Belles in Hell's Kitchen

Santa Fe chefs share insights and experiences

Will work for hand lotion

My mother, a PhD in Women's Studies, finds my obsession with food bewildering. "How can anybody care so much about all that?" she groans.

As writers Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page say: "Food has become our national obsession".

Chefs now hold more intrigue for the American public than ever before, as evidenced by a rise in restaurant revenues and the phenomenal success of food-related media. A 2005 article in Nation's Restaurant News mentions the ubiquity of the "culinary tourist" and the increase in the mainstream's "overall consciousness" as it pertains to food.

Santa Fe has seen some welcome new faces as well as a steady migration of chefs between restaurants. In local literature, coverage seems fixated on the perennial big boys and media darlings, but staying focused and out of the limelight are some of the city's humblest and hardest-working chefs, who happen to be women—and they're not pulling any tricks out of their toques.

A quick, online image search of the word "chef" results in a dozen curlicue-mustached tubby cartoon men. Say "chef" to anyone who has relished the dark and stormy antics of Tony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay and at its most clichéd, the scene conjured includes a sweaty, X-rated, pirate ship that is fueled by adrenaline and testosterone and lubricated by booze and elbow grease.

The 10 highest paid food celebrities are eight male professional chefs and two women who describe themselves as home "cooks," the distinction being that neither Paula Deen nor Rachael Ray run kitchens. Deen's Web site even informs visitors that she hopes her recipes will elicit memories of "mama's kitchen," which is not necessarily a tempting walk down memory lane for one and all.

Why are so few female chefs drawn to the helm of restaurant kitchens? Many believe the explanation is the crazy hours and militaristic physicality of the work, but isn't the field of emergency nursing, which poses similar challenges, run by women? Granted, there are global, sociobiological and cultural implications that can illuminate these statistics.

Antoinette Bruno, Editor-in-Chief of, writes, "It's a funny thing for women to fight for the kitchen. Culturally, women were expected to cook but professionally the kitchen was dominated by men."

The S Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants 2008 guide has only two female-run restaurants on it: South Africa's Margot Janse at No. 50 and Chez Panisse's Alice Waters at No. 37.

Women have more of a presence in the pastry kitchen, where they comprise roughly 77 percent of all pastry chefs and bakers. Taxing as it may be, the work tends to be more flexible, with the added benefit of coming home in the afternoon smelling like cake versus falling into bed at 3 am wrapped in the essence of fried onion.

Salary survey reports indicate that as of August 2008, women still comprise only 10 percent of the Executive Chef positions in the US and make an average of 17 percent less than male peers in the same position.

But does the industry push women out of leadership roles in the kitchen, or are women self-selecting themselves out?

"It's a grueling business," chef Mu Jing Lau of Mu Du Noodles says of her 13 year-old Pan-Asian mecca. "Restaurants need a full caretaker. I'm totally obsessed with my restaurant but it doesn't make for a well-balanced life and I wouldn't recommend it lightly."
According to Chef Mary Nearn of Fuego at La Posada, "Restaurant kitchens are not as appealing to women. I don't know why. Many of the women I've tried to recruit through culinary schools seem repelled by the restaurant lifestyle."

Is there a media bias against female chefs or is it a level playing field? "Gender isn't as relevant as somebody's skill set," reminds Chef Michelle Roetzer, part of a driven team of chefs—all but one of whom are women, who run the Culinary Arts program at Santa Fe Community College.

Do you have to be a better chef as a woman to earn the same status and respect as your male peers? Chef Kim Müller of La Mancha at The Galisteo Inn says, "There's this preconception that women can't take the pressure or the stress of a restaurant kitchen, but I've always felt like I've had to work a little harder to earn respect."

When asked if they think there is an inherent difference in how women and men cook, the chefs answers are remarkably similar. Müller says, "Great women chefs are more inclined to keep food in its purest, simplest forms. Male chefs can often complicate things. Is it genetics? Who knows. Look at Thomas Keller versus Alice Waters."

Roetzer agrees, "I think that men try to force their will on their ingredients. Women tend to work with their ingredients."

Theirs is a widely-held viewpoint, as shown in published interviews with industry chefs of both sexes: Boys play with toys and women let Mother Nature do the talking. Nearn takes a more reductionistic approach: "The common thread is passion. I think that my food reflects the simplicity I strive for in life."

Nearn wonders if it's not so much media bias as it is women's reluctance to self-promote to the degree that male chefs do. After speaking with her, a second glance at the profiles of Santa Fe's most highly-lauded male chefs highlights one constant factor: the presence of a woman working by their side. Many of the women are co-owners and most of them are married to the man behind the stove:  Geronimo's PR powerhouse Jennifer Rios, Coyote Cafe co-owner Sarah DiStefano, Amavi's Heather Sellers and Maria Creighton of The Compound.

Could it be that a woman's work ethic, insight and intuition are the key to a well-oiled machine? Maybe, but now the question is how to get everyone to notice.

Santa Fe Reporter

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