Girl Talk: Top Chefs on Why Women Don’t Get the Respect They Deserve in the Kitchen

women chefs of san francisco

Enough already. Let the record show that San Francisco’s Goddesses of Food would rather do anything else than talk about being a female chef, sexism in professional kitchens or whether gender has played a role in their culinary career successes or failures.

For starters, they’re too busy cooking. They don’t want to be tarred with the “top female chef” tag—even though we in the media do that to them all the time. They want to be acknowledged as damn good cooks. Period.

And yet Dominique Crenn, the talent that created “poetic culinaria” Atelier Crenn and casual bistro Petit Crenn, is almost always introduced as “the first female chef in the U.S. with two Michelin stars.” Empire builder Traci Des Jardins’ website bio includes a reference to her being “known as one of the top female chefs in the country.” Meanwhile, Melissa Perello, the force behind neighborhood favorite Frances and newcomer and Michelin-starred Octavia, quietly plates unfussy fare and mentors a crew of rising women chefs with scant media coverage.

If anything, these chefs chide the media for harping on gender when a female chef has a standout moment and ignoring talented women working in kitchens—in some cases for decades—right under their noses. Duly noted.

And yet, we made them go there.

It’s not news that high-end kitchens have long been a mostly male domain. That equation is changing, though dude food still gets most of the attention. And they make a lot of noise. Think cussing Brit bad-boy chef Gordon Ramsay. Such oversized personalities lend themselves to the Hollywood treatment; witness Bradley Cooper’s recent turn as a serious chef with some serious, uh, issues in Burnt.

The aggressive, abusive, military-style male chef with a monster ego who’s only too willing to toot his own horn, show off his tats, boast about his substance abuse or brag about the artistic masterpieces coming out of his kitchen: we’ve all seen or heard about it. Likewise, mansplaining of fancy techniques or menu innovations is as common as a job posting for line cooks in San Francisco right now.

Sexism behind the stoves has gotten a lot of attention outside the Bay Area recently. In September a Canadian conference, Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time, addressed the concern, partly in response to a high-profile sexual harassment case in a Toronto restaurant. Back in 2013 celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain bemoaned on Twitter why there even needed to be a distinction made between top male and female chef lists, in the wake of the Veuve Cliquot annual list of the 50 Best Female Chefs in the World. Fine-dining icon Eric Ripert chimed in with support—but only tagged his brothers wielding knives to spark a discussion on the subject. Thunk. It drove a lot of ladies in the business—particularly those in New York—to call out the oversight. Simmering resentment that many women in the industry harbored bubbled to the surface.

Last August, René Redzepi, whose restaurant Noma in Copenhagen has an international cult following, opined with a dude-centric essay in food magazine Lucky Peach about the need for change in the industry. “How do we unmake the cultures of machismo and misogyny in our kitchens?” he asked. Redzepi, as readers may recall, was one of three male chefs featured on a now-infamous Time cover under the headline “Gods of Food,” which also sparked a flurry of outrage, since not a single female chef was featured in the piece. In his magazine musings, the lauded chef admitted to being a screaming bully behind the stoves and humiliating a “girl” working in his kitchen.

Restaurants are a reflection of our wider culture, of course, where institutionalized sexism, racism and homophobia are entrenched. Ninety percent of female restaurant workers report being sexually harassed on the job, according to a 2014 report by Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United and Forward Together.

Still, some see hope on the horizon. Food is having a feminist moment, says Kerry Diamond, editor of Cherry Bombe, a biannual magazine that celebrates women in the industry. “I think the national media and food world woke up and realized they couldn’t exclude women from their publications, conferences and events,” says Diamond, whose next issue is devoted to California girls. “Most chefs want to be recognized for being great chefs, not for being a certain gender or color or race.”

Best Female Chef. It’s supposed to be a compliment or honor, right? And yet it feels like there’s a qualifier or caveat in there, as if women in professional kitchens can’t handle the heat and stand alongside their male counterparts on merit alone.

The collective response of every badass female chef interviewed for this article: bullshit.

Why aren’t there more top women chefs in town? That question makes these chefs cringe. Look around, they say, there’s fantastic female talent all over this city and it spans all genres from technique-driven modernist menus and simple, elegant bistro dishes to cozy comfort fare and craveworthy street food. Fine-dining veterans like Amaryll Schwertner, Suzette Gresham, Loretta Keller, Gayle Pirie, Pam Mazzola, Nancy Oakes and Jennifer Puccio. Relative newbies like Sara Hauman ex-Huxley and now Mister Jiu’s (forthcoming), Gabriela Cámara at Cala and Shannon Waters at Aatxe. And gals with a more casual aesthetic such as Michelle Polzine, Brenda Buenviaje, Azalina Eusope and Brooke Mosley.

