BY BELLA DU MOND
Respect and Resiliency: A Woman’s Path To Success in the Food Industry
Lisa Cole is the Head Chef and owner of Inspired Catering, a full-service catering company out of Hartford, CT. She is also co-owner of two restaurants, City Steam Brewery Café and Blue Plate Kitchen. She began her work in the industry at 16, working as a waitress at a local deli. She continued to work as a waitress and bartender throughout college and graduate school, and then decided to attend culinary school in Paris at La Varenne before starting her finance career. When she returned to the U.S. she decided to utilize her business skills in another way instead, starting her own catering company and developing a life-long career in the industry. She is a chef, a businesswoman, and a mother all wrapped in one. Balancing these jobs is not easy, especially as a female in a male dominated industry. Women in all levels of the food industry face constant passive and active discrimination, often in response to their valuable skills. Female chefs are forced to constantly fight for the baseline level of respect that is automatically given to their male counterparts in order to achieve the status they deserve in the food industry.
Lisa has an instinctive ability in the kitchen. No matter how many times I watch her make espresso brownies, mine will simply never taste the same. She cooks in the moment, rarely giving a thought to recipes. She can make an apple pie in the time it takes me to set the dinner table, a product of talent and practiced skill in the kitchen. While this is unfortunate for those who want to replicate her mouthwatering dishes, it is a skill to be in awe of. She uses cooking as an avenue to express her love, and as her daughter I have been the lucky recipient of countless loaves of chocolate chip banana bread, often snuck into my bag on the way out the door. However, her relationship with cooking is more complex than the scene I have portrayed here. Her passion for cooking is coupled with her unrecognized efforts to balance a strenuous career and domestic pressures at home.
Women’s talents are often under appreciated in the food industry due to the association of women and cooking in the home. Lisa says people often associate her with Martha Stewart because of her work. She refutes this, emphasizing that instead of delegating to others, she personally completes the majority of the physically strenuous tasks required by her job. She cooks for days on end, lifts coolers that would make most men wince, and does it all without complaining, swearing, or yelling at her employees. If women have to endure the same conditions as men, why are they given less recognition?
Noteworthy skills do not only go unrecognized, but are often suppressed when exercised by women. Lisa has always been a fast and attentive worker. These qualities are key to the success of her current businesses, yet she was not always given the opportunity to exercise them. When she began as a bartender in the 1980s, she was not allowed to work Friday nights; that was considered a man’s shift. When the restaurant she worked at had no other choice one weekend, she stepped in.
“I worked and I triple rang them [the male bartenders] on the register. And they never scheduled for that shift again. It was just a guy’s shift.”
The logical business decision would be to schedule Lisa for as many Fridays as she wanted, yet her boss chose to remain loyal to his male employees instead. It didn’t matter that she earned the restaurant three times the money of the male bartenders. Friday, the busiest night, was reserved for the men, regardless of profits. The power dynamic evident in this discriminatory distribution of shifts indicates a lack of respect for the abilities of women. Despite this roadblock, Lisa still prospered by placing profits above ego and embracing the role of a full service bartender during the shifts she was allowed to work. By being friendly and attentive, she eventually brought in a larger lunch crowd to the bar than any other bartender. She found her own way to succeed, but she still had to work around a system that suppressed her talents instead of highlighting them.
The intersection between respect and gender has transformed over Lisa’s career, but even in her current position of power she consistently feels disrespected. Recently, after advising male employees in one of her restaurants on what to bring to an off-site catered event, her advice was disregarded. The men arrived at the event unprepared, but they never admitted their mistakes; they instead relied on Lisa to show up and fix the situation. In her experience, women tend to be more detail oriented, so when men are in positions of power and delegate to women, the female employees naturally fill in the blanks. But when women in positions of power attempt to detail what is needed to male employees, they perceive the thorough instructions as petty and annoying. Perhaps women are so detail oriented in the food industry because they have to be. They have to be that impressive to be given a chance in a man’s world. It is not natural inclination that fuels a drive for perfectionism in the kitchen; it is a skill born out of necessity.
The acquired ability of women to communicate, as well as the work ethic instilled in them through climbing the very slippery ladder of progress in the food industry, makes them some of the strongest workers available. For example, Lisa’s efficiency and attention to detail are two characteristics that made her an exceptional bartender, and now make her such a successful chef. These traits are not inherently feminine, but they are traits that have been structurally instilled in women through centuries of domestic work. Since these talents are widely perceived as intrinsic, women receive little recognition, and are even discriminated against for possessing them at work.
