When We Say “Kitchen Equality,” What Do We Mean?

Can we say that we have gender equality when the restaurants we frequent for our soul-nourishing meals are unevenly populated with more male than female chefs? Perhaps you might find the question pop into your mind as you are seated at your table. Additionally, how well-represented are chefs who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color)  in the food and beverage (F&B) industry?

The notion of gender equality is well-established in terms of how people identifying as different genders still possess equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities. However, what we mean by “kitchen equality” remains under-researched, supported, and often taken for granted. In a gender-equal and racially blind society, there would not be barriers placed upon the employment, responsibilities, and career advancement of chefs from diverse backgrounds. Forbes in 2020 highlighted a dreary picture: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women occupy only 6.3% of the head chef positions at prominent U.S. restaurant groups and on the whole, only 21% of head chefs in the U.S. are female.  

Dough Wines is proud to support the James Beard Foundation’s work to create an inclusive, equitable, and sustainable food industry culture through annual donations. As a community of food and wine lovers, we want to impact positive change in the culinary arts and beverage professions and believe that we have the power to make a difference.

Dough Wines Ambassador, Joanna James, investigated the reasons why less than 7% of head chefs and restaurateurs are women, in her award-winning documentary ‘A Fine Line’ (Vanity Fair’s Best Documentary by a first-time filmmaker). 

Her non-profit, MAPP, has partnered with the James Beard Foundation to support female-led organizations to create a sea-change of equity and empowerment. From Joanna James’ website: “MAPP helps women advance in their careers through 1-on-1 mentorship, advocacy for gender and racial equities and policies that support working families, sponsoring pandemic relief grants, and creating opportunities for representation where women and people of color are sorely missed.” Joanna James’ MAPP program, Dough Wines, and the James Beard Foundation share the same mission.


What challenges do female chefs face in commercial kitchens?

Women outnumber men in cooking schools and throughout the culinary industry, yet the presence of female executive chefs continues to lag behind. According to Bloomberg Business, for every 160 head chef positions in the U.S., only 10 of those are held by women. We have achieved some progress since in 2020 there is now triple the number of female head chefs. However, when we step back to see the larger picture, we can see that the proportion of female head chefs as compared to males remains grim in 2020, for every 160 head chef positions in the U.S., only 35 of those are held by female chefs.

That is why Dough Wines has chosen to engage in industry activism by working with our strategic partner, the James Beard Foundation, who has established Women’s Leadership Programs. Female chefs often face obstacles in their careers and in starting their own restaurants. Hence, these programs support women in the hospitality industry at all stages of their careers through scholarships, mentorships, training, specialized entrepreneurial education and partnerships.

Heidi Bridenhagen, of Dough Wines, is a trailblazer in her position.  As the head winemaker of Dough Wines, she represents the 4% of head winemakers who are also owners of their winery in California. In this way, one can see that the problems of inclusiveness and kitchen equality pervade the entire industry.


Can we say that we are inclusive when BIPOC chefs remain under-represented in the F&B industry?

In 2019, the most common ethnicity of head chefs is White (56.3%), followed by Hispanic or Latino (19.9%) and Black or African-American (11.0%). This shows that white chefs are disproportionately represented at the head chef level. Additionally, within the 20% of women out of 465,000 working chefs and head cooks in the U.S. in 2017; about 4% identified as black women, 3% as Latina women, and 2% as Asian-American women. This highlights how both identities, as a racial minority and as a woman, compound the disadvantages. Kimberly Brock Brown, the first black female chef inducted into the American Academy of Chefs in 2017, wrote about her experiences as both a female and black woman: 

“I never worked sauté, grill or broiler as those stations were for men who were serious about their careers. Of course, those were the stations that paid more. From the start, women were relegated to lesser paying jobs and made to feel inferior when it came to cooking.” 


Why do we support the JBF Investment fund? 

We endeavor to right the wrongs by giving not just financial resources to Black and indigenous chefs, but also support from organizations and experts who provide guidance on professional skills like marketing, structuring business plans, and negotiating contracts. The aim is thus to acknowledge the important role that the black and indigenous communities have had in developing America’s food culture.

As mentioned on the JBF Investment Fund webpage:

“From knowledge of the native foods already present in the Americas, to agricultural know-how for the newly introduced crops—such as African rice—which would become American food staples, to the preservation of cooking techniques from their native cultures, and the influence of these groups on America’s food culture and food system cannot be overstated. And yet, throughout American history, the contributions, cultures, and identities of these groups have been appropriated for the profit of others with no monetary or other benefit to their communities.”

Another avenue in ensuring kitchen equality is by making mentorship accessible and visible to communities that have historically faced difficulties finding and engaging with mentors and to ensure that these professionals have the resources and support they need to thrive. For example, April Anderson, owner of Good Cakes and Bakes, mentors chefs who identify as Black/African, Women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, providing a channel through which important lessons and connections can be made.


Why it’s important to have kitchen equality

Entry-level jobs, even for chefs with culinary degrees, can pay as little as $15 an hour, if we count workweeks as 80-hours. The first in-depth study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) of business practices in the American restaurant industry confirmed that low pay and job insecurity have led to an exceedingly high turnover rate. This is costly for restaurateurs and chef-owners, who face the dilemma of either providing higher wages or benefits or having to deal with the instability of a constant stream of employees.

Unfortunately, as mentioned by Saru Jayaraman, co-director of ROC United,

“Women are disproportionately affected by these problems that plague the industry as a whole.”

In this way, kitchen equality impacts society as a whole, causing an uneven distribution of income, resources, and opportunities amongst men and women.


What kitchen equality looks like

Lauren DeSteno, presently Corporate Executive Chef of Altamarea Group, had said in 2014, “In a good kitchen, male and female really don’t matter anymore. You get the work done, you handle yourself professionally — because kitchens can still be crazy places — and you go home.”

Kitchen equality brings together talented chefs and teams. With kitchen equality, females, Black, indigenous, and people of color excel because they reach positions with merit, not based on elements of their identity.


Making Good and Doing Good

Dough Wines is a purpose-driven brand supporting positive systemic changes in the culinary arts and beverages professions. Through its first-ever winery partnership, the James Beard Foundation receives an annual donation from Dough Wines, benefiting restaurant recovery, promoting equality in the kitchen, and heightening food sustainability. Join us in this endeavor to reach kitchen equality in our lifetime.

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