There’s been a lot of change for women in the culinary world over the years. What used to be an industry that deemed it unacceptable for women to even dine in restaurants now has a growing number of notable establishments led by them, many of whom have earned James Beard Awards and Michelin stars. Yes, progress has been made, and it’s thanks to the countless female chefs around the world who have endured the harassment, misogynistic culture, and habit of ignoring women’s achievements altogether in the workplace. They’re continuing to overcome those obstacles to prove that they are, in fact, just as capable of excelling in this historically male-dominated environment.
That’s not to say that there’s not a long way to go. Far from it, given the glaring inequities that still exist today — not to mention the constant stories from women who still experience toxic, abusive, and hostile behavior from men in the kitchen. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 22.8% of chefs and head cooks in 2021 were women, while in 2020, Forbes pointed out that just 6.3% of the head chef positions at prominent U.S. restaurant groups were held by females. Considering women made up 48% of Culinary Institute of America’s total undergraduate enrollment in fall 2020, according to U.S. News, those numbers are disappointing, to say the least.
That’s exactly why it’s important to continue to highlight the female chefs in the industry by not only discussing the challenges they’ve faced but their incredible achievements and their vision for the future. In honor of Women’s History Month, TZR did just that by reaching out to three women making waves in the culinary world. Here are their stories, as well as their thoughts on the state of the industry, how it’s changed, and where it’s heading.
Claudette Zepeda, consulting chef at VAGA in San Diego known for her bold approach to regional Mexican cuisine, was raised in the culinary world. She spent much of her time growing up in her aunt’s restaurant in Guadalajara and gravitated toward the industry once she was able to work in high school. Still, Zepeda tells TZR that she wasn’t aware of this world’s biases before entering the food world. “I went in a bit naive; all I knew [was] that cooking is what made me happy.” Unfortunately, it didn’t take her long to get a harsh dose of reality. After a few quarters in culinary school, she dropped out due to financial constraints and eventually landed a position in the pastry kitchen at a fine-dining restaurant, where she started to experience the rampant inequities firsthand.
“My first pastry chef spoke to the women in his kitchen in such a demoralizing way,” recalls Zepeda. “I remember having to wash our own dishes, and that’s where we all took turns crying to [hide] that we were ‘emotional’ when he would tell us something we made was awful or would throw our prep away.” Zepeda also says that because she was a mom (and usually one of the only mothers on the team), many wrote her off or didn’t put much stake into her being successful.
Zepeda says she handled these challenges by not handling them. “I kept showing up,” she says simply. But over time, she explains, she learned that the old-school “be as tough as a man” approach is not the best way to get results. “It's how you create cyclical trauma in people.” That’s why she now leads kitchens with what she calls a more maternal approach: “All my staff essentially become my ‘kids’ and we run a family unit rather than a business,” she says. “It's unorthodox but beautiful.”
While Zepeda has worked to foster a respectful environment for everyone on her own teams, she recognizes that there’s more work to do in the industry. “I still believe we have a ways to go when it comes to pay; it's definitely not where it should be, especially in the pastry world,” she shares. “Representation is better than it was 20 years ago. Respect, however, has its good and bad days from my vantage point.”
As for where she sees things going? While she says that women are still not receiving the same opportunities as men in the ownership and capital area, she does believe that “more women are being given the opportunity to showcase their talents.”
Serena Poon, a celebrity chef, nutritionist, Reiki master, and founder of Just Add Water and Culinary Alchemy, originally studied nutrition at University of California, Berkeley, but sought a deeper understanding of using food as medicine when both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer. So, she went on to earn the Grand Diplôme at Le Cordon Bleu before training to be a Reiki master.
Being the oldest child in a first-generation Chinese family, Poon says she was initially most concerned that choosing culinary school over law or medical school would disappoint her family. However, she continues, her passion for healing people through food was “was stronger than any fear of cultural and generational disappointment,” and she followed that path without hesitation. It was upon entering culinary school that she experienced a different perspective. Not only did Poon realize that her gender mattered, but her size did too.
