventy talented female chefs weighing in on the task and the culture of being a professional chef.
Here are a few favorites:
“I’m a chef before I’m a woman; I’m a chef before I am a pastry chef.” – Shuna Lydon
“I don’t want women to think they can’t do it…There’s a lot of fighting that we had to do to get as far as we did, a lot of pushing, a lot of life you had to give up in order to have the same chance. I can remember family member’s funerals or weddings or birthdays that I had to miss, because I had to get it done…” – Sarah Schafer
“In a kitchen full of boys, I’d cut myself on the meat slicer, and the bets were, Michelle won’t come back to work for days…So I picked myself up and went back. A lot of people lost a lot of money that night.” – Michelle Bernstein
“It’s not an easy career choice. You don’t make that much money, you have to work your ass off physically. If you want to have kids, that’s a really tough question you have to ask yourself, because it’s really hard to run a business and have children.” – Jessica Boncutter
“My whole goal back then was ‘I’m going to go out there and I’m going to make it, and then I’m going to get three stars, and then I want to get four stars.’ To this day, there’s only one female pastry chef [who] ever got four stars in New York City, and that was Lisa Hershey at Chanterelle, and she’s not in the business anymore…And I was told a while ago, which affected everything…we were out one night and…there were two gentlemen there – owners of four-star restaurants, and we were talking, and they told me straight out, ‘Never going to happen. You’re a woman and it’s just never going to happen.’” – Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez
“I’d like to think that the future looks bright, and I do. I think there is a change coming. It’s very, very slow, but everything happens slowly. [There are] very few overnight changes or overnight successes.” – Amanda Cohen
Skirt Steak is published by Chronicle Books.