Gathered together for a summer potluck, six female power players on the food scene chat with food editor Shawna Wagman about what life is really like under the hood
There has been a lot of talk lately about women in the kitchen — and not just as the punchline for sexist jokes. While it has remained a dirty little secret of the hospitality industry for ages, stories about women’s struggles for equality, recognition, and survival in professional kitchens are starting to simmer to the surface.
In Ottawa and elsewhere, women run a huge percentage of the food businesses — everything from catering companies and gourmet food shops to thriving home-based bakeries and bustling coffee shops. But when it comes to running the show in restaurant kitchens, it’s a different story. Sure, there are plenty of female pastry chefs, but the real power positions — the executive chefs and chef-owners — are overwhelmingly held by men. Still, a quick peek into the kitchens of some of this city’s most popular restaurants shows that an estrogen-driven culinary revolution may be underway.
The signs are everywhere. The prestigious S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list added a new accolade this year: the Best Female Chef Award. The winner, Anne-Sophie Pic of France, was then invited to participate in Montreal’s High Lights Festival. The special theme for its 12th edition? Celebrating Women.
Meanwhile, one of this year’s most popular food books, Gabrielle Hamilton’s New York Times bestselling memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, takes us behind the scenes in the male-dominated kitchens she once worked in. In the book, Hamilton reflects upon the experiences that led her to open her own restaurant in New York, the wildly popular Prune. “I tried smoking filterless cigarettes, swearing like a sailor, and banging out twice as much as my male cohorts,” she writes. “And I’d also given lipstick and giggling a try, even claiming not to be to able to lift a stockpot so that the guys could help me.” She concludes: “Neither strategy is better than the other.” We can expect more candid first-hand accounts like this in an upcoming book by Charlotte Druckman. Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat & Staying in the Kitchen is due out next year.
Recognizing female talent and telling tales may be the first steps toward changing the kitchen culture that has historically left women behind. Here in Ottawa, the subtle shift continues apace. Look at which chefs have been asked to participate in Gold Medal Plates, the pre-eminent national culinary competition. The November 14 competition boasts a male-to-female-chef ratio of 7:3. That’s a vast improvement over two years ago (and all years previous to that), when there were no female competitors. None.
The Whalesbone’s executive chef, Charlotte Langley, was one of the two women chefs who competed last year (Caroline Ishii of Zen Kitchen was the other). When she received her invitation and realized it was to be the first time women chefs were included, she decided to assemble an all-girls team of cooks for the event. I still remember the unique vibe, the matching black T-shirts, and the unbridled laughter as the culinary crew assembled and served the smoked-mackerel dish. They were having a great time. The energy was pure girl power — like a sugar-buzzed pyjama party, but with foie gras.
That’s where the idea for this article began percolating. I wanted to gather together a group of female chefs and cooks to chat about life in Ottawa kitchens. So one day in July, chef Anna March sent out an email to a bunch of her industry friends and colleagues to see who could join an impromptu potluck dinner at The Urban Element. Six chefs answered the call. Everyone was instructed to come prepared to create a dish. At 6 p.m., the women arrived, and within minutes, the choreography of the kitchen came to life: knives flying, chilies blistering, steak grilling, vegetables sautéeing and, of course, wine pouring.
What follows is a transcript of the dinner conversation that ensued. I had to edit out some of the most salacious stories — they truly were not fit for print — as well as some of the cruder language, but I assure you there was plenty of both. There was a lot of butt slapping too.