Women in the kitchen

Apr 9, 2008 at 12:00 am

Due to a change of plans, Chef Sharon Juergens can't do a sit-down interview. It's a little after 1 p.m., rush hour at downtown Birmingham's Streetside Seafood, and one of her cooks didn't make it in. She beams in sweaty, red-faced welcome though, and says she's happy to answer questions while she works. As Juergens weaves a nimble cook's dance through Streetside's hot, narrow submarine hull of a kitchen, the place appears at first to be in disarray. But gradually cries of "re-fire up!" and the steaming, clanging blur of four cooks doing 10 things at once expose it for what it is — a buzzing ballet of controlled chaos.

In the eight years Juergens has been executive chef at Streetside, during which it has won honors for its seafood, she says she's changed the atmosphere. It's a woman's energy now, which she describes as "calm and free of ego." A far cry from the days when she was just a line cook working under a male predecessor she says was a "hounder." As she eagerly lists of all the reasons she thinks women make better chefs — more acute sense of taste and smell, better multi-taskers — it's easy to forget that female head chefs like Juergens are actually a rarity in the industry.

An estimate of 2007 government data by the National Restaurant Association lists only 20 percent of 345,000 chefs in the United States as women. That's a big difference from the ratios in area cooking schools. About 4 or 5 out of every 10 students in culinary arts programs at Macomb Community College, Oakland Community College and Schoolcraft College are female. So what accounts for the discrepancy between enrollment figures and statistics on executive positions? Is it as simple as the crumbs of institutional sexism left lying around our nation's workplaces — an invisible border that still makes female CEOs like eBay's retiring Meg Whitman the stuff of special attention? Or do professional kitchens have extra-special, intrinsic barriers pushing women away from leadership roles?

The kitchen, as a workplace, is famous for its heat, its hustle and its high-pressure energy, a place that can have more in common with a line of scrimmage than a place nurturing elegant cuisine. And the recent explosion of celebrity chef culture has only magnified the working kitchen's macho stereotypes. On any given night, you can catch an elite blowhard like Gordon Ramsay belittling lesser cooks, or brand-named chefs as big as linemen like Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali spouting catchphrases. In terms of popular perception, this boisterous, testosterone-soaked image doesn't exactly say "come on in, ladies" to members of the fairer sex.

But Juergens wouldn't have it any other way. When she was a student at Schoolcraft, she made a habit of ignoring her all-male professors' dumb-blonde jokes (Jeurgens is platinum) and low expectations. "I didn't want to be babied," she says, "so I busted my butt and worked harder, which was usually better than the guy that was loafing next to me." Busting butt, it turns out, is the backbone of chef life, a brutal, concentration-intensive job that requires 12-hour shifts worked late into the night, over weekends and holidays. Family-friendly it isn't, which also suits Jeurgens. "Most of us are childless. We have no life," she says of her small sect of female peers. "And that's OK. The restaurant is our baby."

She's not exaggerating. On a who's who list of Detroit-area women chefs, few are married and even fewer have chosen to raise children. Chef Mitzi Walsh is pastry chef at the Oakland Hills Country Club. She says it's not just the long, unusual hours that discourage settling down. "I always suggest to young chefs that they should move out of town," says Walsh, who cooked in New Hampshire and West Virginia before landing in Michigan. "To gain a lot of skills, you should work in a lot of different areas, which makes it difficult to hold down a family." Walsh is a mother of two, but waited until later to have children, when her career was already established. She also works with her husband and credits that fact with helping sustain a marriage.

Chef Kelli Lewton is owner of 2 Unique Caterers, which a local newspaper named the area's best caterer in 2006. Lewton also recently opened the organic-friendly food company Pure Food 2 U. Her single-mother success story is legend in the community and, while she acknowledges the help of her extended family with picking up the slack along the way, she's not afraid to take some of the credit. "I'm really tough," says Lewton. "I'm 43 and I work seven days a week, 12 hours a day. That's just how I'm cut. I'm cut to work hard."

