Cooking Up a Storm: The Women Chefs Who Led the Way in Professional Kitchens

Cooking Up a Storm: The Women Chefs Who Led the Way in Professional Kitchens

April 04, 2023

During my decades as a female financial advisor working with female clients I have watched the rise of women chefs in an industry formerly crowded with men. As with many industries that were traditionally male-dominated, professional cooking has been turned on its side with women entering the field and adding their “flavor” to the pot, so to speak. 

As with women in other fields, through Financial Coaching, Retirement Planning, and Investment Management, my clients know their future is brighter working with a female advisor who understands what it’s like being a professional in a male-dominated industry. 

Women in the professional kitchen is a touchy subject for some. In many ways, it is a natural profession of our history as primary caregivers. In others, it is an excellent example of how men dominated a field for way too long, considering our talent and the aptitude of our gender. 

Regardless of your personal belief, we live in an era where women restaurant owners and celebrity chefs have revolutionized the industry. Innovative meals, sauces, and creations tantalize our taste buds as they fly across our social media fees or dance in front of our noses as they are delivered across a new fusion restaurant. 

What most do not realize is being the master chef of a fancy new nightspot is not just spatchcocking a chicken. You have to have whip-smart leadership capabilities to maintain your kitchen like a well-oiled machine. That is almost exponentially harder in today’s anti-immigration, a low-wage environment where it is next to impossible to afford or find good workers. However, the pure grit and determination of women to push the food industry forward are what we tip our toques to the many women chefs that helped us get here. 

A Quick History 

There is no argument women have been cooking for centuries. It wasn’t until around the 19th century that we began to see female-led kitchens take off. Much of this had to do with women not being allowed to go out to dinner without being accompanied by a man. Thus the Temperance Movement was born, which encouraged moderation or total abstinence of intoxicating liquor. Then came the national Prohibition of the 1920s and 30s. With public intoxication down to a bare minimum, suddenly, women were hitting the public dining scene harder than ever. Who's to blame them? 

That shifted the natural supply and demand of restaurants. The heavy meat and port-laden stews of male establishments turned to more discerning pallets of seafood, fine dining, and confectionary delights. It was common to see new ice cream and ladies’ refreshment saloons opening all over the coasts of the US. 

Then, like most historical records, the Great War occurred, and women were pushed into factories across the country. That meant there was a massive demand for establishments serving women more than men. As the war came to a close and women left factories, we spread out to other careers emboldened by our newly discovered financial freedom. Thus was born the established female restaurant. 

The Women that Brought Us Delicious Delights 

Now that we understand how restaurants have shifted to accommodate our needs, let’s look at some of the women that got us there. 

1937 – M.F.K. Fisher

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (that’s a mouthful) was a refined food critic that lambasted any restaurant unwilling to serve women. She openly spoke about how the love of food and public interaction was not restricted to the joy of men, but the full appreciation of all genders. If you were on her hit list of restaurants, you had better serve women. 

1945 – Buwei Yang Chao

Want to know how Chinese cooking became accessible to the US? Look at Buwei. Terms like “stir-fry” and “potstickers” come from her 1945 Chinese cookbook How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. This introduced incredible dishes and culture to the American zeitgeist that was impossible otherwise. 

1961 Julia Child

The world flipped on its head when Master the Art of French Cooking came out and made Julia Child a household name. Then she began her TV career on PBS and transformed the way we look at the passion of cooking. 

1965 – Ruth Fertel

Welcome everyone to the advent of Ruth’s Christ Steak House, a New Orleans staple that showed women could not own a successful restaurant, but do it so well that international interest grew to a fevered pitch, requiring the owner to travel the world to open new locations. 

1971 – Alice Aters

Alice is the reason we have the whole farm-to-table movement. It was her 1971 Berkeley, CA restaurant Chez Panisse that celebrated freshly grown produce locally sourced in the food we eat. This culminated in her receiving the National Humanities Medal in 2015 from then-President Barack Obama. 

1991 Nancy Silverton

Nancy was the first female to be named Outstanding Pastry Chef by the James Beard Foundation – a typically male-oriented organization. Her LA Italian restaurants became the talk of the town and led to 10 cookbooks, charity work against hunger, and much, much more. 

What follows after these significant points are a slew of glass-shattering events, from the first female-owned restaurant on the Las Vegas strip to Stephanie Izard winning Top Chef as the first woman ever. 

The fact is, this industry is still rapidly evolving as it accepts the reality women have just as much, if not more, capability in the creation of mouthwatering food and cuisine. 

Challenges Facing Women Chefs 

Of course, all that notoriety does not come without its faults. Sexual harassment is still rampant in most restaurants across the country, with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United finding nearly 60% of women working in the industry had experienced an incident. 

Then there are the typical pay discrepancies we are used to hearing in other industries. Women typically earn about 78 cents on the dollar compared to men in the same chef position. This pay gap quickly expands for women of color. 

Most of these challenges can be overcome if we integrate more women into leadership positions within the culinary world. Having shows like Top Chef feature more women and organizations or institutions supporting the creation of meals headed by women will topple the last few remaining pieces of glass as we soar even higher. 

Conclusion 

Women have been making significant contributions to the culinary industry for centuries. Women have played a vital role in shaping the culinary world, from the early female chefs who paved the way for future generations to the contemporary trailblazers breaking barriers today. 

However, women in the culinary industry still face significant challenges, including sexual harassment, pay disparities, and underrepresentation in leadership positions. These issues must be addressed to ensure that women can achieve their full potential in the culinary world. 

By raising awareness of the contributions of women in the culinary industry and supporting initiatives to promote gender equity, we can create a more inclusive and diverse culinary world that celebrates the talent and passion of all chefs, regardless of gender. 

It would help to have more financial resources available to these critically hard workers. That is where our team at Meyers Financial Services can help. We are a female-led organization of wealth management professionals helping women at every level of their careers creates a solid financial foundation to explore retirement, security, and investment like a new restaurant. 

Book a consultation with our team today and let’s expand your resources to the next time a woman-owned and operated restaurant is open, you have the funds to enjoy every last morsel. 

Book a Call today and lets discuss your options

´╗┐Lillian Meyers CFP®, CDFA®, EA is a Financial Planner for Women in Sonoma, California helping clients live their best life through the use of financial planning, investment management, and other sophisticated financial options.