Restaurant News & Reviews

The heat is higher in restaurant kitchens for female chefs

Longtime Wichita chefs Joumana and Randa Toubia work in the Latour kitchen to prepare a catering order.
Longtime Wichita chefs Joumana and Randa Toubia work in the Latour kitchen to prepare a catering order. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita is home to a surprisingly large number of female chefs, many of whom hold degrees from top culinary schools.

But very few of them employ those skills in the kitchens of Wichita’s top restaurants.

That’s not just a Wichita thing. Labor statistics and piles of anecdotal evidence show that even though women dominate home kitchens, men still rule restaurant kitchens. Even though women make up 39 percent of restaurant cooks nationwide, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 18.7 percent of chefs or head cooks are women.

Tick off the names of Wichita’s most recognizable chefs, and none of them are female: Bobby Lane at Chester’s Chophouse. Jeremy Wade at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse. Jason Febres at Taste and See. Ben George at Intrust Bank Arena. Paul Freimuth at the Hyatt. Damian Lehman at Lakeside Club.

Wichita’s best-known female chef, Tanya Tandoc of Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, was killed earlier this year and always fought the perception she was a “cook” and not a “chef.” Latour’s Joumana and Randa Toubia, whose brother Antoine was a forefather of Wichita’s fine dining scene, are among the few female heads-of-kitchen in Wichita, and getting there has been a struggle at times, they say.

The reasons for the disparity, both locally and nationwide, are many, local female chefs say. Some decided that the long, late hours required by restaurant work didn’t mesh with their personal lives and their desire to have families. Even more said that restaurant kitchens, which tend to be male-dominated, testosterone-driven and pressure-filled, are not appealing work environments, and they’ve found other outlets for their culinary aspirations.

“Women get over it faster,” said Natasha Gandhi-Rue, a culinary school graduate and former national culinary manager for Williams Sonoma. “The adrenaline rush doesn’t keep you hooked, and that’s one of the reasons there are fewer females in prominent restaurant positions than men. I think we’re more practical.”

Chefs without kitchens

Gandhi-Rue left a job in mobile communications to go to culinary school. She’d started baking her own bread and realized that cooking made her happy.

She enrolled in New York City’s French Culinary Institute, now known as the International Culinary Center, and she was trained by some of the country’s top French chefs. From the first day, though, she knew that working in a restaurant kitchen was not for her.

Restaurant kitchens tend to be, especially in bigger cities, exactly how famous chef and television star Anthony Bourdain described them in his 2000 book “Kitchen Confidential” – boys’ clubs crowded with ego and filled with cussing and pressure to perform. Gandhi-Rue didn’t like it.

“I had no idea how hard it would be,” she said. “I’d be there with fish scales stuck to my skin, being screamed at, and thinking about the astronomical amount of money I’d paid to be there.”

But she did like the cooking and survived the kitchen, where the rules were clear: No crying in the kitchen. No sympathy for live lobsters headed for the pot. No flinching during meat butchering.

She got out of school and found a job that suited her temperament and abilities, working for Williams Sonoma as the national culinary manager, meaning she organized cooking demonstrations for stores around the country. She loved the job and stayed with it for 12 years, leaving only recently when the position was relocated to San Francisco. Gandhi-Rue, who has a 10-year-old and a husband who owns a local construction company, said the move didn’t make sense for her family.

Family considerations are another barrier for women chefs, Gandhi-Rue said. The most successful ones usually don’t have conventional family lives.

“Women are, no matter how we look at it, still in charge of the home,” she said. “When you work in a restaurant, you’re working nights. You’re working weekends. You’re working holidays. It doesn’t allow for a family base. It’s really hard, and you know there are some great female chefs that have been able to do it, but they have stay-at-home husbands or a husband that works from home or they choose not to have children.”

