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.
Ms. Longo knew she wanted to be a chef at 16 when she was cooking at a Girl Scout Camp. Ms. Dugdale started a catering business at 13. "I pretty much always wanted to be a chef," she said. Diane Thompson, who's at Piccolo's in Fells Point this summer and was until recently executive chef at Ransome's in Federal Hill, catered her first event at 16. "It was my uncle's New Year's Eve brunch."
But for others, cooking for a living was a change of direction in life, a change of career. Holly Forbes, executive chef at Harbor Court Hotel, where Hampton's restaurant recently scored second-highest in the nation in a readership poll conducted by Conde Nast Traveler magazine, enrolled in culinary school after realizing, "I wasn't going to make money as a piano teacher." Gwen Kvavli Gulliksen, executive chef at Foster's in Fells Point, was pursuing a doctorate in art history when she took a summer job as a chef in Charlottesville, Va., and found a career.
Cooking is the third career for Donna Crivello; she taught elementary school in Boston, then worked as a graphic designer at the Boston Globe and at The Sun before opening the first of a string of popular Donna's restaurants and coffee bars with partner Alan Hirsch. And Toni Basinger, who works for Ms. Crivello as chef of the restaurant in Mount Vernon, was in public relations until she became dissatisfied and decided "it was time for a change."
Changing attitudes among women about what careers are open to them have been accompanied by changes in the restaurant industry as well.
"I think it's partly the overall trend of more women seeking professional careers," said Michael Baskette, director of the school of culinary arts at Baltimore International Culinary College. But in the hospitality industry, he said, women are realizing a cooking career "is something that is easily within their grasp. The old belief was that all the better chefs were men. No longer is that even remotely true."
"Kitchens are changing," Mr. Gettier said. "Many of us are trying to get away from that 'screaming' image."
Traditional, temperamental chefs who shout abuse and throw things at their staffs are a dying, though not quite dead, breed. "It's a boot-camp thing," Mr. Gettier said. "A guy can say, 'I trained under him, it was tough, it was awful' -- and you think, he must be go-o-ood."
Patricia Ryan, certification manager of the American Culinary Federation in St. Augustine, Fla., said she's been keeping track for about six years of how many members of the accreditation and certification organization are women. The current figure is 735 certified women members (out of 5,983 total certified members), or about 12.7 percent. "It's gone up about 1 percent per year," she said. "There's been a great influx of women in the entry levels, culinary school programs, apprentice programs."
In the past, women might take low-level jobs such as dishwasher or prep person, and hope to work up. But pursuing formal training allows women to walk into a kitchen and say, "Here's proof that I can do everything that's asked of me," she said.
Locally, women have represented about a third of the graduating classes at the culinary college for the past six years; the high point was 1990-1991, when women made up 42 percent of the graduating class.
However, some women find, when they leave the classroom, it's a tough world out there.
Dashes of hostility
While some aspects of professional kitchens are difficult for both sexes -- heat, pressure, heavy lifting, long hours on your feet -- women often face extra challenges in kitchens dominated by men who are at best uncooperative and at worst hostile.
Ms. Dugdale recalled being a target for abuse in a male-dominated kitchen. The final straw was being knocked down on the cooking line one night by a male chef who had an obsession about workers standing evenly balanced on both feet at all times. When she raised one foot to rest it, he kicked her other knee. "And I had a knife in my hand!"
Ms. Thompson said that when she was referred to "as a body part" by a male co-worker, "I went after him." She didn't, however, have a chance to hurt him: "The chef stopped me. And when I complained to the chef," about being harassed, "he told me to take as a joke."
Claudia Gettier, a BICC graduate who does both pastry and cold foods for her husband at M. Gettier, said a male worker at her first job in Ellicott City would give her the wrong recipes. "I don't know whether he was jealous, or whether he was trying to make me look stupid."
Connie Crabtree, partner, with her husband Woodie Burritt, of Rand Yacht Charters and Catering by Crabtree, was an early female player in Baltimore's restaurant scene. With some friends, she opened Cacao Lane in the early '70s in Ellicott City. "We were all high-energy, real idealistic," she said, and the atmosphere was nurturing. Later, working at a French restaurant where she was the only woman, she was startled by comments such as, "Why aren't you at home making babies?"
"I think," Ms. Longo said, "the biggest thing for a woman to survive in this business is to be a little bit tone deaf to all the stuff that's going on around you."
Jennifer Price, chef-owner of the Wild Mushroom in Canton, also was pushed down one night while working on the line. But she quit the job when she found out people who had been working in the restaurant a fraction of the time she had "were making $1.50 to $2 more."
