As an Asian American woman, I have always been keenly aware of the lack of representation of those who look like me in the media I’ve consumed. However, I’ve never really turned that same attention to the underrepresentation rife in the industry providing the very food I consume. From gender and racial inequity among workers to cultural appropriation of foods to the supposed superiority of European cuisines, there’s a lot to unpack related to diversity and inclusion in the food industry. As the last week of Women’s History Month, I’ll be discussing representation of women in the field. However, I will be sure to continue the conversation related to other issues of diversity in dining, especially in light of the increased racism and hate crimes towards the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
On International Women’s Day earlier this month, Burger King tweeted “Women belong in the kitchen” to promote the scholarship they’ve set up to support women pursuing a culinary profession, sparking controversy over their use of the sexist trope. According to the Washington Post, the campaign for the Burger King Foundation’s Helping Equalize Restaurants scholarship also included a full-page ad with the phrase printed in the New York Times. They’ve since deleted the tweet and apologized for the ignorant messaging.
“We hear you,” Burger King UK said in their apology Tweet. “We got our initial Tweet wrong and we’re sorry. Our aim was to draw attention to the fact that only 20% of professional chefs in UK kitchens are women and to help change that by awarding culinary scholarships.”
I appreciate the sentiment of the scholarship and the intent to raise awareness. Yet, the incident and conversation around it reminded me of the ingrained expectations of gender roles that continually disadvantage women in all aspects of life, even after we gain certain legal rights – although those are important, and we should still continue to advocate for such protections and guarantees. Using such provocative phrases certainly spark conversation, but less so about the barriers women face and further contribute to harmful stereotypes. There are more conducive ways to advocate for and raise awareness about women in underrepresented professions, like I hopefully do here.
In the household, women have been stereotyped as the provider of food for their families, slaving away at the stove to have dinner ready for when their husband returns from work and the kids from school. Fortunately, this narrative shifted as women entered the workforce and gender equality became more acknowledged in society, but the idea still has strong influence. Why is it that mothers are often cited as some of the best cooks in people’s lives, but we rarely regard women in the restaurant industry, especially in fine dining?
“I came up in fine dining, and most of the time I was the only female in the kitchen – and every time, the only African American person,” Nyesha Arrington, chef-partner at Native in Santa Monica, California said in article for Rachel Ray Magazine. “When I got my first executive-chef job, it was difficult because my number two was 10 years older than me and male. He looked at me as an African American female who didn’t know what she was talking about. It took a year for me to change that culture.”
As reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor in 2020, only 18 percent of the total chefs and head cooks employed in the country are women. The lack of diversity is also most certainly an intersectional problem, which Arrington touched upon and that I’ll explore in future weeks: in comparison to 65.2 percent of chefs and head cooks identifying as White, only 14.7 percent identify as Black or African American, 16.7 percent as Asian and 24.4 percent as Hispanic or Latino.
When women enter the professional sphere, they’re subjected to similar biases as in other professions — they’re viewed as too docile to hold their own in a cutthroat kitchen, or feel the need to assimilate to their male peers in order to come out on top. Colette in “Ratatouille” is super cool, until you realize her speech about being the only woman in the Gusteau’s kitchen is invalidated to her being relegated to a love interest and token female (#JusticeforCollette).
Women in the food industry – especially women of color – are dismissed for their inherited style or traditions, even if they possess similar professional training or years of home experience that is unique and authentic. As we’ve been combatting in the United States for years, women are still trying to break out of the private sphere mold.
“I did a tasting dinner, and they chose all three females to cook the vegetable and all three males to cook the meat,” Arrington said, “despite the fact that she had cooked all manner of proteins at a triple-Michelin-starred restaurant.”
I’ve fortunately seen a proliferation of women dominating the food influencer and cooking scenes on social media, allowing women to circumvent traditional processes to pursue their passions in food. However, even then, they may still experience pigeonholing, with some users commenting for the women to stick to home cooking or expecting them to exude a certain persona.
“She’s good at cooking – for a girl,” a critic, instructor or other chef may say, including the caveat other women have heard all too often.
Beyond the barriers of professional advancement in the food industry, the wage gap is also pervasive. According to a research study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, “women and workers of color are largely concentrated in the lowest paying segments and sections of the restaurant industry.” It’s no surprise they are being undervalued for their work throughout the industry, and so, we should make an effort to advocate for women in all of the positions.
“It’s also about having female owners and managers,” Samin Nosrat, Iranian American chef and writer of the cookbook “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” – also adapted into a Netflix docuseries. “Giving women power is important.
I’ll be honest, I don’t have too many specific solutions. But what I do know is being aware of our biases and the lack of representation is the first step. People underestimate how much underrepresentation affects them until they realize how uncomfortable or unsupported they feel in certain spaces. So let’s turn to supporting women in the industry, so future generations can feel compelled to pursue their ambitions.
Besides Nosrat, other women in the food industry I admire are Executive Chef Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn, the first female chef to earn two Michelin stars; Ina Garten, A.K.A. the “Barefoot Contessa”; Sohla El-Waylly, who I’ve watched in YouTube videos from the Babish Culinary Universe; Cristeta Comerford, the former White House executive chef and fellow Filipina; Christine Ha, winner of season three of “MasterChef”; and Anita Lo, the first challenger to win a battle on “Iron Chef America.” That’s just a teaspoon of the world of talented female chefs out there. So order from women-owned restaurants and bakeries. Watch that YouTube video with Rie from Tasty. Follow those food influencers on TikTok. And be sure to thank the women in your life who cook and feed you.