Does any of this matter beyond restaurant industry/food media myopia? Joyce Goldstein, who has been outspoken on the subject in the past, believes it’s time to move on to other topics. “This has become as boring as reading about David Chang. Or burgers. Or pizza. Or kale. Or fusion ramen. Or anything else that gets beaten to a certain death,” says Goldstein, who opened her own restaurant, Square One, in San Francisco in 1984. Male chefs get most of the media attention because women chefs, as a general rule, are not great at self-promotion, says Goldstein, author of Inside the California Food Revolution.

At the end of the day, do diners care whether a man or a woman cooks their dinner?

“Look, it’s pretty basic: we make food and we want our guests to enjoy it,” says Michaela Rahorst, chef de cuisine at Frances. “I get a great deal of pleasure putting something thoughtful on the plate. It’s both a really big deal and not a big deal. Is that kind of humility more feminine? I don’t know. I just don’t think my gender is an issue in my job.”

melissa perello and Michaela Rahorst and Sarah Bonar
Chefs Melissa Perello, Michaela Rahorst and Sarah Bonar of Frances and Octavia. Photo by Alanna Hale.

Food First at Frances & Octavia

The day I showed up to talk shop with the top three chefs in the Frances/Octavia fold, the women were sporting a lot of burns. Melissa Perello’s face, which features a smattering of freckles, was also home to a fresh work wound. Rahorst and executive pastry chef Sarah Bonar’s arms were covered in burn scars, some new, some not. Occupational hazard. The chefs didn’t even acknowledge them.

It’s early in the day at Frances, on 17th Street in the Castro; the sun is streaming in the window of the small, under-50-seats space. Sitting out to dry: a tray of the most photogenic chicories. A steady thrum of prep for evening service is playing out in the compact kitchen. It’s clean, quiet, calm.

At one stage all the cooks in the kitchen at Frances were women. Perello didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. She garnered a rep for incubating female talent. She shrugs it off.

“I love working with women. I think we synch well together,” she says. “But to be honest with you, with the way the market is right now, it’s about bodies. If someone breathes, shows up at work on time, has two arms and hands, we’re interested. There are just so many restaurant jobs out there, it’s not like we’re interviewing line cooks, they’re interviewing us,” says Perello, echoing a sentiment shared by other chef-owners. And she counts herself lucky. “I am so fortunate to have an amazing, dedicated team that has been here so long.”

Perello says gender has never been a factor in her career. But age has. Early on, most people focused on her youth. She started working for Michael Mina at Aqua when she was barely 18 and landed her first executive chef position at Charles Nob Hill at age 24. Perello, who lives in the Lower Haight, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York (class of ’96). When she attended the CIA, only a handful of women were in her year.

Those culinary school stats are shifting. In October 2015, enrollment figures at the CIA included a record 49.9% female student body. Numbers have been steadily rising: in the 1990s female enrollment hovered around just 20%; it hit the 30% mark in 2000.

The data on women running their own restaurants is moving in the right direction, too. Back in 2007, the CIA’s Diversity Council noted that female chefs and head cooks made up just 21% of professional kitchens, citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Restaurant Association (NRA). In a December 2014 letter to Congressional leaders, NRA president and CEO Dawn Sweeney wrote that more than half of U.S. restaurants were owned or co-owned by women. According to the industry group, in the past decade the number of women-owned restaurants has jumped 50%.

Anecdotally, it seems like more women can be found filling higher-level positions in the kitchen, such as chef de cuisine or executive sous-chef. Women are no longer relegated to the so-called “pink ghetto” of pastry or pantry girl status, working on salads and cold dishes, while the guys get to show off at the stoves.

Cooking isn’t an easy way to make a living—for men or women. It’s not without sacrifices. “It’s a challenging lifestyle, a hard job with long hours, and it’s especially tough if you don’t have a partner who understands that,” says Perello, by way of a possible explanation for the gender gap. Family life and restaurants aren’t a great fit, though certainly many men and women have found ways to combine both. Having children is still on the 39-year-old Perello’s agenda she says. “But I don’t know if I’ll get there before time runs out.”

So, is the perception that there’s a lack of women in professional kitchens a dated one? Are they simply overlooked? Perello thinks it’s the latter. “There are a lot of female chefs here in San Francisco, but for some reason people just don’t notice them.” She has some ideas why.

