Simmering issues:

More women seek culinary careers, but gender gap remains for executive chefs

Even as more women join the culinary industry, female executive chefs are still a rarity. Here's why.

This is the first in a series of occasional articles exploring the issues in restaurants.

When Chef Nancy Longo was beginning her culinary career, it was normal for her to be the only woman in a restaurant kitchen. Working for owners who would hurl plates one minute and pinch her behind the next, she, like other female chefs of her generation, withstood verbal and physical harassment as she worked her way up the ranks.

Longo could handle the heat, but it was enough to cause some of her peers to jump to other professions.

"If I told you the horror stories about what it was like to be the only woman in the kitchen you would just be shocked," said Longo, the owner of Pierpoint Restaurant for 26 years. "People would say things to you like, 'Who in the hell are you screwing to get a job in this kitchen?'

"My line always to these guys was, 'Who cooked your dinner when you were a kid?'" she said.

It seems a woman's place is not in the kitchen — not professionally, anyway. While more women are pursuing culinary degrees and kitchens have become more welcoming to both sexes, it's rare in Baltimore and nationwide for women to reach the level of executive chef. For many women who enter the culinary industry with that goal in mind, the question of advancement often comes down to a choice between prioritizing their personal or professional life.

Work-life balance is a challenge all professionals face, but it is especially pronounced in chef life, where late hours dominate schedules and free weekends are rare or nonexistent.

"As an executive chef, you have to be available seven days a week," said chef Cindy Wolf of the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group.

Balancing work with family drove Takeema Johnson, 35, to launch a personal chef service rather than immediately pursue restaurant employment after she graduated from L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg last June. Johnson completed her culinary school externship under Wolf, who is executive chef and owner of Charleston. Johnson would drop her three kids at school at 8 a.m. and prepare dinner for her family before heading to work around 2 p.m. She'd be at the restaurant until about 11:30 p.m. — later on Fridays and Saturdays — while her husband cared for the children at night.

"The hours were really rough," she said.

With kids ages 11, 9 and 6, maintaining that schedule wasn't feasible, so she started Keep it Tasteful, a personal chef business that allows for more flexible hours. But her dream of getting back in the restaurant industry still simmers.

The number of women going into culinary programs is growing. At Stratford University in Baltimore, 53 percent of the student body is female, according to campus director Darryl Campbell. The school offers degrees in culinary arts and baking and pastry arts — programs that account for 90 percent of students.

The rise of women in culinary fields is evident nationally, too. At the Culinary Institute of America, which has campuses in New York, California, Texas and Singapore, 49.9 percent of students were female as of October 2015, the most recent month for which enrollment figures were available, according to Jeff Levine, a spokesman for the school. That's up from a female population of 37.6 percent in October 2005.

Of the women enrolled, 46 percent are studying culinary arts and 37 percent are studying baking and pastry, with the remainder majoring in management, culinary science or applied food studies. That breakdown has remained consistent with the ratio from a decade ago.

For aspiring chefs like Johnson, a Navy veteran, there are options to remain in the culinary field without running the kitchen of a restaurant. Others become food stylists, pastry chefs — who typically work daytime hours — and event planners.

"More women at this point work in environments that they are not the only women," said Women Chefs and Restaurateurs President Ruth Gresser, "whereas that wasn't the case when I came into the industry in the late '70s, early '80s."

Gresser owns Pizzeria Paradiso and Veloce in Washington, D.C. Her organization has national mentorship and scholarship opportunities for female chefs, and annual conferences focused on the education, networking and promotion of women in the industry.

Locally, there's not much formal support for women in the culinary industry.

"I don't think that there's any outlet for them," Longo said.

Most opportunities for growth for young cooks hinge on personal interactions rather than formal professional development. Longo, for example, mentors high school girls interested in culinary professions through the Baltimore mayor's office.

Although more women are cooking professionally now, Gresser thinks women still have to prove themselves in the kitchen more than men, a mentality Kiarra Jerry, 26, said she has encountered in her time cooking in Baltimore. Jerry, a former cook at Cinghiale, works for Fowl Play food truck. She said she was frustrated watching male counterparts she saw as less qualified being promoted ahead of her, and added that she wishes she was challenged as much as the men were.

"I feel like they don't want to overload you because they don't want you to quit," Jerry said.

When asked about Jerry's comments, Tony Foreman, partner in the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group, which owns Cinghiale, said the kitchen there is strictly a meritocracy, where employees are promoted based on skill level and where many women hold high-ranking positions.

"For us there's never a moment that made a difference," he said.

Wolf, the only woman nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic this year, has seen plenty of women drop out of the industry, even in her own kitchen. At Charleston she's lost nearly every one of her female pastry chefs when they've decided to start a family. While kitchens have warmed up to women, Longo said she thinks Baltimore's population of female executive chefs has dwindled since the early 1990s.

Wolf understands why the chef life hasn't traditionally been attractive to women, but she's never looked at the gender divide as a barrier. The obstacles confronting her are factors for everyone in the industry.

"If you put your head down, you work hard, you're good at what you do, you always try to be the best you can be and you work for a period of years, there should be nothing stopping you — period," she said. "And if you find yourself in a kitchen where you are being stopped, then you go find a different kitchen because that's just the wrong place for you."

She said there are ways to make adjustments. Childbearing would be difficult while working in a hot kitchen, but child care is an option for working parents. The decision of how to raise children while maintaining a career affects both parents.

It's not a decision Wolf had to face personally, but she grappled with the hypothetical.

"If I had children, I wanted to be there for them," Wolf said. "Did I want to not work at all? Of course not. But the idea of me running [around] as much as I was, working when I was in childbearing age is something I would have had to have changed."

Family life is tough for executive chefs to balance with or without kids.

"I always refer to it as going into the convent or prison," Longo said. "I have very little home life. My husband hangs out here, but he's older than me and I have stepchildren, and sometimes I'm sad because I need to spend more time with them,"

She has dialed back over the years, closing the restaurant one day a week and taking off for important events.

Chris Becker, chief operating officer for the Bagby Restaurant Group, said he sees why restaurant work is hard for women with families to maintain.

"I don't think any industry really provides the paid time off for having a baby," Becker said. "We treat women as our equals, but the problem is when they're having children and things like that, finding ways to work around that."

Women like Longo and Wolf laid the foundation for the burgeoning culinary scene in Baltimore and carved a path for women who have followed in their footsteps, like "Top Chef" alumna Jesse Sandlin.

"I think that opens the way for younger women to feel comfortable and like they can accomplish something," said Sandlin, director of culinary operations for the Mama's Group.

Still, it's not for the faint of heart.

"It's like going through a war," Longo said. "If you go in your tank and you're going through all these things and losing your weekends, losing your friends, losing your stuff, and that tank didn't hit any land mines and it comes through on the other end, then you were victorious in your little war, you went on. And if all those things didn't deter you from working in this business, then you're intended to be here."

smeehan@baltsun.com

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