There is a suggestive idiom that has solidified a place in history and woven its premise into the fabrics of many cultures. It has been the topic of debate beginning in the 19th century (according to documented history); it has been the basis of countless social and political movements; it has forged the idea of limited gender-related capability, both intellectually and physically; and its arguably negative connotation can now possibly be seen as taking the form of something more empowering, particularly to women pastry chefs, as this group of confident, creative, and fierce culinarians continue to give validity to the expression that, indeed, “a woman’s place is in the kitchen.”
My maternal grandmother was the first pastry chef I ever knew. She did not hold a professional title and her skills were not exercised beyond the walls of her modest domestic kitchen, but the results that were produced there are unforgettable. Every bite tasted of patience, dedication, nurture, creativity, and a desire to please those who would indulge in her sweet efforts — characteristics that the fervent women chefs of today’s professional kitchens showcase in their focus, while serving originality and innovation with a humble hand.
Many chef stories begin with a woman as the central character; usually telling of a heartwarming moment with a maternal figure, watching or helping her create culinary magic in the kitchen. Thereafter, a passion for cooking develops. Seeing as women are typically reported to be the motivational force behind a natural culinarian’s pursuit of a professional career in food arts, the questions have been coming to surface in the last several years regarding women pastry chefs, why they have been overlooked for so long, and their recent evolution in the business of sweets.
I was fortunate enough to be enlightened on this topic by some of today’s most impressive women pastry chefs. Aside from being remarkable culinary artists, their insight was riddled with passion, stitched with integrity, saturated with knowledge, and compounded with resilience and perseverance. There is a noticeable “sisterhood” of sorts among the understandings of these talented pâtissière, and a definite unified message of support for artistic recognition and continued overall change on a number of different topics.
The Only Body that Matters in the Kitchen is the Body of Work
The busy day-to-day of a commercial kitchen can be chockful of energy, commotion, and fast-paced preparation to meet the demands of the establishment. Much like the creation of anything beautiful, a bit of chaos, in many cases, is a necessary element – even in pastry kitchens. And in the midst of this pandemonium, a professional pastry chef does not only perform the tasks of an artist and cook, but a pseudo weightlifter as well – the latter being the darkness of the shadow casted on the greater culinary ability of women pastry chefs, and instead spotlighting her physical abilities in a challenging work space.
“There is a rough nature that accompanies the professional culinary world,” begins Mary Bonsall, pastry chef, PreGel International Training Centers – Chicago.
“Professional kitchens are very loud environments with lots of hot and heavy equipment, bulk ingredients, and sometimes the finished products tend to be very heavy. For a long time, it was believed that most women couldn’t hack it – couldn’t lift and move the heavy equipment or tolerate the burns and the intense environment,” Bonsall adamantly continues. “But we have proven that we are not just physically strong enough to lug the 50 lb bag of flour off the truck and fight through the burns and cuts on our hands, but that we are mentally and emotionally strong enough to be leaders; we have proven that as multitaskers and creative thinkers our place in the pastry kitchen is one of value,” Bonsall strongly concludes.
Undoubtedly, body strength is an important factor in the world of culinary arts in general, but Gloria Cabral, CCE, CWPC, MEd, MSM, professor of baking and pastry arts, Bristol Community College, advises that technology has been an effective advantage for women in the pastry field saying “Women were looked at as the pastry cooks because of the delicateness and attention to detail of pastry. Men were used for the doughs and bread because of ‘muscle’ size. But because of machinery and skill, women have started to dominate all aspects of the pastry field.”
This explosive domination is one that has set a noticeable wave of excitement rushing through the industry, leaving women pastry chefs excited to be recognized for their talents and what they bring to the table as professionals.
“I’m mostly glad about the fact that we are slowly changing the stereotype of what it means to be a chef,” says Caroline Kolaja, executive pastry chef, Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, Chicago, referring to the stereotype of a loud and boisterous pastry chef often portrayed by males. “To be a chef, you have to be strong, hard-working, and assertive. Even with the strongest work ethic it is hard for women to get the same respect as men, but women in pastry are showing that they are willing to fight for it,” Kolaja concludes, emphasizing that the prefix of ‘Chef’ in their professional titles showcase skill not gender.
A Chef by Any Other Name is Not the Same
To achieve a dream is a personal feat that takes dedication, hard work, sacrifice, effort, and sometimes emotional turmoil. But is all of that effort and overall achievement somewhat diminished when labels are associated with the total point? Society often groups people into specific categories — via gender, race, political affiliation, or sexuality — that makes them easily identifiable and open to everything from objectification to judgement in support of, or against. The grouping of “women pastry chefs” holds the same bearing.
