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New Orleans women chefs and the fight for kitchen equality 

Women chefs say conditions are changing, though not quickly enough

click to enlarge Nina Compton, executive chef at Compere Lapin: - “I have cooks that are single moms that need to leave at 5 (p.m.); it’s still tough, to be a professional and to have kids and have a family. I think that it’s tough to work 12 hours or 14 hours and have a kid.” - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Nina Compton, executive chef at Compere Lapin:
    “I have cooks that are single moms that need to leave at 5 (p.m.); it’s still tough, to be a professional and to have kids and have a family. I think that it’s tough to work 12 hours or 14 hours and have a kid.”

An Instagram post on Sept. 5 from San Francisco-based chef Dominique Crenn made national news when she called out San Pellegrino — the company that sponsors the World's 50 Best Restaurants list — for a series of photographs of a group of male chefs the brand had picked as jurors.

  Crenn, who in 2012 became the first-ever female chef in the U.S. to receive two Michelin stars and in 2016 was named the World's Best Female Chef by the San Pellegrino brand, called out the organization for its "disappointing" leadership skills. Only 14 out of the 100 jurors picked to cull the prestigious list of restaurants are women.

  "You are not inspiring and I hope you learn from this, and show up for all of us," Crenn wrote. "Please evolve and do the right thing."

  Crenn's post struck a chord in the culinary world, sparking a debate about unequal gender representation in a profession that has grown in recent years and is attracting more women than ever before. More women than men now are enrolled in The Culinary Institute of America, and in Louisiana, the state ranks fifth in the country for restaurants that are majority-owned by women, according to the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

  In New Orleans, more and more women are leading kitchens or stepping into executive chef positions, and a younger generation of chefs is following in the footsteps of trailblazing chefs and restaurateurs like Susan Spicer (Bayona & Mondo), Leah Chase (Dooky Chase's Restaurant), JoAnn Clevenger (Upperline Restaurant) and Michelle McRaney (Mr. B's Bistro).

  Despite the incredible wealth of female kitchen talent in the city, when it comes to visibility, media attention and equal pay, most women in the industry say work remains to be done.

  Chef-driven festivals, in particular, are events where women are starkly underrepresented. At the upcoming Boudin, Bourbon and Beer festival, the event's four co-chairs are all men, and of the 71 people listed as participating chefs, only eight are women. Three out of 13 contestants in the most recent edition of the Great American Seafood Cookoff were women. September's farm-to-table Chefs Taste Challenge featured two women out of the lineup of 10 chefs, and Gambit's own Emerging Chef Challenge in 2016 included only one woman in a list of 14 reader-nominated contestants.

  "There's just not enough women being represented in these events," said Coutelier NOLA owner and chef Jackie Blanchard. "It makes it hard to participate ­ — and there are enough women chefs out there. We're just not invited."

  It's not the only area where female chefs feel slighted. Many women interviewed for this story said they felt they had to work harder than their male colleagues while getting paid less. In 2016, the job transparency website Glassdoor found that female chefs still make 28.3 percent less in base pay than their male counterparts.


click to enlarge Haley Bittermann, executive chef - of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group: - “I always felt that to gain the respect of the men, that I needed to work just as hard ­— if not better — than them. Once I could hold my own, I was part of the team.” - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Haley Bittermann, executive chef of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group:
    “I always felt that to gain the respect of the men, that I needed to work just as hard ­— if not better — than them. Once I could hold my own, I was part of the team.”

Blanchard cut her teeth at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry in Napa Valley and San Francisco's esteemed Benu and was a sous chef at Restaurant August from 2010 to 2014. Realizing she was never going to make the same as her male colleagues, she decided to take a break from the industry to open up her own knife shop on Oak Street.

  "The pay scale is where the real problems are and I think that's why eventually I left," Blanchard said. "The pay scale wasn't contingent upon merit — it still feels like you're being paid as a woman."

  Martha Wiggins, who took over as executive chef at French Quarter restaurant Sylvain in 2014, said early on in her career she was more likely to work longer hours for less pay.

