From the Gut: Skewering the Gastro Ceiling

The vendor strolls in, looks through me, scanning the room quickly for authority; finding none, he turns back, flashing me a bored smile, leaning in much too close. "I'm here to meet the manager, can you get him for me, sunshine?"

I have a moment to decide: the kill, the half-way kill, or the overlook? I choose the middle, responding glacially, "Did you have an appointment to meet my manager?" Horror flickers over his face as he pulls together a recovery, watching me radiate explicit don't-sunshine-me-ever-again signals.

This is the least of being a woman restaurateur, establishing yourself in every interaction -- vendors, financiers, bureaucrats, service contractors, employees -- just a little more than necessary. I take these interactions for granted; it's the same in any industry.

When I look around me, though, I see very few women in leading positions -- few executive chefs and even fewer as restaurateurs. Culinary schools have up to a third, then it thins out rapidly in the field, where women are primarily line cooks (more in cold stations: garde manger, pastry) or in family businesses. Some of this is choice -- much like in any other field, qualified women choose to exit the career track opting to take care of their families. But how much of it is intrinsic to culinary? Is there something about restaurants that makes it harder for women to survive, let alone succeed?

The truth is, the restaurant world couldn't be further from what we see through a reality television lens in the "master-top-iron-chopped-you-name-it-victor" genre: smiling chefs in starched whites, demonstrating with flair on gleaming pans, surrounded by a myriad of perfect ingredients. The reality in the field has a lot to do with the paucity of women, and many of my chef friends and colleagues agree.

"It's hardly surprising women choose not to be here -- it's the closest you can get to incarceration outside of jail," says Douglas Rodriguez, an acclaimed chef in Miami. Chef Anthony Lamas agrees, calling it "a rowdy, hostile environment." And Patricio Sandoval of Mercadito, adds: "The pressure and long hours take a toll."

I also turned to some of my most successful female colleagues to get their points of view. "We face many tough tradeoffs working nights, weekends, holidays -- you really can't have anything else going on in your life," says Emily Luchetti. Carmen Gonzalez says, "A lot of talented women don't want to put up with the obstacles or the balancing act." And Michelle Bernstein echoes the sentiment: "Women are still treated very differently and do have less opportunities."

But some do see progress. "Is it different for women? Yes," says Sue Torres. "But it's finally about the individual. The elite few don't give up and are incredibly successful."

I find myself optimistic. I see more of us dedicated to creating opportunity and more of us breaking through. If American women can outdo men in bringing in medals, skewering the gastro ceiling at home is doable. Unquestionably.

As customers, the bigger question is: Do we really care? As long as the food comes out on time and is glorious, isn't that enough?

But as a mother of two girls, Sehar and Mehak, I do care. To quote Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation: "I'm a woman; I'm a mother; I have two sons and a daughter. I want my daughter to have all the same opportunities and all the same exciting future possibilities that my sons have."

Isn't that reason enough to care?

Vermilion and the James Beard Foundation launched a scholarship for "Women in Culinary Leadership" and a "Chefs for Women" program. For women to apply to their Leadership Internship competition and program by Jan 14th 2013, visit

Reprinted with permission from Aug. 29, 2012 edition of Splash by the Chicago Sun-Times.