Nevertheless, our group of professional artisans offered reflections on this topic as wide-ranging as their skills. There was a sense of contentment with just being happy to be a chef in the kitchen without giving much consideration to being called a ‘female’ pastry chef. An air of pride was present in reference to the tenacity of female chefs in a male-dominated industry, as expressed by Victoria Burghi, pastry chef, PreGel International Training Centers – FL, saying “To be able to endure 25 years + in the kitchen, it is quite an accomplishment,” despite the fact that the veteran pastry chef’s gender is referenced before her profession.
In general, some of our group feels comfortable with the woman pastry chef title when she is referenced as part of this large group of gender-specific professionals; others have always considered themselves equal to their male counterparts, while some don’t think about the woman aspect being added to their professional titles until media brings attention to the marriage of gender and skill. But regardless of media coverage, when it comes to their professional passion, this collection of scientists/artists/mathematicians/cooks, consider themselves only chefs — no gender-related adjective necessary.
Erin Ducker, chef instructor, Sandhills Community College, Pinehurst, NC, simply states “I honestly don’t think of myself as a ‘female’ pastry chef. I’m a Pastry Chef. Period.” Cabral adds emphasis to that sentiment stating “I do not like to be considered a female pastry chef. I like to be referred to as a Chef. I feel like it segregates and minimizes my skills and talents.”
This sentiment highlights the ongoing premise that women have to work harder in the professional pastry kitchen to earn the same level of respect that their male peers are more easily given. In this sense, Ducker notes that though women pastry chefs are definitely getting more recognition, “it will be a while before we are seen as equals by everyone in our field.” This notion is seconded with an understanding almost sullenly expressed by Bonsall, wherein she states “I am a pastry chef and the battles have been fought but the war doesn’t end. Every day until the end of my career I will have to prove that I belong; that I am worthy.”
What Doesn’t Kill You Can Only Build You
It is said that in the past, the women who made it to the professional kitchens were “thick skinned and hard-headed,” according to Bonsall, forging the way for more delicate, artistic women to find their places in the kitchen. But as it turns out, the women chefs of today have no problem showcasing some hard-headedness, too, in their ongoing battle to obtain the respect levels of an accomplished chef despite gender.
I learned that, for these women, there wasn’t one particular “war” story they could utilize to enlighten me because they find themselves on the battlefield every day. Despite their individual levels of experience, education, or work ethic, each one has had to endure the suffer of feeling devalued in some form, but remained resolute in the pursuit of her goals.
Amy Andrade, special service team manager at PreGel America, and former pastry chef, once found herself as part of the minority in a commercial kitchen. Andrade was one of two females on a large staff of male kitchen workers, where the executive chef would condescendingly refer to the young women as sweetie, sweetheart, baby, honey, etc. “Hardheaded” in her own right, two weeks was long enough for Andrade before she displayed the gumption to have a firm talk with said executive chef, firmly explaining that those unwarranted monikers not be lost on only the females in the kitchen. “I asked that he stop calling us by these ‘nicknames’ immediately or I would go to HR. Also, I gave him the option of calling all the males in the kitchen by the same name, too,” Andrade recalled. Ultimately, the executive chef chose option A and stopped.
But scars from obtaining respect didn’t end at unwarranted pet names; they also came from a deeper place in instances that caused a mark of self-doubt, as experienced by Ducker.
“A couple of years ago, there was a chef that contradicted me, undermined my authority at every turn,” Ducker begins. Unsure if this treatment was because she was a woman or half the chef’s age, either way, she found it was demeaning. “It made me question myself and my abilities,” Ducker admits. Nonetheless, the irrepressible chef realized what she had to do. “There’s always going to be someone who thinks they’re better than you; who thinks you aren’t good enough. PROVE. THEM. WRONG.”
Whether they are yelled at, cursed at, or cornered into a tight space; demeaned, demoted, overlooked, talked down to, bullied, or had their creative visions ignored, showing grace under pressure, always accepting a challenge, and leaving their egos at home have helped this talented group persevere.
Confidence and belief are also important factors in the lives of female chefs from very early on. Alicia Stevens, assistant pastry chef, PreGel International Training Centers – NC, shares an experience that showcases why self-reliance is so necessary toward progression.