But Karin Fuller, chef at -- and soon to be owner of -- Peter's Inn in Fells Point, found her gender helped her when she served four years in the U.S. Coast Guard. Cooking school was the quickest specialty school to get into, she said, and it was not the first choice of most men. In the Coast Guard, she said, "They expected women to be better" cooks.
And there are plenty of men in the industry who don't care what gender workers are, as long as they can do the job. Ms. Gulliksen, who quit an early job because of harassment, later landed in the kitchens of Jean-Louis Palladin, of the five-diamond (American Automobile Association) and five-star (Mobil guide) restaurant Jean-Louis at the Watergate and its companion, Palladin.
Ms. Gulliksen started on the line, that is, preparing food to be served, usually under the direction of the sous chef, was promoted to banquet chef, and then to executive sous chef within five months. "He believes in talent. It's not about men working any harder than women," she said of Mr. Palladin. "He's a perfectionist. If you're a perfectionist too, it doesn't come off as being tough, it just comes off as the only way."
Karim Lakhani, executive chef at the Latham Hotel, who worked with Mr. Palladin at the Watergate and in France under Alain Ducasse, said women "bring a good balance" to the kitchen in terms of work ethic. "They're more focused, more concentrated, and they bring a sense of equality," so male chefs aren't able to feel superior all the time.
Eve Felder, who worked for seven years for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, Calif., and who is now lecturing chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., said, "There seems to be an organic connection with women and food. It feels a part of them. It's part of their psyche." Women have always been "in the top of the field, as amateurs," she said; it's the traditional role they've played in the family. She believes that women bring that dedication to nurturing to the professional kitchen too.
Working things out
Welcome or not, whatever the obstacles, each of the women found her own way to conquer rejection, to avoid discouragement, and to keep working in restaurants.
One strategy is "not asking for help" all the time, Ms. Thompson said. "If I hurt myself, I didn't cry, because the guys weren't really nice."
"Women need to be careful to be strong," Ms. Gulliksen said. "They need to keep themselves, body and mind, in shape. It's all about skill. One thing about this profession, you can prove [yourself] day after day -- by cooking. "
There is one way to avoid having to prove yourself every day to higher-ups: Own your own restaurant. The National Restaurant Association said that based on U.S. Census data, the number of women-owned "eating and drinking establishments with paid employees" rose 57 percent between 1982, when it was 38,028 out of 258,314, or 15 percent, and 1987 (the latest figure available) when it was 59,886 out of 304,124, or 20 percent.
"A lot of women have to fight their way up," said Ms. Crivello, who besides overseeing all of the restaurants and coffee cafes, cooks four or five nights a week in the restaurant in Mount HTC Vernon. "They're relegated to pantry or pastry. With me, it's my place, I can do what I want."
Succeeding in the profession, however, often means failing to have a life outside the restaurant.
"The main sacrifice is my social life," Ms. Longo said. "People say, you're 33 years old, you should think about getting married and having children. Well, I think about it . . ."
Ms. Price lives above her restaurant. "I can run upstairs and see my husband and my dog." Ms. Fuller is getting married in September. Her fiance is a land surveyor and musician who will help her run the restaurant; they also plan to live above the restaurant. Having children would definitely be a struggle she said. "I want to continue to cook until I die. So I'd have to hire a nanny."
Holly Forbes and her husband Judd have two daughters, 4 and 2. "It's not a choice for me to work," she said. "Does that mean I can't have children? Because I have children, does that mean I can't work?" Her husband pitches in with child care. "We don't call it 'baby-sitting' when he keeps his own kids," she said. She has, in addition, a supportive management. "I'm not expected to work stupid hours. And maybe I'm taking less pay because of it."
Mrs. Gettier brought her son Michael to the restaurant when he was small enough to be happily confined in a playpen. Now, at nearly 3, he's in day care, and she works only one night a week. "It's tough, it's really tough," she said. "He really misses his dad." But she sees the benefits of leaving him in a social setting. "He's very independent."
"A lot of friends of mine who are chefs, they don't have kids," Ms. Thompson said. She can imagine the conflicts of children and working as a chef. "That would be so hard. You can't go to ballet class, because you have a banquet that night."
Still, when all is said and done, and when the last pot is cleaned and the last ladle hung up for the night, every one of these women considers the rewards of life in the culinary fast lane to far outweigh the drawbacks.
"You're entertaining people all the time," Ms. Longo said. "Sometimes you have a really good time."
"There is nothing you can do that is more personal than feeding someone -- you're putting something in someone's mouth," Ms. Crabtree said. "If you can do that well, it's a pretty cool thing."