Few Women Chefs Lead Capital Region Restaurants

By Steve Barnes
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

When Jackie Baldwin started her career as a chef 32 years ago, women were a rarity in restaurant kitchens. The same was true 15 years ago, when Rachel Mabb, now executive chef of The Ruck in Troy, and Jennifer Hewes, executive chef of The Point Restaurant and Lounge in Albany, were moving toward top positions in local restaurant kitchens.

“I didn’t really start working with women until I started hiring them,” says Hewes, 41, who before The Point ran the kitchens at Cafe Madison and Cafe Capriccio in Albany.

Today, however, in culinary schools nationwide, women students are about equally represented, and occasionally the majority. At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, 48.4 percent of students are women, according to 2014 figures provided by the college. At Schenectady County Community College, 55 percent of culinary students are women.

Baldwin, who lives in Troy, is area executive chef for the dining conglomerate Sodexo and supervises food service at 32 college and university campuses in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. She says about 50 percent of kitchen staffers at the institutions she oversees are women, rising to as high as 75 percent in a few instances.

But just two of those schools have a woman as head chef, as Baldwin was at RPI for 13 years.

This epitomizes a startling fact: While women are strongly represented in the ranks of professional chefs today, their numbers are minimal in the very top positions.

Industry figures put the number of executive chefs — the person ultimately in charge of food, whether at an independent restaurant, a corporate hotel or a restaurant company — at about 8 percent. In March of last year, Bloomberg News analyzed 15 prominent U.S. restaurant groups, including those owned by such superstar chefs as Thomas Keller, David Chang, Tom Colicchio, Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Bloomberg found that 6.3 percent of the companies’ 160 executive chefs were women. (This is better than in the business world at large, where 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, according to a 2014 report by the Center for American Progress.)

The breakdown at the top in local restaurants is much the same, where about half of the women who are head chefs also have an ownership stake in the restaurant. A few women in each of our region’s four core cities run professional kitchens.

Besides Hewes at The Point, Shahila Abbasi runs the kitchens at McGeary’s in Albany and DiCarlo’s in Colonie, which she also co-owns.

Linda Kindlon owns Bake for You in Albany. A few blocks from Mabb at The Ruck in downtown Troy is Marla Ortega, chef-owner of The Illium Cafe, who had two head-chef jobs locally before opening her restaurant five years ago this fall. (She was also a contestant on the Food Network show “Guy’s Grocery Games,” winning $18,000.)

The sisters Anna Ferrera and Gina Mantova have owned and cooked at The Appian Way in Schenectady for decades. In Saratoga, Roslyn Zecchini is executive chef of Boca Bistro and supervises food matters for DZ Restaurants, the five-property company she owns with her husband, David. Also downtown in the Spa City, Maria Mendez runs the kitchen at Henry Street Taproom, a position she assumed when the restaurant’s founding head chef, Ali Benamati, went to work for Mabb at The Ruck in Troy.

There are a few others, but that largely is it — fewer than 20 women executive chefs out of hundreds of Capital Region restaurants.

The reasons for the scarcity are varied, nuanced and more complicated than a glass ceiling or an old-boys’ network or a masculine culture unwilling to let women advance, though those remain in pockets of the industry.

“I always felt I had to work harder than (male chefs) to prove I was just as good. Actually, I wanted to prove I was better,” says Ortega.

Says Abbasi, “I learned from (male head chefs) what not to do. I’d see them do something and think, ‘When I’m in charge, I’m going to do the opposite.’ I’ve never thrown a pan or spoon or tongs at somebody. I think of my staff as family.”

Kitchen atmospheres do seem to be changing from the days of tyrannical, European-trained chefs heaping high-volume abuse on underlings, according to chefs interviewed — in part due to the presence of more women running kitchens and mentoring younger women.

Baldwin, 51, whose first supervisor was a woman executive chef, says she believes women chefs are more deliberative and thoughtful than men in their decision-making. Mabb, 42, has three women chefs working under her at The Ruck. Courtney Withey, 31, was executive chef of Aperitivo Bistro in Schenectady and Tala Bistro in Latham and now teaches at SCCC and works part time at Yono’s in Albany while exploring options. She says, “I made it a point to seek out kitchens with strong women at the helm, and I tried to be one. I’ve been told many times that I bring a more nurturing role to running a kitchen.” (Her nickname at Aperitivo was Mama Bear.)

Younger women chefs have noticed the difference between stories they’ve heard about decades past and contemporary kitchens.

“I don’t have any concerns about (sexism or gender bias) getting in the way,” says SCCC student Katie Brown, 23, who will graduate next month with a degree in culinary arts. She works in a production kitchen at the Clifton Park headquarters of Mazzone Hospitality, which owns six area restaurants. (None of its head chefs are women.) Brown, originally from Catskill, said she hopes to advance within Mazzone’s catering operation, the region’s largest.

According to Brown and seven other women chefs interviewed for this article, the largest factors keeping women from becoming executive restaurant chefs are lifestyle factors.

“There’s no question that women in general are equally capable and, with the same training, equally qualified to be executive chefs,” says Cynthia Keller, the CIA’s associate dean for culinary fundamentals and a 1983 CIA grad.

For 20 years Keller ran the kitchen of a Connecticut restaurant she owned with her husband. But, she says, “There are some other things, starting with biology, that make the traditional route more of a challenge for women.”

First, advancing in restaurant kitchens means working long hours, usually nights and weekends and often six days a week. Second, a talented young chef’s prime years for rapid advancement from line cook to sous chef, executive sous chef and executive chef are from the mid-20s to early 30s, when many women are thinking about starting a family.

A 2013 Gallup poll found that 79 percent of Americans believe a woman should have her first child by age 29; federal statistics show that the average age for an American woman to give birth the first time was 25.2 in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available, and 44 percent of women have had a baby by 25.

“When you’re working, 12- (or) 13-hour days, it’s almost impossible to raise a family,” says Hewes, 41, who does not have children.

Noting that The Point was likely to feed 1,000 people on Easter weekend, and on the holiday itself her schedule would require her to be in the kitchen from 6 a.m. until at least a dozen hours later, she says, “That’s asking a lot of a family.”

As a result, industry trends show women are more likely to pursue career paths that allow for a better work-life balance. Pastry chefs and bakers generally work early morning until early afternoon; SCCC’s baking concentration is 73 percent female, and it’s 87 percent in the CIA’s baking and pastry program. Also, women looking for predictable hours, regular daytime shifts and otherwise conventional work weeks as well as health coverage and additional benefits not generally offered by independent restaurants are opting for institutional settings such as colleges, retirement communities and similar corporate-food-service environments.

A woman can have children, a family and a career as an executive chef in a restaurant. Ortega has three kids: boys ages 9 and 2 and a 4-month-old girl. To be with them, she does not work Thursday through Saturday nights, when the restaurant, which serves breakfast and lunch daily, also serves dinner.

“It’s important for me to be at home, sitting around the dinner table with my family,” she says.

Mabb moved from New York City to be near family in the Capital Region, in part because her daughter, now 18, was a toddler. Her husband, from whom she is now divorced, had a 9-to-5 job, she says. “Everybody knew I wasn’t going to be there for the big holidays. But you figure it out. You can have Christmas (and) Easter on different days. Having a family and going into cooking are not mutually exclusive.”

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