Gandhi-Rue said she’s noticed that female chefs often adapt by widening their views of culinary career possibilities. They write cookbooks. Start food trucks. Work in corporate situations that offer them 9-to-5 hours. Gandhi-Rue is a blogger who shares her kitchen adventures and tips at www.thehungryfamily.com, and she still teaches cooking classes or leads corporate team building sessions. She also has a gourmet kitchen full of 12 years worth of accumulated Williams Sonoma gadgets, and she regularly prepares elaborate French meals for Wichita friends.

“Yes, the restaurant industry is dominated by men, but there are so many other things out there that females do,” she said. “We have found alternatives that allow us to stay within our field and succeed and not have to sacrifice.”

Boy chef meets girl chef

John and Lexi Michael met in culinary school. Both were students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

After graduation, John immediately started working in restaurant kitchens and would pass through more than 20 of them before settling into his current job, executive chef and lead instructor for Butler Community College’s Culinary Arts program.

He confirms that the environment is not for the weak of stomach.

“There’s a lot of silly boyishness in the kitchen,” he said. “You call it ‘grab ass’ behavior. It’s not dissimilar to what you’d find in a locker room.”

Michael said he rarely had female colleagues, and there would never be more than two in a kitchen. Those who stuck with it and rose up the ranks were women who found a way to deal with the environment and could endure being one of the boys.

His future wife wasn’t one of them.

Lexi Michael entered culinary school with dreams of owning a bed and breakfast or a small French bistro. But the kitchen culture she encountered during her studies turned her off.

“There’s a very subtle exclusion that you feel,” she said. “I was one of two girls in a class of 15. You don’t get the in jokes. There’s a lot of ass smacking.”

Lexi went on to run a small kitchen in a California wine bar for about a year. She became interested in wine and and turned her attention toward front-of-the-house and sommelier work.

Today, Lexi and John have two young daughters. Lexi has a day job working in her family’s veterinary office. She’s about to get back into the kitchen, though, and will teach a class on the cuisines of Northern Europe at Butler.

Restaurant work just didn’t fit her personality, said Lexi, who describes herself as “a pretty humble Midwesterner.” Successful chefs have egos, she said, and they must trumpet their accomplishments.

The male-dominated kitchen dates back to the beginning of restaurants in France and Europe, John Michael said. Restaurant cooking was a craftsman position, and women were not even allowed to work in food production.

Some of that attitude survives even today.

“I think from just a modern-day perspective, most kitchens are intimidating,” he said. “They’re high pressure and testosterone-driven.”

It has been interesting, Michael said, to watch trends in Butler’s culinary program enrollment since it opened three years ago. At the beginning of each school year, he said, he tends to have more men enrolled than women. But the women are the ones who stick with it while the men tend to fall off. At the moment, he has two advanced classes of 20 students, and 14 of them are female.

Still, he said, he’s placed many of his male graduates in restaurant jobs. But not his female ones.

A lot of it, he said, is that his female graduates aren’t necessarily interested in kitchen jobs.

“I wouldn’t rule out social factors in TV shows and movies and things like that,” Michael said. “We’ve had so many food movies come out in the last decade, and almost all of them have a male protagonist. A lot of time, that’s the message being sent. Even when you look at Food Network, the female chefs are the ones being home cooks.”

“Burnt,” released in theaters last month, starred Bradley Cooper as an ego-driven, tantrum-throwing head chef in a big-time restaurant.

Naomi Watts portrayed his patient, talented sous chef, and some critics panned the movie for portraying her as a woman willing to stand by her chef and accept workplace mistreatment – instead of trying to take his job.

Have truck, will cook

Becca Amos was once a restaurant chef.

Her Wichita restaurant career started at Riverside Cafe, where she waited tables. She liked the way restaurants worked and told the cafe’s owner, Paul Cohlmia, that she’d like to have her own place someday. He put her in the kitchen, where she learned the secrets of restaurant cooking.

A few years later, Amos opened the Bay Leaf, a restaurant in Clifton Square that operated from 2007 to 2009 in the space now occupied by Ziggy’s Pizza. After she closed that restaurant, she became the executive chef at Green Acres, working from 2010 to 2012.

Amos loved being in charge of kitchens. She thrived on it. But when she decided to leave Green Acres, she realized what she had been missing out on.