  "Grueling hours, grunt work, anything like that — no problem," Wiggins said. "I was just so happy just to be there. In my mind, it was because I thought I didn't know shit. A lot of that was probably because I was a woman, but also because I was young."

  And the idea of kitchens as places where sexism and racism can thrive hasn't helped women in the industry either, Wiggins said.

  "It's been more empowering to be a person of color in this industry amongst a very white male, Southern peer group," she added. "Sometimes, I have a hard time identifying in that context. I got really lucky, but I think it's still really hard for women in a lot of ways, mostly from a business ownership point of view. When you start to get in a room of men who are business owners, then you can get to be made real small, real quick."

  Willa Jean chef and partner Kelly Fields said "being unheard and unseen, constantly being undermined by chefs, co-chefs and even cooks was commonplace" in many of the American kitchens where she's worked. "I also truly stand behind the idea that women have to work twice as hard, sacrifice twice as much to make it in this industry," Fields adds.


click to enlarge Susan Spicer, pioneering chef and restaurant owner: - “I think people are focused on better working conditions in general now, - and not just for women.” - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Susan Spicer, pioneering chef and restaurant owner:
    “I think people are focused on better working conditions in general now, and not just for women.”

In 1993, then-27-year-old Haley Bittermann became the youngest executive chef and first woman to helm a kitchen in a Brennan family restaurant. Now the director of operations and executive chef for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, Bittermann says she credits a strong female role model (her mother) and hard work for her ascent in the company.

  "Kitchens are very much a contact sport and it is a team effort; if there's a weak link on the line, everybody suffers," Bittermann said. "I always felt that to gain the respect of the men, that I needed to work just as hard ­— if not better — than them. Once I could hold my own, I was part of the team; it didn't matter if I was a woman or a man ... it wasn't an issue."

  During the 1970s and 1980s, a group of women began making their marks on New Orleans kitchens and restaurants, including restaurateurs like Upperline's JoAnn Clevenger and Ti Adelaide Martin of Commander's Palace, who recently tapped chef Meg Bickford to head the kitchen at Cafe Adelaide as the first female executive chef to lead a kitchen in the restaurant group.

  Martin credits her mother Ella Brennan, the strong-willed matriarch of the Brennan family, for inspiring her own foray into the business — and for her management style.

  "I worked extremely hard, like my role model," Martin said. "I think one of the things that holds women back is not having the presence in situations to be acknowledged. I've been taught enough by my mom to be present in the room and have your thoughts heard when needed. (As women), we're more collaborative — we're better communicators. And we women in town have always had each other's back."

  Compere Lapin's Nina Compton echoes those sentiments and said the camaraderie between New Orleans chefs helped welcome her to the city in ways she hadn't experienced elsewhere. At her restaurant, Compton employs a number of young women, who she says are eager for support and mentorship.

  "As a whole, the industry has changed a lot," Compton said. "It's not that French system of 'We're gonna berate you, we're gonna talk down to you, we're gonna smash plates' — those days are gone. That system was in place and made women feel unwelcome."

  Many of the women interviewed said the decision to pursue a career in the culinary field, which requires notoriously long hours and extreme physical work, presents challenges when it comes to starting a family. Women entering the profession at a young age may have a better chance of being in a higher position when they reach their prime childbearing years, but it's never easy, says Compton.

  "I have cooks that are single moms that need to leave at 5 (p.m.); it's still tough, to be a professional and to have kids and have a family," Compton said. "I think that it's tough to work 12 hours or 14 hours and have a kid. I think those things have hindered women for a very long time. ... We're kind of catching up with the men now, and we're excelling and that's something that I think needs to be recognized."

  In an industry where maternity leave is often unheard of, child care often is not an option — even if you're an owner. Samantha Carroll, who together with her husband, Cody, runs the Warehouse District restaurant Sac-a-Lait, worked up till — and on — the day she gave birth to their baby girl, Malley.

  "I begged my doctor to induce me, because we were about to open the restaurant," Carroll recalled. Two weeks after the restaurant opened, Carroll worked a shift on the line, went home, took a bath, and promptly went into labor. Two weeks later, she was back in the restaurant, often bringing her infant daughter along, pumping breast milk in the bathroom between running the dining room and popping back in the kitchen.