“A big experience that helped shape me took place during my culinary training in a summer program with ten other students — all male,” Stevens begins. She tells of the unmistakable vibe of awkward wonderment from her fellow colleagues, seeing as she was the only female in a mandatory program that taught the fundamentals of meat cutting, which is not typically considered a course that a female would excel in. According to Stevens, after a fellow classmate introduced himself and proceeded to broadcast all the competitions he had won, and how easy the meat cutting program would be, as the only “girl” in the class, Stevens almost immediately felt as if she had something to prove.
At the end of the course, Stevens earned the highest rank in the class, attributing her success to this theory: “No matter what the other guys thought or said, my success relied on me and my passion.”
Some women pastry chefs such as Natasha Capper, executive pastry chef, Piedmont Driving Club – GA, credits luck to not experiencing the horror stories told by some of her female pastry colleagues. “I think it had a lot to do with my attitude towards the men I worked with. I never saw myself as anything other than their equal, or as having the potential to rise to their level based solely on my own hard work and effort.”
Generally, overcoming the gender inequality issues that tend to plague women in most male-dominated fields is no easy feat, and demands speaking up, working ten times harder than her male colleagues, and one more important factor, as explained by Tina Wilson, sales consultant – Central South, PreGel America, and former pastry chef. “I learned to stand firm to my beliefs and get the respect I deserved, not as a woman, but as a chef.”
Hard Work Bears Opportunity
It is certain that in the age of gender bias, wage inequality, and a sense of oppression over women in commercial kitchens, major strides continue to happen despite a culture that has long viewed women as second-class. Notable occurrences such as Susie Morrison becoming the first female pastry chef at the White House, and Certified Executive Pastry Chef Kimberly Brock-Brown being the first African-American female inducted into the American Academy of Chefs — an honor society for chefs — are only two examples of the momentum female pastry chefs are beginning to experience on high-profile levels. In addition to these instances, Chef Nancy Silverton became the first woman to win a James Beard award in 1991 for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Nominated for this same prestigious honor in 2005 was Chef Elizabeth Falkner, an inspiring chef that Wilson admirably mentions during her relay of extraordinary contributions to the pastry world by women, saying “Women have come a long way in the pastry field. They have been a dominant force in the evolution of the new wave of desserts we have seen come about in the past several years, from Sherry Yards’ elegantly simplistic take on local ingredients to the eclectic, artistic style of Elizabeth Falkner.”
Notably, 2017 will be the first year that PreGel’s distinguished 5-Star Pastry Series® — a program created for advanced pastry professionals — will feature a female pâtissière. Chef Lauren V. Haas will join the ranks of a normally all-male line up of award-winning, world renown culinary talent including Michael Laiskonis, Francisco Migoya, Antonio Bachour, and John Kraus based on her practiced skill of creating unique flavor combinations, and showcasing beautiful style and modern flair towards baking and pastry.
However, high-profile ranks and newsworthy achievements are not all that is to be admired among our panel featuring artisans of baked goods. These women also hold the pastry chefs who mentored them, and the ones they work with daily in high-esteem; women and men who inspired our group of pastry artists to be the chefs they are today (and will become).
To this Capper relays “The generosity of almost all the talented pastry chefs I’ve gotten to meet is always amazing to me. I’ve never met a pastry chef who wasn’t willing to offer advice. It hasn’t always been that way but I’m so grateful that the tide has turned and we realize that the success of each individual makes us greater as a whole.”
Indeed it takes the tenacity of this gracious group of bakers to continue realizing their dreams, while understanding that the positive influence drawn from the professional colleagues they hold in such regard has no doubt helped to elevate the woman and the chef behind each one of their esteemed uniforms.
The Clothes Don’t Make the Woman, They Highlight the Chef
“Come along if you feel like a room without a roof.” You may recognize these lyrics from the hit song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. However, “happy” is more than a song to Capper, seeing as it’s where she goes when she puts on her chef’s uniform, explaining that “I’m proud of what I do and what I have achieved; the uniform is a symbol of that pride. I find it easy to get lost in the creative process and it’s my ‘happy place’.”
But the uniforms emit more than a sense of happiness among our distinguished chefs; the crisp, white fabric of an embroidered chef’s jacket and toque — the tall brimless hats worn by chefs — brings forth an undeniable sense of empowerment for a challenging job well done. Bonsall says, “I had to prove to a lot of people that I deserve to be here and that it wasn’t all sugar and sunshine along the way.” She continues “As a chef you have to be an artist, scientist, calculator, leader, paper pusher, creator, eater, baker, mediator, sales person, designer, teacher, janitor, coffee drinker, athlete, and cook. That is a lot of responsibility under one hat. It takes a very resilient and fluid person to do all of these things so when I put on my toque I am putting on all of these titles rolled up into one.”
