The Melting Pot of New York Kitchens, Straight from the Chefs’ Mouths

First it was chef Amanda Cohen responding to a twitter feed about lack of female representation at an event overseen by the Basque Culinary Center; she called shenanigans on her blog, listing a hefty set of names while sipping her morning coffee, which we then helped her expand on Serious Eats. Then, a few weeks later, Time came out with a “Gods of Food” feature in which no female chef made the cut, with editor Howard Chua-Eoan only making the situation worse in an interview with Eater’s Hillary Dixler by saying while “there was no attempt to exclude women”, he felt “women really need someone—if not men, themselves, actually—to sort of take care of each other.”

Members of the food media started hounding female chefs for their opinions, with Cohen retorting on Eater and Gabrielle Hamilton writing an Op Ed for the Times. It forced me to take a harsh look at my own numbers in the interview column I’ve headed up at Serious Eats for over two years now, which covers executive-level chefs or those that run their own businesses; out of 103 interviews I’ve run or have ready in the can, 75 have been with men and 28 with women. Since then I’ve added another dozen or so ladies to my count.

And the sad thing is, my numbers were far from the worst out there: 21 of “GQ‘s 25 Best New Restaurants in 2014” are led by men. Paula Forbes at Eater crunched the numbers on the current James Beard nominees; while the number of women represented in the Outstanding Chef category has increased yearly since 2010, women overall still sit at around 20%. In another piece, Dixler tracks representation at many major food events in the United States, pointing out that at our 2013 Wine and Food Festival women made up 19% of the chefs involved (and that event was not nearly the worst in regards to representation).

And then there’s ethnic diversity in the kitchen. How do we quantify ethnicity on the executive level in our diverse city, which is a melting pot of multi-generational cultures?

Without generalizing too much, most chefs I’ve spoken with have pointed out that kitchens are rather egalitarian. As the Waverly Inn’s Ashley Merriman said, “I think that the rest of the world could learn a lot from spending some time in kitchens; it doesn’t matter what your sexuality is, what your gender is, what the color of your skin is, what language you speak, how old you are, how tall. If you can get the job done, for the most part, nobody cares.”

Mother Jones magazine’s Tom Philpott found himself in a point of conflict when he was at the Basque Culinary Council event and noticed just what the ladies on that Twitter feed did; only five of 29 chefs present were women. After that he figured out that only two of the world’s 50 Best Restaurants picked by the “much-hyped” San Pellegrino / Acqua Panna list were run by women… and both of those worked in tandem with a dude. So, like Dixler and Forbes and myself and many other writers out there, he decided to go straight to asking chefs to weigh in on the imbalance.

A few weeks ago Mother Jones and Philpott led a panel discussion with “a few of the pioneers who are pushing this long-overdue change” at Marcus Samuelsson’s Ginny’s Supper Club, with chef Floyd Cardoz of North End Grill, chef/owner Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, and executive chef Charlene Johnson-Hadley of Samuelsson’s outpost American Table Bar and Café joining Samuelsson on the panel.

Here’s what I captured that night.


How Being a Minority Affected Early Days as a Chef

Marcus Samuelsson: When you realize you are alternative and you don’t try to be mainstream, there lies your mystique and power. The uniqueness lies in the conversation you can have when you’re abnormal, and the opportunities you’ll have in changing the footprint will make a much more interesting conversation. So you have to be clear about which conversation you want to have, about what impacts matter to you; it took me a long journey to realize that. Now, being the abnormal is not my greatest asset, because my work ethic and where I have been is, but it’s one of the things that makes my journey unique, and I want to hold onto it.

Charlene Johnson-Hadley: I just think you need to get past yourself and not think of yourself as “the different one.” That shouldn’t be your focus. Your focus should be following your ambition, making sure you are doing what it is you want to do, and making yourself an asset to wherever you are.

Gabrielle Hamilton: I never wanted to be in this industry; I fell into it out of necessity. Yes, there were horrible white men leading the kitchens and the hardest part of that was the contortions you put yourself though to figure out your place in that kitchen; should I be a chain smoking, dirt-talking motherfucker who can crank it out?! Or should I be the dainty female with lipstick and can you help me lift this stockpot because I just can’t?! One of the hardest parts is finding a viable self that you can live with, take home and respect at the end of the day. I will say that I’ve also worked with people who had this kind of horrifying blanket of “women are the greatest,” which is just as erasing, frankly, as not being seen in the first place. When someone’s like “women are wonderful” I’m like, “I don’t know, some are and some aren’t.”