  "I'd have her in a little portable crib, and sometimes I would stick her in the window with me while I was expediting," Carroll said, laughing. "But after I had her, and after we had gotten settled in with a kid and two restaurants, I felt like I could handle anything. This industry is really hard on families ... but women in this industry are tough: They figure things out, they make things work."


click to enlarge Ti Adelaide Martin, co-proprietor of Commander’s Palace: - “I think one of the things that holds women back is not having the presence in situations to be acknowledged. I’ve been taught enough by my mom to be present in the room and have your thoughts heard when needed.” - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Ti Adelaide Martin, co-proprietor of Commander’s Palace:
    “I think one of the things that holds women back is not having the presence in situations to be acknowledged. I’ve been taught enough by my mom to be present in the room and have your thoughts heard when needed.”

Despite what many say still is an uneven playing field, an older generation of female chefs in the city say progress is being made.

  "I think people are focused on better working conditions in general now, and not just for women," said Susan Spicer, the James Beard Award-winning chef whose landmark restaurant Bayona recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

  Spicer, who started cooking at 26, inspired a generation of younger women in the city to become chefs. The kitchens at her restaurants Bayona and Mondo both are led by women, and many of the women interviewed for this story listed her as their role model.

  Last month, Les Dames d'Escoffier International, a group of women leaders in the food, beverage and hospitality professions, introduced a New Orleans chapter. And Besh Restaurant Group chef Kelly Fields recently launched the "Yes Ma'am" foundation to increase access to mentorship and hands-on continuing education for New Orleans women in the industry.

  "We've also seen wonderful programs being developed and offered through the James Beard Foundation directed towards, and in support of, women chefs and entrepreneurs," Fields said. "This is all such great work, such great direction ... we just have to keep it up and be in for the long haul."

  Southern cookbook author and television host Nathalie Dupree perhaps best captures the practice of women working together to forge more progressive and inclusive restaurant conditions. Her "pork chop theory" holds that if you cook one pork chop alone in a pan, it will go dry, but if you cook two in the same pan together, they will feed off the fat of one another and cook perfectly. In other words, it's about collaboration, not competition.



How would you like to see conditions in the culinary field improve for women?

Nina Compton, chef, Compere Lapin
I definitely think women need to have a support system. I think a lot of the women in the industry don’t really have anyone to talk to or to relate to. I feel like, as women, we should connect a little bit more and support each other in the same way. I think it’s also about making women know that it’s OK to take a chance to become a chef or a sous chef and having those things in place to help (them) get there … just to allow them to grow as a professional.

Ruby Bloch, solo baker
I think the restaurant as a whole is going in the right direction. Kitchens should be about respect and about treating people like humans. But there’s a reason why the industry is known for drug and alcohol abuse, and I think that’s partially because of the environment. The work-hard play-hard thing … I think that when it’s abused, it can be unhealthy for certain people — it is fun to get the adrenaline rush and everything, but it doesn’t have to be the extreme where you’re not taking care of yourself. You can work hard and love your work and have it be a positive thing.

Martha Wiggins, executive chef, Sylvain
I think what would be helpful would be a restaurant system that respects and hears everyone’s point of view. The general idea that it’s fine for a kitchen to be a toxic environment or an abusive environment because ‘it’s just how it is,’ to be dispelled — because it’s bullshit. I think we have a higher tolerance for putting up with it than men do, and then we kind of end up getting stepped on, because we can take it. I think that would offer a lot more progressive movement in the industry.

Kelly Fields, chef and partner, Willa Jean
I think far more of the credit should go to individuals and organizations who are talking openly and honestly about mental, emotional, and physical health in kitchens. I think we’re well on our way to an even playing field as long as we continue to be vocal and fight for ourselves as women. … Conversations such as this are happening with great frequency.   I would love to see us get to a place where the gender of chefs no longer needs to be discussed or noted. I know we’re not there yet, but I feel hopeful.

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