This year Seattle hosts the annual Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Conference, May 6–8; a gathering of national industry speakers and presenters, all female. Open to the public (tickets available here), the event will gather some of the heaviest-hitting women food professionals from across the country and Seattle, including Maria Hines (Tilth, Agrodolce, Young American Ale House) as keynote speaker. Among other Seattle speakers will be culinary business superstars Kathy Casey (Dish D’Lish) and Jody Hall (Cupcake Royale).
Particularly fun should be the WCR Food Games, in which teams of women chefs will compete—under the mentorship of celebrity chef coaches—in three rounds of secret ingredient-driven, head-to-head challenges. “It’ll be a friendly, fun competition,” says Hines, who as co-MC of the games roped her buddies Rachel Yang (Joule, Revel, Trove) and Holly Smith (Cafe Juanita) in as celeb chef coaches. (Which means: Smith already won her James Beard award; Yang’s up for one this year). As for the mentorship component, Hines believes it reflects the spirit of the whole conference: Women helping women.
Because the fact remains: Women need a leg up in this industry. “Statistically it’s true, more men are in leadership roles in restaurants,” Hines says, recalling the bad old days early in her career when the chef in one San Diego restaurant where she worked pantry wouldn’t promote her to the hot line (“He said I was too short”). The all-male crew in the restaurant in France where she staged overlooked her entirely until she started arriving early, staying late, and generally “running circles around them.”
“There was definitely prejudice back in the day, especially with chefs from the Old Country,” Hines recalls, allowing that female chefs who are older, like another James Beard award winner Tamara Murphy (Terra Plata), had it even tougher. “Things were easier for me because of everything she had to go through,” Hines says.
Gradually things improved somewhat, as Hines worked her way up through a pretty even split of male and female mentors. “At Eleven Madison Park [under opening chef Kerry Heffernan] it was me and two other sous chefs, all of us women, and we were just running that shit,” she smiles. “And that’s how I see it. You shouldn’t in your mind think about whether you’re male or female, gay or straight, whatever. The only thing you should be measuring yourself on in the kitchen is the quality of your work.”
And what, generally speaking, is the quality of a woman chef’s work? Hines offers that in her experience, and very generally speaking, women tend to be more challenged by confidence, decision making, and conflict resolution. “I’ve heard from the male sous chefs in my kitchen that they’re really glad they’re not one of the women,” Hines laughs. “They say I’m harder on women. And I think they’re right. I’m trying to toughen them up, get them ready. It’s my form of favoritism.”
What are women chefs better at? “I think there are different gifts for sure,” Hines continues. “I think women have better attention to detail. I think they try harder—maybe because they know they have to. I think women are generally better at listening.” She notes that women face another career hurdle specific to their sex, when they stop out of their careers in order to have children—a pursuit that’s uniquely incompatible with the long, laborious, and largely evening hours of a chef.
Matt Dillon, who owns several Seattle restaurants including Sitka and Spruce, believes that mothering ability becomes a woman’s advantage. “Women chefs…they just have a thing that men cannot bring,” Dillon says. “It’s a touch, I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like men can’t carry a baby in their bodies. Cooking is about nourishing people, about creating an experience that goes beyond the plate.” For men, Dillon offers, cooking too easily becomes a matter of “swinging your dick around and showing how cool you are.” As for women? “They can take themselves out of the equation,” Dillon says.
For more chewing on all of these issues and more, don't miss the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Conference.