Rigorous work ethics notwithstanding, Lewton admits women may be at a slight disadvantage for the physical demands of kitchen work — heavy lifting, intense heat and long hours on their feet. "There aren't many women construction workers, right? Women aren't as strong as men," she says. "That's not shameful, it's a fact." But Lewton feels it's more an issue of priorities than mere strength and stamina that's keeping women from taking over more kitchens while raising families, and says most people simply crave more in terms of a social life than she does. "You make choices. I wasn't a person who needed a lot of activity. I either worked or was home with my daughter," she says, and adds with pride, "For as much as I worked, my daughter never spent the night in someone else's home."

At West Bloomfield's Knollwood Country Club, Executive Chef Denise Caurdy-O'Connor agrees that the dearth of female executive chefs is largely due to individual choices. "It has more to do with your personality than being male or female," she says. "There are personal roadblocks that can get in the way of having a [family] life and challenge what you really want to do."

Caurdy-O'Connor doesn't have kids and waited to marry until a few years ago at the age of 41, after years working as executive chef at Ann Arbor's Travis Pointe Country Club and restaurants Palio and Gratzi. She's also quick to downplay popular images of knife-throwing, pot- and pan-banging tyrants running contemporary kitchens. "You can't yell and scream at anybody and expect them to get anything done."

She says that, while she did experience a little of that aggression upon first entering the industry in the late '80s, it didn't faze her. "Some of the male screamer chefs probably thought they could browbeat the female chefs a little bit easier. But my father's Lebanese, and a bit of a loud talker, and I was like, 'Whatever. I hear it all the time at home and I'm not afraid of you.'"

Caurdy-O'Connor is less concerned with sexism than what she sees as a lower standard of professionalism in food service culture in general, compared to other industries. "There are a lot of things that happen in the kitchen that would not happen anywhere else," she says, citing the heat, taxing hours and an air of intolerance.

Lewton agrees. "Respect for others is important," she says. "A kitchen tends to be a younger person's place, more transient. And sometimes when you put young people together with late hours you get a rowdy crew. I don't know that it's a testosterone thing. I think it's about lack of good manners." She says that though TV chef culture has given her industry more cachet, there is still work to be done. "I really feel that if we are going to bring our profession up to where we are getting a fair salary, we have to be like all the other people in the workforce that act civilized. If we act like barbarians, we're going to get treated like barbarians."

Through her involvement with the fresh food movement, Lewton sees the future chef as being more of a teacher, educating others on philosophies of food and working side by side with family farms. "That's what I see the next generation doing," she says. "Putting everything back together that's been disassembled by these huge commercial institutions that are selling packaged food."

While Lewton's goals may be a ways off yet, Chef Eve Aronoff is happy with the ways female chefs are already changing the atmosphere of kitchens. Aronoff trained at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France, the alma mater of late culinary icon Julia Child, and now owns Eve Restaurant in Ann Arbor. She emphasizes the harmony between Eve's front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house staffs, a famously tense relationship in most restaurants. She chalks the unity up to "less screaming and more communication."

Aronoff says, "When we see each other at the beginnings and ends of shifts, we hug, which is not very common." But despite the softer approach of women chefs, Aronoff adds, "we're just as serious about the food, just as passionate, just as intense — but warmer."

Caurdy-O'Connor credits one specifically un-male trait, lack of egotism, with her success, describing why serving homey staples is just as important as artistry. "You have to listen to your public and find out what they want," she says. "And when you give them what they want, they love you for it. It's easy to make people happy when you put your ego aside."

It's a point Juergens is happy to stress.

"Women bring a calmness and lack of ego to the kitchen. And they can cook from their souls better," she says. "All the famous chefs, they're inspired by their grandmother. We're nurturers. Policers. Natural chefs."

Daniel Johnson is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]