“Men are definitely a lot more confident and eager to flaunt their talents. They’re happy to put themselves in front of a microphone and applaud themselves,” she says. Women, herself included, not so much. And Perello says it’s not just in the kitchen: she thinks women, in general, have a harder time than men asking for the capital needed to launch a new restaurant.

One arena where women still lag behind: industry accolades. Women chefs don’t seem to get their due at awards time. Consider the James Beard Foundation Awards, which are like the Oscars of food: peers vote for their colleagues. In 2015, out of 13 chef categories, three women received a top nod: Christina Tosi for Outstanding Pastry Chef at Momofuku in New York; Jessica Largey, then of Manresa in Los Gatos, for Rising Chef of the Year; and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski, with Stuart Brioza, of San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions, for Best Chef of the West.Since 2008, typically between two and four awards out of 13 categories have gone to female chefs, with a high of six in 2014.

Beard awards, Michelin stars, Perello doesn’t want to talk about that stuff. Her sights are firmly focused on her restaurants. Perello opened Octavia in Pacific Heights in the spring of 2015 and quietly handed over the reins of Frances to Rahorst. The two have worked together since pre-Frances days, when Perello tested her concept in pop-ups in Hayes Valley.

Heralded (or chided) for her modest, stripped-down, seasonal, ingredient-inspired cuisine, Perello has a hard time characterizing her culinary style. At Frances, named after her grandmother, you’ll find chickpea fritters, chicory salad with pink lady apples, and bavette steak with roasted mushrooms and creamy polenta. Some critics have called her menu safe, others soulfully satisfying. Perello dubs it simply food people want to eat. Regulars return for bacon beignets and lumberjack cake. Now in its sixth year, the place still has a three-month wait list. Perello figures she’s doing something right.

Since taking over, Rahorst hasn’t tweaked the menu much. She and Perello have similar styles. Like Perello, at the start of her career, Rahorst was often the only woman in the kitchen.  No big deal.

“Fine dining felt like a man’s world. I cooked for a long time before I felt comfortable and confident in the kitchen,” says Rahorst. “I felt respected. I was there to learn. It was competitive but I didn’t experience sexism,” says the 38-year-old, who entered the profession after switching careers. At 26, she attended the San Francisco California Culinary Academy and then did stints at high-end spots including Michael Mina, Campton Place and Chez TJ. She says she noticed a difference in leadership style between men and women but said that could also be explained by personality. “Melissa is extremely down-to-earth. She is not driven by ego or fame,” says Rahorst, who lives in the Tenderloin. “She’s humble and looks to empower people and find ways to elevate her staff and get the best out of everybody.”

She, too, remembers when Frances was an all-female cooking crew. “When everyone on the line was a woman, that got a lot of attention,” says Rahorst of the small staff, which has four line cooks working each night. “It was good energy, a very loving and helpful kitchen. One of the most functional kitchens I’ve ever worked in.” That said, she now presides over a kitchen that has a 50-50 gender balance and she’s more than happy with her current team.

Frances isn’t the only restaurant that has had an all-women team on the line. For a while, the same was true at Manresa, the three-Michelin-starred Los Gatos restaurant owned by chef David Kinch. But Kinch isn’t at all interested in engaging in a conversation about gender in the kitchen. “We make it a point to hire based on merit and talent only,” he explains via email. “As in all staff building, over time there is an ebb and flow of male and female. But one could also say it is the same of left- and right-handers.” Of course, gender discrimination, including discrimination in hiring practices, is illegal in the United States and can result in a lawsuit against an offending employer.

Similarly, Perello, Rahorst and pastry chef Sarah Bonar appear pretty uncomfortable discussing gender on the job. To be fair, none of the trio seems particularly keen on fielding interview questions of any kind. Don’t get me wrong—they’re courteous and considerate in their responses, but it’s obvious they’d much rather be donning an apron and getting down to business. It takes some coaxing to get them to talk about themselves; this is not a braggy bunch.

Bonar, 31, attended culinary school on the GI Bill at the Art Institute in Sacramento, after five years in the army as a Spanish linguist. She says she’s never experienced sexism in the military or culinary world. She came to Frances straight out of school for an internship and stayed. She’s worked for Perello for four years, and now runs the pastry department and bread program for both restaurants out of Octavia.

Her mentors in the pastry field have been men and women, a 50-50 split, she says. She finds the “pink ghetto” label both inaccurate and offensive. She has no desire to work for a stereotypical screaming chef—male or female. She prefers to work in a nurturing environment like the one she’s in, and to dub that a distinctly female thing is beyond frustrating, in her opinion.

