Four prominent queer women chefs discuss how their identities shape their work experience, and the challenges facing queer women in the food industry.
Recent sexual harassment and assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have ushered in a crucial moment for women across the nation. Last week, actress Alyssa Milano prompted waves of women to join a decade-old campaign when she invited victims of sexual harassment and abuse to respond on social media with the words “me too.” Scores of women, including Ellen DeGeneres, Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, and congresswoman Gwen Moore have lent their voices to the #metoo movement, which has become an urgent call to action.
“People should know that this is not just happening in Hollywood,” Maroney wrote on Twitter. “This is happening everywhere. Wherever there is a position of power, there seems to be potential for abuse.”
Largely dominated by men, the food industry is no exception. Celebrity chef John Besh resigned yesterday after bombshell sexual-harassment revelations were published by the New Orleans Times-Picayune over the weekend. As Michelle Zunter, a former waitress, recently wrote, sexual harassment is routine at many restaurants. But sexism is hardly confined to the front-of-house. Professional kitchens have long been gendered. A disproportionate number of women end up as pastry chefs—a position associated with the sweet, delicate, and refined—while line chefs and executive chefs are almost always men.
The number of top-ranked female chefs in the world remains insignificant, said Jennifer Berg, associate professor of food studies at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “It’s barely changed in the last several decades.”
Women in positions of power in the kitchen are often questioned for their choices. “There’s an element of guilt associated with women in kitchen positions in a way that there isn’t with men,” Berg explained. “She needs to explain and rationalize how she has chosen this career, which is arguably physically demanding, [with] really long hours, unconventional hours.”
Queer women setting foot in the culinary world often find themselves in “no man’s land,” Berg explained. They’re often excluded from pastry work, but still discriminated against for being female in the realm of executive chefs.
In fact, anyone who is not a cisgender man can often face difficulties fitting into traditional kitchens. Berg suggests that queer men and trans people may face even greater challenges than queer women, who are often expected to play masculine roles in the kitchen, “even if it’s a performance.”
And Berg said LGBTQ women in the food industry bear a unique burden: the expectation of militancy. “Where there’s a LGBTQ chef who identifies as a female, the assumption is she’s going to be an activist, a vegan. The assumption is that she’s going to stand for something,” Berg said. “It’s such an unrealistic expectation, and an unfair vantage point to put someone in.”
Civil Eats spoke with four prominent queer women chefs about how their identities have shaped their experience in the industry. Their reflections shed light on the breadth of experiences facing queer women in the culinary sphere.
Preeti Mistry, Oakland, California
Chef Mistry and her wife Ann Nadeau own sister restaurants Juhu Beach and Navi Kitchen.
The first fine dining kitchen that I worked in was the Sugar Club, and I was the only woman in the kitchen. Everyone’s first assumption was that I wasn’t going to carry my own weight. My immediate response to that was, “Okay, I’ll take the hardest job.” I’d come in a half hour before my shift just to clean the fryer. I’d clean the hood and the filters at the end of the night.
At the same time, I did experience a certain amount of masculine privilege, and I have throughout my career as a line cook, in that I can very easily be seen as one of the guys.
They’re not checking out my ass, they’re not trying to flirt with me. They can very easily even forget that I’m actually female. My sous-chef would be like, “You’re such a dude.” And he meant it as a compliment. That’s how most of the guys saw me.
The Myth of Diversity
Just cause you have a Mexican dishwasher doesn’t mean your industry is diverse. Who’s in charge? Who owns the restaurants? Whose name is on the door? Who’s getting the promotions? Who’s being seen and getting taken under the wing of the chef? By and large, that’s still straight white men.
My kitchens are kind of like Opposite Day. There’s a lot more diversity ethnically, racially, and in terms of gender and sexual orientation. It’s incredibly intentional. Some of the people who are more used to a traditional restaurant environment don’t last in my kitchen.
