I recently read a disheartening article on the steady decline of prominent female restaurant chefs in the Bay Area. This came as a shock because I started cooking in San Francisco 8 years ago when over half the executive chefs were female. Big names like Nancy Oaks, Judy Rogers, Traci Des Jardins, Elizabeth Falkner, were just starting their own restaurants or putting their already established restaurants on the map. These women, along with several others including Alice Waters, changed the way eat in the Bay Area.
Why is this? Why are women leaving the profession or opting to take culinary careers that aren’t restaurant related?
Last night I had an interesting conversation with my Dad about what life is like as a female chef. (I have one day at home before heading off to cook in Las Vegas). He asked me if I wouldn’t prefer catering or private chef-ing over working in a restaurant.
I love being a restaurant cook for the same reason I love acting. I love living in the now. Nothing excites me more than working with other talented people to create something bigger than myself.
When you spend hours prepping and then that first order comes in and the executive chefs begin calling out the menus, and all the cooks call back in response, and beautiful plates fly out with different items created by different cooks – to me that is performance on a plate.
But that performance comes with a steep price. Just like in theater weekends are taken, nights are taken, exhaustion is constant, and relationships suffer. In Paris we start cooking at 8Am and finish at 11Pm or later. We take a short two hour break in the middle which normally means running home, taking a shower, a quick nap, and trying to get one or two chores done before returning the restaurant.
Often we are required to work 6 days a week or come in early depending on the season. It’s no surprise that there aren’t many female French chefs. I don’t see how it would be possible to have a family and keep that kind of routine going. But here in the Bay Area where restaurants often employ two different teams to cook lunch and dinner along with prep cooks it seems a little more plausible to have a life outside the kitchen.
I don’t know where I’m going with this post, except to say that the Bay Area has historically been a place where women can pursue their chef ambitions without coming up against the proverbial glass ceiling.
I’d like to offer up some of my favorite female chef run/owned restaurants in SF. If you have any to add please do so!