In terms of a pastry chef having to be an “athlete”, Karen Lin, pastry sous chef, Eataly, NYC, encounters that very feeling when she’s adorned in her whites, saying “This might be a bit funny but I always imagine myself as an Olympic athlete competing as soon as I put my whites on (most of the time track and field usually running 100m) because it’s so intense.”
Though Burghi feels a sense of responsibility when dressed in her uniform, Kolaja experiences a feeling of freedom from the external expectations of womanhood, stating “When I put on my uniform, I feel focused and powerful. I feel like I am able to leave behind so many expectations of being a woman such as being pretty, dainty, quiet, and submissive. I am able to focus on the task at hand and see my success as things I create and accomplish instead of the way the rest of the world perceives me.”
The overwhelming sense of gratitude this group feels for the opportunity to practice this delicious art on a daily basis is evident, almost as much as their excitement to be recognized and inspired by the imaginative delicacies of up-and-coming female chefs with the click of a button.
It’s More Than Social Media
We examined the idea of why women pastry chefs are beginning to get more consistent attention in media and the industry as a whole. Part of the general consensus among our group is that women are just “awesome”, but, in large part they also credit social media for providing a platform for the growing network of professional pastry chefs to emphasize the evolution of what used to be just a piece of cake or pie at the end of a special meal.
As Kolaja details regarding the subject, “I would like to think that women in pastry get so much acknowledgement because, with technology, people are able to exchange ideas, allowing everyone to improve at much faster rates. And social media also makes it possible for anyone to promote their own art.”
For chefs, this digital platform allows them to have creative control not only in the kitchen but in terms of overall promotion, which is collectively important to this group as well, as Capper relays, “Social media puts more of the power in the hands of the individual, not just traditional marketing and promotional avenues.”
Social media has indeed proven to be the ultimate avenue for self-promotion and fangirling the creations of fellow female pastry brethren, while also granting followers a constant preview of individual professional growth as well.
In general, the underlying tone regarding women’s growth in the pastry field as chefs and beyond will spawn from individual growth. “I will continue to seek new knowledge, share the knowledge I have, and help other likeminded individuals grow and flourish,” Capper begins. “I would like to believe that more women in pastry will benefit female chefs as a whole,” she thoroughly continues. “The whole
industry has some fundamental changes that need to come about in order to keep talented women in the kitchen, if that starts with pastry chefs, then all the better,” Capper firmly concludes, cheering on the continued evolution of women pastry chefs — the current class and the generation to follow.
The Future’s so Bright…
Yes, women are indeed a minority in the pastry field; yes, there is a pay gap; yes, there is inequality; but yes, there is also support and well wishes of ongoing success for women in pastry as a whole.
This inspirational panel is cheering for women to continue to strive for recognition and equality in the kitchen in terms of levels of respect and pay. These conscientious chefs are also rooting for the pay gap between men and women to shrink, as chefs have the second highest pay gap in the professional work force at 28.3%, according to
www.eater.com, with a national average of 21.4%.
More female representation in pastry competitions and awards is another shift our panel would like to see happen more often, along with qualified women in all aspects of the culinary/pastry field in more executive roles. Elaborating more on this issue, Cabral explains “Over the many years of industry, roles have been gender, ethnic, and sexuality based. I would like to see qualified-based jobs. Maybe a female MOF,” Cabral concludes, with the desire to realize a woman in the prestigious position of Meilleur Ouvrier de France — one of the highest honors in the pastry world.
Aside from seeing more women owning their own businesses and hiring women, our chefs would also like to be a part of making a bigger difference in the industry through leadership, nurturing young cooks and pastry chefs, and being an inspiration, all while working to ensure that the pastry industry doesn’t get put aside as an extra and extravagant part of the culinary field.
The Icing on the Cake
In a sweet industry with mounds of reported sour notes, this platoon of pastry chefs keeps marching on to greater things armed with unyielding work ethic, perseverance, determination, and grit. They are committed to their artistic craft with the intention to continuously dig into the reserves of fortitude in their ongoing saga to mix, bake, knead, pound, lift, proof, glaze, plate, lead, serve, etc., and earn just as much respect and opportunity as their male counterparts.
To alter the words of the late great American Poet Laureate Maya Angelou a bit: You are women, phenomenally. Phenomenal women of pastry.