There is one gender difference on the job she’s willing to concede. “Women are cleaner and tidier than men. I don’t feel sexist saying that. There are messes that men just don’t see,” says Bonar, who lives in SOMA. For her, though, gender is a non-starter. She’s all about what she and her team are creating in the kitchen. “I love making stuff. It’s that simple.”

Bonar’s industry colleagues see other gender differences playing out on the job. “Women learn to be smaller. We learn to need less and provide more,” says Brooke Mosley, pastry chef at Outerlands. “We learn to please everyone and sacrifice our needs for others.”

Survival, Standing Out & Self-Promotion

traci des jardins
Chef Traci des Jardin of Jardinière, Mijita, Public House, The Commissary, Arguello, Transit. Photo by Alanna Hale.

Across town at the elegant white-tablecloth Jardinière in Hayes Valley, Traci Des Jardins cuts to the chase. “I hate questions around gender. It makes me insane that we’re still asking them,” she says. “But I understand why. It’s still a boys’ club out there.”

One reason I asked Des Jardins specifically—aside from the fact that she’s a two-time James Beard Award–winning chef with a 24-year perspective on running restaurants in San Francisco—is because she raised it herself recently.

In an October interview for the website First We Feast, the Top Chef Masters contender was quoted as saying, “I feel more discrimination than I did at the start of my career, 30, 40 years later. Access to money and investors—I think the boys have a much larger advantage in that.” Des Jardins wants to clarify: she recently turned 50. “For me, it’s not so much a gender thing as an age thing. Women of a certain age in this country are invisible. That’s what I’m talking about: the combination of the two. And not that it’s more discriminatory now; it’s always been that way.”

In this city she is still something of an anomaly: a female chef who has both the culinary chops and business acumen to create her own restaurant empire in a competitive food town. There’s her 18-year-old flagship Jardinière, which seats 160, and her fast-casual Mijita in the Ferry Building, both of which she owns. She’s also a partner in gastropub Public House by her beloved Giants ballpark. Her latest venture, a partnership launched in 2014, spans a trio of dining options opened in the Presidio: The Commissary, Arguello and Transit.

Des Jardins, who grew up on a Central Valley farm, learned about equality in the kitchen at an early age. Everybody cooked. She adored her French Canadian dad’s barbecued chicken and her Mexican grandmother’s hand-rolled tortillas.

Like many chefs of her generation, when Des Jardins got her start in professional kitchens, she was often the only woman in the mix. That was true for an 18-month stint in France in the 1980s, where she worked in several Michelin-starred kitchens, including that of French legend Alain Passard. “I didn’t think about it much,” says Des Jardins, who did not attend culinary school. “I just had my head down and knew what I wanted to learn from those experiences.”

The gender imbalance is tricky and complex. For her part, Des Jardins thinks it has a lot to do with how women advocate (or not) for themselves. “I have great stories but I don’t use them in the media to promote myself,” she says. “That puts me at a deficit. But I don’t use my personal life or professional experiences as leverage with journalists.” She thinks many women are wired similarly.

Conversely, some men who aren’t all that in the cooking department but know how to articulate their vision or spin good yarns end up getting plenty of play in the press, Des Jardins has observed over the years.

Another San Francisco industry veteran, Pam Mazzola, agrees. The chef/owner at Prospect and former co-executive chef at Boulevard has spent almost three decades working alongside Nancy Oakes. While she says she’s never experienced sexual discrimination in the workplace herself, she does think women cooks in general shy away from the limelight.

“I don’t think women are as comfortable promoting themselves as men are—at least very few women I know do that,” says Mazzola, 57, who raised three children in Oakland while holding down a demanding restaurant job. Mazzola says that not a lot of women apply to work at the two large restaurants she has overseen. She’s not sure why that is, though speculates that smaller, more informal and intimate dining spaces are en vogue.

Des Jardins’ experience was different. In her hazing period as a young cook, she witnessed and dealt with all kinds of sexist crap. “Was I harassed? Everybody was harassed. The bullying, yelling—all of that happened,” she says. “Was I propositioned? Sure. Did I have to give sexual favors to keep my job? Hell no. Nobody’s going to try that with me. I take no shit and never did,” says the petite chef, who exudes a certain steeliness that makes you believe she indeed takes no BS from anybody.