Successful women in the food industry have no choice but to be tough. Women possess the traits necessary to succeed in the food industry, but they are passively and actively persecuted for exercising these talents. Due to a strong work ethic, female chefs are viewed as overly ambitious, not determined. Attention to detail is perceived as nagging, not appreciated as perfectionism. Lisa describes the chefs she knows as “tough cookies” out of necessity. Lisa’s position as an owner and chef has allowed her the flexibility to have a family, but most female chefs “live the man’s life.” They are often single without kids, demonstrating their commitment to work through essential elimination of a personal life. In an industry that awards men immediate respect, women often sacrifice key aspects of their personal lives to obtain this treatment. For women in the food industry, it’s nearly impossible to have it all.
Lisa’s ability to have a family is rare, and it comes with it’s own set of joys and grievances. She expresses her sentiments eloquently, stating, “The cooking women do is drudgery cooking. When men cook, even if it’s just a Tuesday night, it’s more of an event. They are inspired to cook, but we are obligated to cook.” Like Parkin discusses in “Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles,” women are expected to always have a meal ready for their families[i]. This often leads to anxiety, as a constant threat of failure looms in the background of each dinner. When daily meals are treated as an obligation rather than a favor, women lose out on the recognition they deserve for performing this important domestic role. However, along with this responsibility comes pleasure too. While not all women like to cook, Lisa believes that for those that do,
“It’s our way of loving people. It’s our communication. It’s our heritage. It’s what we will pass down in the future.”
Men tend to cook in a different manner than women. While women are expected to cook, men have expectations of cooking itself. For many men, cooking is not only about providing a meal for one’s family, but also proving their skills in the kitchen. As Guzman discusses, men expect recognition when they cook; they want their effort to be appreciated to an almost theatrical extent.[ii] Lisa’s views aligned with Guzman well, and she observes that in most cases cooking remains a dalliance instead of an expectation for men. The gender dynamic associated with home cooking is changing every day, but slowly. On the topic of progress, Lisa states, “The whole classic men grill and women cook has shifted, but the fact is everybody still goes out to eat on Mother’s Day and eats home on Father’s Day. That is not changing.” For female chefs, the job of cooking does not end when they clock out of work. They may leave their chefs whites at the door, but often a whole other host of customers awaits their arrival at home.
In both the home and industrial kitchen, this dynamic is not changing fast enough. In her piece titled “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?” Druckman points out that at the intersection of food and gender, the equation woman : man as cook : chef still dominates our mindset.[iii] This association is ingrained in our culture, perpetuated by the representation of female chefs in the media. Moskin highlights the disproportionate media recognition male chefs receive for their accomplishments, as they often receive public awards for achievements similar to those of their female colleagues.[iv] Unfortunately, the media attention women receive is centered on highly sexualized TV personalities such as Nigella Lawson and Giada De Laurentiis. As female chefs outside of television tend to be androgynous, media recognition is sparse.[v] This unrealistic portrayal of females in the food industry prevents female chefs from obtaining media attention for what should be recognized: their talents.
In a controlled work environment like her own catering company, Lisa is able to execute her culinary vision. She has reached a point with her all female kitchen staff where each woman can instinctively sense what needs to be done. There is never argument over paying too much attention to detail, and decisions are made with respect and communication. No environment is perfect, but an event run by Inspired Catering is well-run, beautiful, and proceeds with little internal conflict. There is no fear, no tension between front of the house and back of the house. Things go a lot more smoothly than in the restaurants, and Lisa believes much of that is due to her strong female staff. Women in the industry such as Anita Lo agree, emphasizing that female chefs prefer teamwork over dominance in the kitchen.[vi] In the female centric environment of Inspired Catering, Lisa’s skills are appreciated and she is able to flourish as a chef.
Lisa loves cooking bright, fresh food and providing her clients with a wonderful meal. Cooking is an art form; it is an avenue through which she can express her creativity. She has an instinct for cooking that not everyone has, and manages to make healthy food taste better than you ever thought imaginable. After decades in the food industry, she has made thousands of people happy. However, she has encountered many obstacles along the way, and most of them are rooted in her gender. The talents she relies on for success go underappreciated, forcing her to fight for a status that male chefs automatically possess. Her career has been stunted due to the constant discrimination she faces as a female in the food industry. At this point, the recipe for Great Female Chefdom is still missing an essential ingredient: respect [vii]
Main Image: Lisa Cole. Photo Credit: Gary Lewis
[i] Katherine Parkin,“Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles.” In Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
[ii] Pilar Guzman, “Hey, Man, What’s For Dinner?” New York Times, August 28, 2002.
[iii] Druckman, “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?”
[iv] Julia Moskin, “Change In The Kitchen.” New York Times, January 21, 2014.
[v] Druckman, “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?”
[vi]Charlotte Druckman, “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?” Gastronomica (2010): 24-31.
Druckman, Charlotte. “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?” Gastronomica (2010): 24-31.
Guzman, Pilar. “Hey, Man, What’s For Dinner?” New York Times, August 28, 2002.
Moskin, Julia. “Change In The Kitchen.” New York Times, January 21, 2014.
Parkin, Katherine. “Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles.” In Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.