Lots of chefs and restaurateurs say, “The kitchen’s just the kitchen. That person just needs to get a thicker skin and get over it.” They would rather [respond that way] to a gender-nonconforming person or that woman who’s experiencing sexual harassment, than just say to the macho line cooks: “Hey, fucking quit it.”
An Evolving Identity
I identify as a lesbian, and also as queer and gender-nonbinary. When I came out in 1994, I had no idea what trans or gender-nonbinary was. Living in San Francisco, I immediately identified with what I saw around me, which was this term butch lesbian. That was where I felt I belonged. But I also knew that when I was four years old, I had insisted to everyone that I was a boy.
In the late ‘90s, early 2000s, all my friends started transitioning and becoming guys. I struggled with that for a couple years, trying to decide if that was the right path for me. I think at some point, I realized just because I identify as female and use the pronouns she and her doesn’t mean that I have to be this feminine person.
But I still identify really strongly with my trans male friends. I share their experience every day when I walk into a public restroom or I’m in an airport security line. I am part of that larger family.
Our new restaurant, Navi Kitchen, has a lot of social justice artwork. My wife got this beautiful piece of artwork that’s on the door to our bathroom and it says, “Your gender is beautiful.” I cried when she showed it to me. Because I don’t think people really understand how challenging it is every day for people who are not cisgendered.
Elise Kornack, Ulster County, New York
Chef Kornack and her wife, Anna Hieronimus, owned—and were the sole employees of—the acclaimed Brooklyn twelve-seater, Take Root, for four years, until it closed earlier this year.
I worked at five restaurants prior to opening Take Root. Then my wife and I moved to Brooklyn, and it became clear to us that we wanted to do our own thing creatively. The experiences I had in other kitchens prepped me for the experiences with customers at Take Root—but not enough.
In our restaurant, I was interacting with customers on a very personal level. Our relationship was on the forefront of everything, and that became very difficult, to say the least. We were putting ourselves out there very publicly. And so we were very vulnerable to people’s ignorance.
Marriage on Display
One time, there was a family that came to eat at the restaurant with two younger kids. When it became clear that my wife and I were married—and that we’d be serving them and cooking—it was very obvious it made them uncomfortable. They ended up deciding to get up and leave. I recall feeling disappointed that I didn’t have the guts to say something.
Moving forward, we had incredible diners. I feel very lucky that most of them were not only accepting of our relationship but celebrated it. But there were one or two occasions when heterosexual men hit on my wife, not knowing that we were married. There were people who asked if we were sisters or roommates, never expecting that we were wives. People messed up my gender multiple times, and asked my wife if I was her husband.
And their reactions, their tone, and the way they asked the questions seemed extremely off-putting and very offensive, especially because most diners don’t ask their servers personal questions in the way they were asking us. There were a lot of situations that felt very invasive, and we did not feel that these things would’ve ever happened if we were a straight couple.
It was very difficult to not let those things seep into our relationship. The biggest challenge was watching each other feel bad at work, or be mistreated, and not be able to defend each other, because we were in a professional setting. But it never made us question our relationship or who we were.
Navigating a Shifting Identity in the Kitchen
When I first started in the industry in college, I was comfortable telling people I was close to that I was gay, but I did not tell everybody. I wasn’t as masculinely presenting as I am now. I realized I was more at risk of being treated the way that other women are treated [in restaurants] because of how I was presenting myself.
As I became more comfortable with myself and wanting to look the way I felt inside in terms of feeling more masculine than feminine, I saw how people treated me differently. The men in the kitchen felt a little bit more of a sense of camaraderie. I didn’t have to fear being hit on or treated in a sexual way.
Deborah VanTrece, Atlanta, Georgia
Chef VanTrece is the owner and executive chef at Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours.