Des Jardins came up the ranks in traditional, tough, hierarchical kitchens. She runs a similar shop. It’s what she knows even though she understands it’s a model that isn’t for everyone. She was a yeller back in the day; she says she’s managed that out of her system. “I don’t think it’s very productive and it’s really exhausting,” says the industry veteran, who has a teenage son she’s jointly raising with a former partner. Co-parenting, she acknowledges, has made it possible for her to both spend time being a mom and have a career.

Running a restaurant and having a child requires a type of juggling that not every cook wants to take on, Des Jardins says. That responsibility still seems to fall largely on female shoulders. “It’s possible, but it’s not easy, to combine the two. Up until my son was born I probably worked six nights a week for 17 years or so,” says Des Jardins, who has homes in the Upper Castro and Sebastopol, where she spends time with her son. “As soon as he was born, if I had an opportunity to care for him, my choice was clear. Did it impact my career? For sure. Would I trade it for anything? No. He is my number-one priority at the same time that I try to serve my restaurants very well.”

While always hiring the best candidate for the gig, regardless of gender, Des Jardins finds ways to encourage and support emerging female talent in the industry, both big and small. She is on the board of La Cocina, an incubator for mostly emerging female food entrepreneurs of color. And when she sees women rising up through the ranks in her restaurants, she tries to reach out to see how she might help. Women also need to step up, she says. “Women need to learn how to negotiate and how to ask for what they want. It’s not inherent in us.”

Christinne Marmolejo, a line cook at Jardinière, recounts an early day on the job. “It was the first week I’d started. I was shucking oysters in the back and Chef Des Jardins, who comes into the kitchen often, was passing through,” recalls the 26-year-old graduate from the culinary program at City College in San Francisco. “She patted me on the back and said, ‘Have a good service.’ She’d never seen me before. I knew I’d landed at a good place. It may sound like a small gesture, but it was caring and comforting.”

Two years ago, Marmolejo was hired out of culinary school along with five others, another woman and four men. She says her male peers made it onto the hot line before her and she was frustrated and jealous at first. “I just worked hard to prove myself to the chefs and tried not to take it personally,” she says. “Being a woman in this industry, you have to have a tough skin. It’s super competitive and dominated by men, so you have to fight for what you deserve and not give up. I’m the only woman on the line and I’m the meat cook—that’s the highest position there is—and I earned it,” says Marmolejo, who commutes from San Jose to work and describes the restaurant as her second home. “It’s a collaborative place where I have mentors who are generous about sharing their knowledge.”

Whether a 20-something line cook, a 30-something pastry chef, a chef-owner pushing 40 or an empire builder the other side of 50, these standouts in their professional field have one sentiment in common:

“My male chef colleagues are asked, ‘What is it like being a chef?’—not a male chef—and I long to be able to answer as they do,” says Dominique Crenn, who has written about misogyny and male privilege in professional kitchens. “I’m a human. Yes, I’m a woman and I’m a cook. I’m more than a female chef,” adds Crenn, whose cookbook Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste was published recently. “Our industry is experiencing a lot of challenges so it’s really a time for us to take a stand and resist this kind of divisiveness and come together.”

To which the combined San Francisco kitchen sisterhood would simply respond, “Yes, Chef!”

KIM ALTER Nightbird
SARAH BONAR FrancesOctavia
AMY BROWN Marla Bakery
BRENDA BUENVIAJE Brenda’s French Soul Food
CHERYL BURR Pinkie’s Bakery
DOMINiQUE CRENN Atelier CrennPetit Crenn
TRACI DES JARDINS Jardinière, MijitaPublic HouseThe CommissaryArguelloTransit
HEIDI GIBSON The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen
SARA HAUMAN Mister Jiu’s[forthcoming]
ANAMIKA KHANNA Kasa Indian Eatery
LAUREN KIINO il Cane RossoRed Dog
NICOLE KRASINSKI State Bird ProvisionsThe Progress
BELINDA LEONG B. PatisserieB. On the Go
LISA LU Boulevard
EMILY LUCHETTI The CavalierPark TavernMarlowe
NANCY OAKES ProspectBoulevard
GAYLE PIRIE Foreign Cinema
MICHELLE POLZINE 20th Century Cafe
JENNIFER PUCCIO The CavalierPark TavernMarlowe
LORI REGIS Boulettes LarderBoulibar
COURTNEY SCHMIDIG BenuMonsieur Benjamin
AMARYLL SCHWERTNER Boulettes LarderBoulibar
LIZA SHAW Merigan Sub Shop
ANNIE SOMERVILLE Greens Restaurant
DANA YOUNKIN ProspectBoulevard



Girl Talk was published in the Winter 2016 issue. © 2016 Edible San Francisco. Photo © 2016 Alanna Hale