Floyd Cardoz: I came to the United States and couldn’t find a job because I was Indian, and many restaurants didn’t give me a chance. I had nothing in common with the guys in the kitchen, so I learned about football and baseball so I’d have something to talk to them about. It was hard, because I felt that I could cook as well as anyone else, but once you get into the whole kitchen world, you understand it and you love it. I had people tell me that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do—I couldn’t take Indian food to a new level. I said, “I’ll show you how.” No other Danny Meyer restaurant opened with three stars. We did.

On Gender in Food Media vs. Restaurant Culture

Samuelsson: The majority of people who have shaped how we eat in this country have been women, it’s just when we consider high-level restaurants that this flip flops; look at Alice Waters, Leah Chase, Sylvia [Woods[ in this neighborhood, Julia Child, and what Gabrielle represents. True game changers have constantly been a blend between women and men. It’s like, if you look at sports, yes, the hundred meter dash is perfect for the man from Jamaica, but the whole Olympics is not just about this one guy. So it’s a little bit of that; media focuses on one type of restaurant, but food is much, much larger, and that’s where women still have the biggest impact.

On New Wealthy, Educated Chefs

Hamilton: Now we have the whole new problem of, “I used to be an architect” and “I have a trust fund” and “I have so much more money and power than you’re ever going to have in this world.” And you have to go up to that guy and say, “You know, your sauce is a little salty.”

Samuelsson: I know that scenario, but the power weirdness will not change. I have the luxury of being so confused in my identity, so I can always fall back on being the crazy African. Like, you can always fall back on being the crazy woman! Maybe the “crazy African” will make me more powerful, because you’ll never know what is going to happen!

Is Education Reshaping the Industry?

Samuelsson: You have to be open to hiring both the person who doesn’t have a traditional background but maybe was cooking all their life for their family; they’ve always cooked, but they haven’t been recognized because, as a culture, we don’t recognize what we’ve always taken for granted. That’s why cheerleading will never be big in the black community, because anyone can cheer and dance. Everyone in church can sing. Cooking is one of those things; my aunt can cook or my uncle can cook. It was never associated with “it can be a profession.”

Where is the Industry in Promoting Chefs to Higher Levels?

Cardoz: Often we as chefs think we do enough to let people know who we are. We’re in the kitchen and happy to be in the background, rather than stepping forward and saying, “This is who I am, and if you want to know about me I’m happy to tell you that.” There are many chefs who don’t know how to do that. You have to make yourself accessible to people.

Johnson-Hadley: The people who are confident in the kitchen are the people who are not looking at you or paying attention to you. There are tons of talented cooks giving 150%, and they’re comfortable with that. That’s why you don’t see them—they don’t feel a need to take that step forward. And a lot of them are not even taught or pushed to take that step forward, to say, “Look, you’re awesome, and people need to know what it is that you do.” That concept doesn’t even cross their minds.

On Food Gods

Hamilton: I wrote an Op Ed piece in the Times about it and I’m going to not speak here, because what I did in that piece was say, “Hello brothers! Where are you? Can you speak for us, please?” Because of course I can speak on my own behalf, and dive in with my fists in the air, but what do you think about how there were no women? I open it up to the men of the world.

Samuelsson: I think that it’s giving Time too much credit. Honestly, it says that cooking has now arrived to fit into Time Magazine, whatever that means. I don’t know, they’re behind about most issues, so it’s a reflection of where they’ve been. I’ve never looked at it and been, “Oh, yeah, Man of the Year!” Look at that label. MAN OF THE YEAR! Hello?! I’ve never looked at Time to get inspired.

Hamilton: But it is bigger… I’m not like, “Well, if I’m not on that list it must not be a very good list.” But I don’t want to put down the source and not deal with the bigger problem at some point. And we have to.

Samuelsson: I think that the source was one-noted. It just shows that we live in a very multi-faceted world and that they didn’t do their homework. So if they didn’t do their homework, why even pay them the respect? Do the homework, and then I’ll respond on the article. They didn’t do their homework, so they deserve zero attention on it. Zero.

Cardoz: I just ignored it because I didn’t think it was right. There are many chefs who should have been on that list. It’s just a list, it’s like the boat that the tire company comes up with; who made you God to tell us which are the best restaurants in the world? I’d say 50% are very good, and 50% are disappointing. It doesn’t make it right or wrong.

Samuelsson: I’m very conscious of what I point at, and I’d rather point at a crab guy on the street who I think is more revolutionary than a “Best Of” list that doesn’t teach me or the consumer that much.

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