“I was really married to the job,” she said. “I didn’t go to any games for my daughter, who is now 13. I didn’t participate in a lot of family activities. I really dedicated a lot of hours and time to making sure that the deli was thriving, that our numbers were growing and that people were happy.”

About a year after leaving Green Acres, Amos and her husband had a baby. Liam is now 2. He was followed by Rowan, born just three months ago. Amos said she realized that she’d put off growing her family because of work, waiting eight years between Liam and and his next closest sibling.

But she also realized she missed cooking, and like many resourceful female chefs, she came up with a solution. Amos, her husband, Christopher Gable, and her brother, Kevin, opened the Garden of Eatin’ food truck in late August, after months of truck building that was done just as Amos was about to give birth.

The truck allows her to keep cooking and keep mothering. Customers tall enough to peek in the window of the truck will see 3-month-old Rowan inside, napping or hanging out in her bouncy chair. Kevin even is working on building a custom seat that will offer Amos a space on board the trailer to nurse her daughter.

Amos is also able to keep daytime hours. If the truck goes out in the evenings, her brother and husband staff it and she stays at home, she said.

Unlike Wichita restaurant kitchens, many of the city’s food trucks are owned and run by women, including Kind Kravings, Let’m Eat Brats, Brown Box Bakery, Lynn’s Curbside Cookout, Ms Tosha’s Chicken, Funky Monkey Munchies and the Waffle Wagon.

“The food truck is your own, and you’re really able to be at home a lot more,” Amos said. “You can put your food in your truck, and your truck in your driveway. I think that’s why women are more involved in them. They’re able to balance that work and family a little better.”

Women in charge

Randa Toubia remembers a day, not long after her brother, Antoine, had put her in charge of the Olive Tree kitchen, when the dishwasher hadn’t gotten her bowl clean enough.

She had just made a shrimp dish in the bowl. She needed to use it to prepare a salad.

The dishwasher returned it to her quickly, and it still smelled shrimpy. Wash it again, she instructed him. He balked.

Antoine Toubia, the founder of Latour who is considered one of Wichita’s fine-dining forefathers, rounded the corner.

“You see this woman here?” he said to the dishwasher. “You do exactly what she asks you to do.”

Today, neither Randa nor her sister, Joumana – who now is the president of the company their brother founded – has trouble commanding respect in the kitchen. They’ve dedicated the last 30 years to keeping the business that their late brother founded alive and now oversee the in-transition Piccadilly, The Muse Cafe at the Wichita Art Museum and a busy catering company.

Both spent their lives working whatever hours the job required because they loved it, Randa said. The sisters, both in their 50s, never had children. Their staff became like family.

It took some time to master the skill of being a female in charge of a kitchen, said Randa, who says she and her sister have had to learn that bluntness and raised voices, common in their culture and not intended as a personal affront, don’t work with their American employees. Today, they have several men in the kitchen with them. But more are women.

Sara Henderson, 29, whom the sisters hired as a chef at The Muse Cafe a month ago, said she’s endured a long list of kitchen indignities during her culinary career.

She’s a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Seattle, and before her husband was transferred to Wichita for work, she held two high-profile kitchen jobs: one in the kitchen at Google’s corporate offices and one in a Hyatt kitchen.

At one job, Henderson said, she watched as a male classmate who had the same amount of experience was immediately given a job making hot foods while she was relegated to making salads. At the other, a male supervisor screamed at her so harshly because she didn’t salt her eggs that she made a beeline for the locker room, forbidding herself to cry until she got there. (Google’s female CEO dismissed that chef a short time later, Henderson said.)

Working for two women has been a dream, Henderson said. The Toubia sisters give her room to be creative and trust her with decision making.

Henderson said that female chefs have to stand up for themselves and demand respect. As someone with a passive personality, she said, she knows that’s easier said than done.

“Women will often show vulnerabilities,” she said. “But as women, we need to hold ourselves to a standard that shows everybody that we can do what men do. I think we’re on the right path, but I do think that women need to stand up for what they believe and show their skills.”

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