At the time, the chef explains that she had lost a lot of weight from the stress of caring for her parents. “Due to the physically taxing nature of working in a commercial kitchen, the assumption was that I could not do what others could do, what the men could do,” she says. “I knew I had to work harder, do extra, and excel to overcompensate for those preconceived notions.”
Poon also says that the fact that men outnumbered women in the space and that they weren’t treated equally was evident. “I had a few male instructors who were very supportive, but I also had a few male instructors who behaved like the stereotypical French head chefs depicted in film — dismissive and domineering,” she says. “So, I thought I had a sense of what working in the real-world kitchens outside of school would be like.”
That said, she was met with more unexpected challenges with her first job working for Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. She describes the atmosphere of the mostly male kitchen as the typical “locker room” environment. Thus, she often had to balance ignoring the crass talk or acting like “one of the guys,” fending off harassment, and not being taken seriously unless she performed at a higher level than her male counterparts. Poon also says it took “weeks of patience, teaching, and training” to earn the respect as an equal and leader of men junior to her in the kitchen — something that carried over into her time as a personal and private chef and in catering services. “I was often put into ‘boxes’ based on my outward appearance and gender, so extra effort and over-delivering value and excellence in final product and service were paramount to the growth of my referral-only business.”
Since entering the culinary industry, Poon says that there has definitely been a professional learning curve in handling the challenges she faced. “At its onset, as both a female and a junior chef, in addition to my cultural upbringing, I was more hesitant in speaking my voice and standing my ground.” But as her success in the business grew, her confidence level and comfort with setting boundaries also rose.
Fortunately, she’s also seeing change in the industry, with more women entering the kitchen professionally. “I think much like the broader environment, women’s voices are starting to be heard in a historically male-dominated field.” Personally, she says, she’s also had more culinary opportunities and ways to share her knowledge as the industry has evolved. “The world is more open to the female voice and the healing and nourishment that comes with this voice in a position of leadership,” she says. “Feminine and masculine energy can both offer so much to every creative space, and it's a really beautiful thing to see this energy start to come into balance in the kitchen and beyond!”
Sophia Roe, a chef, writer, and Emmy-Award-nominated host of Vice TV’s Counter Space, describes her start in the culinary industry as one of necessity. Roe began her career in a Vietnamese restaurant in Florida, where she says she learned to love the experience of being in a kitchen as well as how to use a knife. “From there it was like, this is the only thing I know how to do now because I'm 20 years old and I've only been doing this,” she tells TZR over the phone. Thus, the rest of her complicated journey began — from working in different restaurants to a stint in culinary school to private chef and catering work to a role in makeup (yes, really) to going freelance and beyond.
It may seem like Roe had a master plan in place and fearless ambitions to get where she is today, but according to the chef, she didn’t have the luxury for either when starting out. “There was no I'm scared about the work I do,” she explains. “No — I was scared that I wasn’t going to be able to pay my bills.” Worrying about the challenges that come with working in a male-dominated environment was something she simply couldn’t afford to do.
That doesn’t mean she was exempt from them. “When I first started, you had to be really tough, because there were a lot of men in the kitchen,” she recalls. “And it felt like you had to emulate that to stay working in kitchens — to adopt that sort of rough and tough way of communicating and talking.” So, she dealt with that environment in the way she knew how. “I came from a background that was so unhealthy. I was used to getting yelled at,” says Roe. “It matched my toxicity. That energy was like — I know what this is. So I think that helped me in a lot of ways.”
Still, Roe is quick to say that she’s seen things improve in that aspect. “I feel like it's much different now. There's so much visibility. When I say my story, it's so doomy and gloomy, and I just want to be like, ‘No, but it's better now!’”
But it’s not only the atmosphere of the kitchen that’s evolving. “Visibility-wise, people of color and women are just now getting the token of being acknowledged,” she says. “In the United States, for a very long time, the ‘best of the best’ has been centered around men. And now we're finally like, hold on a second, everyone chill. Because there are a lot of women in the room with completely different perspectives. Completely different palates, and coming with a completely different angle. Women have always brought an incredible perspective to food that I only see growing and growing and growing.”