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Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007 02:33 pm

Women in the kitchen

They’re taking charge in the finest restaurants

Untitled Document Until only the last few decades, the professional restaurant kitchen was an exclusively male domain, particularly in sophisticated establishments with elegant cuisine. The culture and attitudes that kept women out of restaurant kitchens were mostly no different than those regarding women in any workplace. Specifically, however, it was commonly accepted that professional kitchens were too hot and the heavy lifting and intense pressure too much for the fragile feminine physique. Actually, there was probably a degree of truth in that. Even with today’s modern ventilation systems and air conditioning, restaurant kitchens are hot; before such comforts they were hellish infernos. In the days when women wore corsets, long skirts, and multiple petticoats, even the strongest woman would have been hard pressed to cope with the heat and physical demands. Restaurant kitchens are sometimes referred to as war zones, and there’s some historical basis for that as well. Chef Ann Cooper, whose book A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen traces the origin of the brigade (a precursor to the organizational “line” system used in almost all restaurant kitchens) to military institutions. The book, for which Cooper interviewed 200 female chefs and surveyed more than 1,000 female chefs and cooks, is the first book written exclusively about women chefs and restaurateurs. Things are changing, albeit slowly. In 1972, just 5 percent of the student body at the Culinary Institute of America, often referred to as the Harvard of culinary schools, was female; today, women account for 25 percent of the enrollment. Still, relatively few top chefs are women, and none of the biggest “celebrity” chefs is female. (TV personalities such as Rachael Ray, with no culinary training, background, or experience, can’t be considered chefs.) The iconic Julia Child, probably the best-known and most influential female food professional in the United States, wasn’t a professional chef, either, although she, unlike Ray, was professionally trained (at Paris’ Cordon Bleu cooking school), and her books and teachings are still regarded as classics and referred to by professionals and amateurs alike. Of the 2,134 certified executive chefs in the nation today, only 92 (4.3 percent) are women. It takes a certain kind of person — male or female — to survive and thrive in the take-no-prisoners, do-or-die pressure-cooker atmosphere of a busy restaurant kitchen. As former chef and restaurant reviewer Bill Knotts puts it: “Women often say that it’s not the work they can’t hack; it’s the constant harassment, jokes in dubious taste, pin-ups, and sexist abuse they find harder to stomach. Many end up in the pastry section, often (but not always) a quieter backwater demanding more precise skills: Most male chefs wouldn’t be caught dead weighing out anything, let alone making biscuits” Food writer Tracey MacLeod says that another factor is “. . . the difficulty in combining cheffing with any kind of normal life. The length of a typical shift makes childcare almost impossible, as does a culture that frowns on taking a day off with Legionnaire’s disease, never mind a baby with a temperature.”
Many women in the restaurant business are literally married to their jobs. A typical scenario has been the husband in the kitchen with the wife running the front of the house. Such was the case with Rick Bayless and his wife, Deanna Groen Bayless, in the early days when they started their world-renowned Mexican restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, in Chicago. Today, however, the situation is sometimes reversed, as is the case at Chicago’s delightful West Town Tavern, owned by chef Susan Gross and her manager husband, Drew. It’s also common for a husband to be chef and the wife the pastry chef. Many of the best-known women chefs own their own restaurants. As MacLeod puts it, these establishments tend to have “less rigid hierarchies and staff are treated as people rather than cooking machines.”
Still, most women chefs find themselves in what remains a man’s world. They can be a welcome addition. As chef and bestselling author Anthony Bourdain puts it in his exposé of the “culinary underbelly,” Kitchen Confidential: “Women line cooks, however rare they might be in the testosterone-heavy, male-dominated world of restaurant kitchens, are a particular delight. To have a tough-as-nails female line cook on your team can be a true joy — and a civilizing factor.”
Such a woman is the Sangamo Club’s Joann Kambitch, who spent years at a state job before leaving in 1995 to open Man That’s Hot, a small restaurant featuring spicy dishes. A few years later she began working at the Sangamo Club. Kambitch fills many roles in the Sangamo Club kitchen, from prep cook to kitchen manager, writing menus and taking inventory. She’s also the first woman to work the line at night. That’s no easy task, particularly on evenings when the dining room is full and several private parties and a banquet for 300 are going on. Kambitch is more than up to the task: “I’ve always been independent,” she says, “Of course, sometimes I just have to let loose.” Much as she enjoys “girl talk” with female prep cooks, she has no trouble relating to her male co-workers: “The guys I work with — they’re really a good bunch.” she says with a chuckle. Kambitch definitely has the right stuff.  

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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