I think being queer and being African-American comes with a lot of responsibility in the culinary arena. I don’t look like a lot of the other chefs. I am often the only one of this identity in a room, and it can be quite lonely sometimes. But I remember that I have been blessed. I represent those who haven’t made it yet and I have a responsibility to represent them well.
The first time I dated a woman, I hid it from my friends, my family, and definitely from my clients. I owned a restaurant back then called Edible Art. I had some very high-profile clients. I didn’t want them to say, “Oh no, I don’t want her food,” or look at me weird. One day, it dawned on me that I was doing this person who I cared about, who was out, an injustice by not letting people know we were in a relationship. I felt that if people couldn’t accept me for the person that I was—I was still the same person with the same talent—then I didn’t need to do business with them.
The Pressure to Defy Stereotypes
I first identify as a human being. I am a woman married to a woman, so most people consider me a lesbian. I was originally married to a man and grew out of him. I believe love comes in all forms. I don’t have a lot of use for labels.
Trying to get away from some of the stereotypes—that’s a big pressure for me. I don’t present myself as a butch woman, but there is that stereotype that women in the kitchen [should be] masculine. If you’re strong and you run a tight kitchen, the assumption is either you’re butch, or you’re a bitch. I’d rather be called efficient.
A lot of things are said behind my back. Sometimes I forget, but reality will snap me back every now and then. There are people out there who want to know, “How can she be as good as they say she is if she’s a Black lesbian?” At the end of the day, all I want to be is a great chef.
A “Man’s Profession”
As a chef, the problem is not as much being African-American or being a lesbian. It’s being female, period. In all male-dominated industries, the women have to deal with sexual innuendos and comments. As a lesbian, I don’t hear it as much, but I still hear it. I hear from men who say they’re going to “turn” me [straight].
I grew up with my mom and my grandma cooking. They could tote and lift heavy amounts of food. So I’m not quite sure how, all of a sudden, it’s a man’s profession. When it comes to getting paid for it, cooking becomes a man’s profession that we women can’t handle.
Karen Akunowicz, Boston, Massachusetts
Chef Akunowicz is a partner and executive chef at Myers + Chang.
When I was on Top Chef, it was an important moment for me not only to be out, but to be clear and vocal about being a queer woman. I talked about my spouse, who identifies as genderqueer, and used gender neutral pronouns when talking about them. I felt that it was an opportunity to bring that to a mainstream audience and to speak to another part of the LGBTQ community.
An “Invisible” Identity
I identify as a queer fierce femme, which to me, is an important part of my personal, political, and gender identity. Using the term femme is an important verbal way of making an often invisible community visible.
Finding femme helped me begin to understand my queer femininity. Femme identity is not especially rooted in physical appearance. Although my outward appearance is important and purposeful. I express my inner femme with outward signifiers: pink hair, boots, winged eyeliner, stilettos, fascinators, and a modern pin-up aesthetic.
Femmes can carry the markers of what is most often associated with straight femininity, so our queerness is often ignored. If I don’t intentionally come out as gay to the barista at my coffee shop, my hairdresser, the person interviewing me, or new staff members, the assumption is that I’m interested in attracting and sleeping with men.
I can remember always being assumed straight, and feeling invisible in the gay community. But things are really different now. Now I have a community of badass femme friends, as well as people who love, support, and value the femmes in their lives.
The Biggest Challenge
Sexism still exists. Plain and simple. Most of us who are female and working as chefs put our heads down, work hard, and don’t look back. But the fact that we choose to ignore it and persist does not change the fact that it exists.
I was recently cooking at an event, and when a male friend and colleague and I arrived at the space, the person in charge addressed my friend as “Chef” and me as “young lady.”
The lack of flexibility, combined with almost nonexistent family leave policies, makes being a chef a seemingly impossible job for women who want to work and have children.
There are all sorts of problems for women in the restaurant industry, but the most destructive aspect surrounds pregnancy. This is an issue that affects women working in virtually every position within the restaurant world, from a fast casual waitress to line cooks.