'You’re Looking At Her': Trials And Triumphs Of Women Chefs

The miraculous thing about the female chefs I’ve met is how we've persisted and triumphed in so many ways.
Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo: Getty Images

When I was coming up as a young line cook nearly 20 years ago, I never worked for an executive chef or sous-chef who was a woman. This was not a deliberate decision. I interviewed with one female executive chef in San Francisco, but I didn’t get the job (most likely because I was fresh out of culinary school).

When I became an executive chef, I was constantly asked ― by vendors, sales reps and even potential hires ― where “the chef” was. I dinged one candidate who was interviewing with me for not even bothering to Google the restaurant to find out the chef’s name. As a Korean American woman, I have been asked if I’m the pastry chef a million times. It’s rarely assumed that I am the chef.

Whenever I speak with other women who are executive chefs, it becomes clear that we tend to have similar experiences. Whether it’s being overlooked as the chef, being judged by our looks, or enduring harassment, most of us have experienced sexism in the workplace that resulted in fewer opportunities and poorer treatment overall. But the miraculous thing about the female chefs I’ve met over the years is that despite all this, we have persisted and triumphed in many ways.

The pressure to be pretty

Many female chefs are solely judged by their appearance, for better or worse. Take Christan Willis, an Atlanta-based private chef and TV personality who’s currently on the Netflix hit “Pressure Cooker.” Willis was prepared for anything when she showed up on set, and brought a variety of clothing to wear.

“It seemed as if they wanted to create an image of me to stand out amongst the other chefs, and the stylist only [gave] me tight dress options, which was the complete opposite of the others walking into the show,” Willis said. She asked what the other contestants were wearing, and was told that she “didn’t need to know.”

Willis advocated for herself and managed to find an outfit she was more comfortable in, but she was mortified to find out that everyone else had a much more casual look with jeans and flannels. Willis immediately knew that the show was “painting a picture of me as sexy” above all else. Her outfit sent a message that she wasn’t someone to be taken seriously, despite her classical French culinary training and 16 years of experience.

Willis also recalls being called a “c**t” when she was a line cook just trying to learn as much as she could. She eventually chose to leave restaurants and forge her own path, cooking with ingredients and techniques from her rich Southeast Asian and African American backgrounds. Now, her incredible career has included numerous appearances on the “Today” show, HLN and Hallmark’s “Home & Family,” as well as a list of private VIP clients.

She never let the hardships or assumptions define her or derail her aspirations. Notably, Willis continues to be a strong advocate for other women, and asserts that there is “room for everyone at the table.”

Ange Branca holds a bowl of rendang daging (braised beef in a paste of mixed spices and coconut cream slow cooked for six hours) at Saté Kampar in Philadelphia.
The Washington Post via Getty Images
Ange Branca holds a bowl of rendang daging (braised beef in a paste of mixed spices and coconut cream slow cooked for six hours) at Saté Kampar in Philadelphia.

Who wants to work for a woman?

It’s not only other chefs and vendors who exhibit sexism toward women. Job candidates often do this as well.

Philadelphia-based chef and restaurateur Ange Branca worked for more than 25 years as a very successful consultant at the partner level, and burst onto the Philly dining scene as a restaurant owner and chef of Saté Kampar in 2016. Many cooks with amazing resumes arrived to interview with Branca ― but not a single one ever came back. “They just ghosted me,” Branca said. She suspects it was because she was a woman with no background in restaurants, and “they didn’t want to work for me.”

Branca persevered and hired a crew with zero kitchen experience. Her original kitchen staff was made up of formerly incarcerated people and immigrants, half of whom were women. “[I was determined to] figure my way out and train them,” she said.

Saté Kampar went on to become a semifinalist for a James Beard Award, among many other accolades. Equally impressive was Branca’s commitment to making her kitchen and restaurant a welcoming haven for everyone. A line cook (who didn’t last long) told her, “You need to yell and curse to be a real chef.”

Philly patrons are eagerly awaiting the opening of her newest restaurant, Kampar.

This trans woman has seen it from both sides

Some may say that women are overreacting and imagining these slights and insults. Luna Contreras, who is transgender and Latina, is executive chef of the roving pop-up Chelo, the owner of Chelo sauces, and an activist for the trans community in Portland, Oregon, and beyond.

Though assigned male at birth, Contreras always knew she was female and had no support from anyone except her grandmother. She pays homage by calling all of her business ventures “Chelo,” an affectionate nickname for her grandmother. Before transitioning, Contreras had a celebrated career in San Francisco earning Michelin Bib Gourmand distinctions, three-star restaurant reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle and various other awards. Investors eagerly approached her to consult on a new restaurant project in Portland. The project’s duration would coincide with her hormone replacement therapy. She asked the investors if this would be an issue, and they said no. As she progressed through her transition, the problems began.

After transitioning, Contreras says, she was called “confrontational, problematic and difficult to work with,” which was meant to be more insulting than true, as she “was never eighty-sixed.” She wanted to use local produce and work directly with farmers like she had in San Francisco, but suddenly the investors wanted her to order from broadline vendors like Sysco and became much more “cost-conscious.”

More troubling was the frequent use of the wrong pronouns, as she was “constantly being misgendered.” Contreras felt a palpable difference between how she was treated pre- and post-transition, or more specifically, when she was perceived as a man versus as a woman. While she ultimately exited the toxic environment to do pop-ups with the more inclusive women-led restaurant Dame, she remains proud of the inclusive culture she tried to build with the staff at her former job. She spoke to managers about pronouns, and she was always direct.

“If nonbinary people came in here, this is not a safe place,” she would tell the staff, in an attempt to work with management to make it a safer space.

Resilience is the key, but it shouldn’t have to be

The world is lucky to have amazing women cooking delicious food and advocating for their communities, their homelands and others on a daily basis. At the same time, female chefs will likely have to continue dealing with nonsense like sexist remarks from bystanders, lower salaries than their male counterparts, and getting passed over for promotions by the boys’ club, not to mention ill-fitting jackets that get caught on everything.

All of the chefs interviewed for this story had to endure various trials and tribulations, but they came out stronger, better and happier on the other side. They have chosen to forge unique paths and lead the way for other women in spite of the difficulties. Today, there are more female executive chefs than ever, and the numbers only continue to grow.

Want to know my favorite thing to say when people ask “Where’s the chef?” It’s: “You’re looking at her.”

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