By Suzie Kazar
Day after day as a line cook, Molly Maciejewski’s co-worker posed the same question to her.
“He asked me every day when I was getting married and when I was going to stop working in restaurants so I could take care of my husband and kids,” said Maciejewski, now the executive chef and general manager of Madison Sourdough.
When she explained that she loved cooking and wanted to continue doing it professionally, her co-worker had trouble understanding.
“He wasn’t saying it in a bad way, but he had a really hard time conceiving of the fact that I chose this and it was what I wanted, as opposed to something I was doing until I found a husband,” Maciejewski said.
For many female chefs, such an occurrence isn’t out of the ordinary. Women are often a minority in the kitchen. Men comprise the bulk of kitchen staff, especially upper management roles such as executive chefs. In 2017, women held only 21 percent of head chef roles nationwide, according to Eater.
Maciejewski emphasized this disparity in Madison, especially when comparing the number of female executives to culinary students.
“Culinary school is now generally at least 50 percent female, but the further you get up in the management chain of restaurants, the less females you see,” Maciejewski said.
While precise numbers in Madison aren’t readily available, most assume they match those of the country. Some kitchens in Madison may not even have one female staff member, according to Francesca Hong, co-owner and executive chef of Morris Ramen.
“I would hope every kitchen in Madison has one female staff right now, but I don’t know if that’s true. That’s the hope. I would say it’s definitely skewed more male,” Hong said.
The lack of women in professional kitchens is troubling for multiple reasons. According to a 2017 study from McKinsey & Co., gender diversity drives better business performance. The lack of women at a business could potentially hurt sales and bring in less revenue.
Another finding from the study indicated that women were more ambitious and had a stronger sense of loyalty at places where leadership supported their progress. As it stands, only 37 percent of women in the food industry said that their managers had provided advice to help them advance, as opposed to 43 percent of men.
One trouble for women in the food industry is the kitchen culture. Maciejewski says restaurant kitchens are known to be “hot, busy and dangerous.” Some conversations and actions that take place in the kitchen can make women uncomfortable, according to Bonnie Arent, co-owner of A Pig in a Fur Coat.
“There’s always been this mentality in the kitchen to push it as far as you can go with language or crass conversations,” Arent said.
These conversations can negatively impact women, either in the kitchen or front of house staff, who might be afraid to speak up to the offenders or to leaders in the restaurant. Hong remembers that earlier in her career she sometimes stayed quiet to try to avoid attention and to get ahead.
“I tried not to separate myself because I was a woman. I wanted to make sure that I stayed under the radar as one of the boys. And I stayed silent through a lot of different types of misogynist conversations [and] inappropriate conversations. I did not speak up because I just wanted to work,” Hong said.
Even as a leader, Hong sometimes questioned when to speak and whether or not it would undermine her position.
“I would say more than just trying to be one of the guys, I was concerned a lot about how people perceived me, whether if I was being stern if I was going to be called a bitch, or if I was trying to be more caring if I was going to be labeled as nurturing or motherly,” Hong said.
Along with potential problems in the kitchen, women in restaurants also face microaggressions from outside businesses.
Maggie Roovers, head chef of Forequarter, said that her negative experiences involve more vendors than people she employs. When a new vendor comes into the restaurant, “they generally tend to gravitate toward whatever man is in the kitchen,” Roovers said.
Arent also noted a similar problem, and said that she will make important business decisions based on microaggressions from potential partners.
“People always shake my hand differently,” Arent said. While men got a straight handshake, some vendors would turn their hand on Arent, making for an uncomfortable and “off-putting” interaction.
“I’ve made big business decisions based on the handshake,” Arent said.
While almost every female in the restaurant industry has had a gender-influenced encounter, many female chefs in Madison believe that kitchens are increasingly more approachable and more willing to have uncomfortable conversations about gender discrimination and other social issues.
“There’s a lot more openness, there’s a lot more conversation and discussion about how there are problems in hiring,” Hong said.
Along with the cultivation of more open and honest conversations, a group is helping to elevate the status of women and non-binary individuals in the food industry in Madison.
The Culinary Ladies Collective (CLC) is an association of women working in various capacities of the food and beverage industry. Among other things, the CLC holds meetings for socialization and education, helps veteran professionals to mentor younger women and promotes women-owned and women-run businesses.
Maciejewski was one of the first members of the CLC. She knew it was important to join to help support other Madison area women and develop relationships.
Maciejewski described her experience in the CLC as “awesome.” While men in Madison’s food industry were promoting each other, the same thing wasn’t happening for women. Creating the CLC has helped to change that, according to Maciejewski.
“In creating the Culinary Ladies Collective, we have a group of women that are friends. We’re collaborating, we’re doing events together, we’re talking about each other, we’re promoting each other,” Maciejewski said.
Overall, women like Hong and Roovers cited having more females in charge as a positive influence. Women in leadership can cultivate the kind of kitchen culture that they would enjoy working in.
Roovers believes that some of her decisions while trying to create a safe and welcoming environment as head chef at Forequarter have been positively influenced by her unique perspective.
“I try to be very empathetic to any kinds of problems that might arise, and I think that might have something to do with my gender,” Roovers said.
“It was important that they had a woman in a position of leadership who could address that and speak for them,” Hong said.
While women in the food industry still face discrimination, many believe the disparity in Madison will continue shrinking as positive conversations and support continues.
“I think that the women in town are having a lot of momentum right now,” Roovers said.
A woman’s place is in the kitchen, if she wants
A big picture solution to getting more women in the kitchen involves a massive systemic change in the industry. The real problem, said Laila Borokhim, owner and executive chef of Noosh, is the treatment of all workers in the kitchen.
“Are restaurants, generally speaking, good to their employees, whatever’s between their legs? I think that the answer is no,” Borokhim said.
The average wage for chefs and head cooks is $22.09 per hour, but that number drops off precipitously for line cooks, who make around $11.52 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number can make living a comfortable life very difficult for entry-level cooks.
While Borokhim wants to see more women in the kitchen, she’s not so sure it’s the right industry to be entering.
“I don’t want to encourage really anybody to become a line cook right now, or a chef, because it sucks and it’s not a very nice life in a lot ways,” Borokhim said.
In order to raise wages, Borokhim and Morris Ramen co-owner and executive chef Francesca Hong say that they would have to charge more for their food. It’s a cost consumers are rarely willing to pay.
Overall, things are getting better, both say. The number of women in kitchens is increasing and conversations are becoming more open.
“It’s better than it was,” Hong said. “But that’s not a reason to be complacent.”