The Surprising Truth Behind Sexism In The Kitchen

Photography by: Tuukka Koski.
A recent New York Times op-ed about the culture of sexual harassment of women who work at our finest restaurants, “Sexism in the Kitchen,” got me thinking about my own experiences as a female chef of over the last 21 years. Like many women in this line of work, I have experienced sexism from my male counterparts, and it has had far-reaching effects on my confidence and career. But the industry is slowly changing to include more women — a positive thing in any industry famous for being an “Old Boys Club.” At the same time, I have also witnessed a new, worrisome kind of kitchen bullying — women harassing other women — that feels like a huge step backward.

First, let’s start with a flat-out fact: A restaurant kitchen is a tough environment for anyone, no matter your gender. And I’m not talking about the feisty rivalries that make Top Chef so much fun to watch. A big part of earning your stripes in the kitchen is proving that you can withstand the abuse and pressure, like having a pan thrown at you for messing up an order or overcooking meat, having you hands thrust in the fryerlator because you’re scared to touch something hot, or being forced to eat your entire mise en place because it isn’t set up properly. This is how it’s been for years and continues, I would argue, in the majority of kitchens today. While all kinds of cooking staff endure this mistreatment, women have to put up with more of it — and still have a glass ceiling poised firmly over their heads.
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Most male chefs don’t respect their female colleagues no matter how well they cook or what they accomplish in the industry.

In my experience, most male chefs don’t respect their female colleagues no matter how well they cook or what they accomplish in the industry. I've felt this heartbreak myself: I have repeatedly been denied the opportunity to work in fine-dining kitchens, despite having credentials that matched (or even exceeded) those of my male counterparts. Just last year, when I was introduced to one of New York City’s leading chefs, a face that many have seen on Top Chef, he pointed at me, giggled, and asked, “Really, you’re a chef?” I wanted to tell him that I am someone who worked hard to put herself through culinary school, that I’ve worked in restaurants around the country — New York City, Philadelphia, New Mexico, California — over the period of about 20 years, but instead I held my tongue and kept my cool. In a restaurant kitchen, you learn quickly how to cope with the relentless sneering, teasing, and verbal abuse.

In my first job in 1994, I was repeatedly told by my sous chef that I was the first woman to work at that establishment — and I’d be the last. The next job I took, while simultaneously going to culinary school, was at a fancy patisserie, where the chef was an old French man and yelled all the time. He fired me after a week, demanding I leave immediately, and said I had no business being in any professional kitchen. When I finally landed a position that stuck, it was as a prep cook at a restaurant where my job consisted of, among other things, slicing a 50-pound sack of red onions and two boxes of cucumbers for the restaurant's famous bread-and-butter pickles, every single day for nine months. On the upside, my knife skills became stellar. That job gave me the foundation and confidence as a cook even though I was treated badly. It shouldn’t be that way, but it was.

Woman-on-woman sexism is a way to show off to the 'old boys' in the kitchen – a warped fight for popularity.

I learned to endure the jokes and lots of comments about my body — my fat legs, pudgy fingers, or facial hair. And I learned to stand up for myself with quick, witty comebacks. After some travel, some time living on the West Coast, having a child, owning my own restaurant, landing a spot on Top Chef — and then losing my restaurant in a fire — I returned to large kitchens in New York. I didn’t seek out any executive chef positions; I just wanted to put my head down and cook, and I started to notice some positive changes in the kitchen. A new set of young male cooks have become intrigued by and supportive of the women among them, which was a huge thrill. I watched as more and more women entered the scene, working their asses off, claiming spots on the line and pushing the boundaries.

Sadly, I also noticed something else: Among those women fighting to be respected by their male colleagues who dominated the kitchens, I saw many examples of women developing negative, snarky, and even abusive relationships with the other woman they worked with. Everything from vicious name-calling, to physical pushing on the line, to women shaming other women for their technique and skill — it was a perpetuation of the abuse we’ve historically experienced at the hands of our male colleagues. Even once I was promoted to sous chef, some of my female colleagues would flatly disregard my directives. Women bullying women is the new face of workplace sexism, and it is a huge disappointment. I think that sometimes woman-on-woman sexism is a way to show off to the “old boys” in the kitchen — a warped fight for popularity. It might also be an internalization of the second-class status females have traditionally had in the kitchen. Whatever the reason, I remember feeling angered when I would experience sexism from men, but when it came from women I just felt shocked and disappointed.
Photography by: Gentl & Hyers.
Ultimately, I decided to take some time off from restaurant life for two years. During my kitchen sabbatical, I focused on food styling, writing, and teaching. But the pull to work at a restaurant was strong, and I decided I was ready to lead a kitchen again. To do that, I had to build my team from scratch. I was looking for a very specific kind of cook: people who were positive and focused. And I figured that, as I was going to be the boss, I'd be able to trump sexism. Lots of men I worked with couldn’t take it; they walked out the door, more often than not with a few stolen knives. But after seven months of searching, I finally formed a team that I am so proud of that operates like a well-oiled — and mutually supportive! — machine.

As a female chef in a position of power, I know that I must set the tone to make sure that the next generation of women (and men) have a better, more positive, and safer workplace. Enduring sexism should not be a “right of passage” in any industry. It is discrimination plain and simple. After over 20 years of hard work, I have the opportunity to show my employees, colleagues, and peers what it means to work in a happy kitchen and a constructive environment. Maybe we’ll never change the entire culture of the kitchen, but we all CAN make a clear distinction between fast-paced, competitive, bad-ass cooking and actual sexism. I challenge all chefs to do the same.

Chef Camille Becerra is a NYC Chef. You can find her personal blog here.
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