Women chefs rise to the top despite rasher of chauvinism Taking the Heat

June 28, 1995|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

It still happens every now and then. Guy comes into the restaurant to make a delivery or to fix something that's broken. Executive Chef Alison Dugdale signs for the delivery, or explains the problem, and right in the middle of it, guy says, "Where is chef? Is he off today?"

But Ms. Dugdale, who began her cooking career at the noted vegetarian Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., can shrug off occasional chauvinism. As executive chef, she is in charge of the kitchen at John Steven, the popular Thames Street eatery, pub and sushi bar; she has made it, in a profession traditionally dominated by men, to the top.

She numbers among a select group of women chefs who are executives or chef-owners. While no one keeps statistics that indicate exactly how many women are executive chefs and chef-owners at the nation's finer dining places, some numbers do show that women play an increasing role in professional restaurant kitchens.

They've survived the heat, the long hours, the lack of free nights or weekends, the lifting of heavy pots and pans, the constant pressure, the stress of having to produce high quality at a fever pitch. They've also, in many cases, survived harassment, discrimination and even outright abuse.

For years, the perception was that professional kitchens were too demanding for women; that women would collapse, cry, need help, get in the way and otherwise be nuisances. Chefs were autocrats in their domains, tempers flared under pressure, and professional kitchens were considered not "nice" places to work. Women were not welcome.

But women today are challenging the stereotypes, and proving that skill, not gender, is what matters on the job. In the past five to 10 years, more and more women have been succeeding in this previously male-dominated field.

"There's a reason the saying goes, 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,' " said Michael Gettier, chef and owner at M. Gettier restaurant in Fells Point. "It's hot, it's angry, it's dangerous, there are cuts, there are burns. . . . And a lot of women don't choose to be in a small enclosed room with a bunch of sweaty men for long hours."

"My mother tried to talk me out of this," said chef Nancy Longo, because her sister, who had studied at Cordon Bleu in London "worked in some places that were really hostile to women." Today Ms. Longo is chef-owner of Pierpoint in Fells Point, one of Baltimore's premier dining spots, and she has gained a national reputation in recent years with a series of "dinners for the Chesapeake," luring such big name chefs as Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme to donate their skills to benefit the Chesapeake Bay.

She wasn't daunted by the challenges, she said. "My father's family were Italian immigrants. His attitude was, if you want something, you can have it. It was bred in you, if you work hard, you'll succeed."

For women seeking success in the restaurant business, that means being tough, working harder than anyone else to command respect -- and a respectable salary -- and being "totally dedicated," Ms. Longo said.

There is some evidence that women are becoming a force to be reckoned with in the restaurant business, not just locally, but nationally. Last month the International Association of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs held its first-ever convention in New York City. The 2-year-old organization drew a sell-out crowd of more than 250 registrants for panel discussions and panel-audience debates on "Mothering and Mentoring: The Dynamics of Parenting in the Restaurant Workplace," and "Making It: The Personal and Professional Meaning of Success."

Founder Barbara Tropp, chef-owner of San Francisco's noted China Moon Cafe, explained in opening remarks and in the printed program that "we wanted an organization of our own, where women could be educated to aspire to self-fulfillment and where education was our mandate, not the awarding of ribbons."

The event attracted such noted women as Lydia Shire, of Boston's Biba, Anne Rosenzweig, chef-owner of New York's Arcadia, Joyce Goldstein, of Square One in San Francisco, Nora Pouillon, of Restaurant Nora and Asia Nora in Washington, and Barbara Lazaroff, the 1,000-megawatt force behind the renowned string of restaurants she owns with her husband, Wolfgang Puck.

For eight solid hours, the panelists and the overwhelming female audience debated such topics and child care during a restaurateurs' typically long hours, and the role of husbands in women's success ("Where would you be without Wolfgang?" one young woman asked Ms. Lazaroff. "Better ask, where would he be without me?" Ms. Lazaroff replied.) A number of culinary students asked what they could expect, and what they could aspire to in the profession.

Call of the kitchen

It was clear, however, that for most of the women in the room, becoming a chef was a calling, the only career they ever considered. Not everyone comes to the profession from a background of culinary devotion.

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