Over the past decade, David Chang has built Momofuku from a small ramen bar in Manhattan’s East Village to an eight-restaurant empire with roughly 500 staffers in the U.S., Canada and Australia. Here’s what else he’s done:
He’s earned two Michelin stars and four James Beard Awards. He’s accrued nearly 100,000 Twitter followers. He’s disrupted the French-Italian pastry monopoly by starting, with Christina Tosi, a chain of Milk Bar bakeries that tout haute junk food over croissants and cannolis. And he co-founded a quarterly food magazine called Lucky Peach, one of whose publications was titled “The Gender Issue.”
Now here’s what Chang hasn’t done: Tapped a woman to lead one of his restaurants as chef de cuisine or higher. It is a peculiar omission, given the diversity of his staff, even at upper echelons of his company.
Momofuku’s bar director, John deBary, is gay. The beverage director, Jordan Salcito, is a woman, and so is the service director, Tara MacMullen. And the Barbados-born Paul Carmichael, who leads the culinary efforts at Ma Peche, an ambitious dim sum spot, is one of Manhattan’s few high-profile black chefs.
Another of Chang’s right-hand women (brand director Sue Chan) says Momofuku would “love” for a female chef to lead one of its restaurants. But for now, Chang’s restaurants aren’t outliers.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that even though women constitute a majority of the U.S. food service industry, there’s still a larger percentage of women chief executive officers than head chefs.
If Chang, whom a spokeswoman said was unavailable to comment due to travel, is one of America’s most popular restaurateurs, Thomas Keller, whose spokeswoman also declined to comment, is one of the most respected. His Per Se in New York, where the dinner menu is $310 before wine, has had two head chefs in the decade since it opened. Both have been men. His French Laundry in Napa Valley, where the tasting menu is $295, hasn’t had a single woman head chef in its 20-year history. There’s just one female head chef at one of Keller’s six restaurants, which as it turns out, is one more than many others.
While Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” reality tournament often showcases female chefs (two have won the competition), that program’s head judge, Tom Colicchio, doesn’t employ any women as top chef at his Craft Group of eight tony eateries.
The reality is this: Men overwhelmingly hold the highest paying and most prominent kitchen jobs at ambitious, independent restaurants across America. Women occupy just 6.3 percent, or 10 out of 160 head chef positions at 15 prominent U.S. restaurant groups analyzed by Bloomberg.
This holds true even as women have advanced to top tiers of pastry, wine service, dining room management and ownership in these same restaurant groups.
Momofuku’s directors of finance and human resources are both women, as is Craft’s director of operations, its head of human resources and its managing partner, Katie Grieco.
“We’re a very female-friendly organization,” Grieco said in a phone interview. “I’d love nothing more than to say, yes, we have an executive chef or chef de cuisine who’s a woman. We don’t, but it’s not for a lack of trying.”
Such stats are surprising given the strong female presence at two of the country’s most prestigious cooking schools. Women have made up over 40 percent of the International Culinary Center’s classic (i.e. non-pastry) graduates for the past decade. At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, female enrollment in the culinary arts associates program has risen from 28 percent in 2003 to as high as 35 percent in 2012.
So why do so restaurants employ so few female head chefs?
Some managers and executives interviewed for this article paused, grappling for an explanation.
Some said a changing of the guard will come as young women sous-chefs work their way through the ranks. And others, like Grieco, partly framed the issue as a choice.
“I do think in some cases, whether it’s company-specific or industry-specific, there just aren’t as many women who want to do the jobs as men, and I think that executive chef-ing might be one of them,” said Grieco.
Working as a chef at a high-end venue often involves coming in before noon and staying on one’s feet until well after 1 a.m.
“From my perspective and what I know as a woman, at some point, that lifestyle choice comes into play,” Grieco said. “If you get to a certain age when you’re thinking you might like to have a family, it’s a tough question, because it’s hard to do both.”
Neither Daniel Boulud nor Jean-Georges Vongerichten, two of the world’s most celebrated French chefs, employ any women as head chefs at their respective 10 and 24 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada. But the longtime president of Vongerichten’s restaurant group, Lois Freedman, is a woman.
And at his ABC Kitchen, an enormously popular vegetable heavy hangout run by executive chef Dan Kluger, Vongerichten employs a female chef de cuisine. Her name is Karen Shu.
“She’s an excellent chef. Very committed. Very pretty girl. She should be a model, not a cook,” the 56-year-old Vongerichten quipped during an interview at his three-Michelin-starred flagship in New York.
“Many times when ladies become sous-chefs, as soon as they hit 27, 28, 30, they want to have a family. It changes everything,” he said. “The ticking clock makes a difference.”
“Women, they need a life more than men somehow, non?” Vongerichten said of the greater numbers of female chefs seen during the lunch service at his flagship than during dinner.
“I don’t know if it’s because they want a family life at home at night. I’m not sure.”
Then again, Vongerichten has a female executive chef in one of his three restaurants in Asia. Sandy Yoon leads the kitchen Mercato, an Italian spot in Shanghai. He’ll also install Bichna Yu, another female head chef, when he opens a Korean barbecue joint in the same complex as Mercato. And Vongerichten says Shu would be a “very strong candidate” to take over one of his restaurants in the future.
An executive at Boulud’s Dinex Group declined to comment for this article through a spokeswoman.
There’s certainly no shortage of women in the larger hospitality industry. They’ve made up a majority of its employees since at least 2004. And women make up 39 percent of its cooks, according to the latest data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But only 18.7 percent of “chefs and head cooks” are women, per the same study, the smallest percentage of women in any food industry job next to dishwashers. That’s down from 19 percent in 2010 and 23.9 percent in 2006.
Female chefs are even doing worse than female CEOs, of which there are 24.2 percent, according to the bureau.
The acclaimed gastro-pubs of British-born chef April Bloomfield, one of the smallest restaurant groups analyzed for this piece, was the only one with a majority of women as female chefs. Women lead the kitchens at three out of the duo’s five venues in Manhattan and San Francisco.
“I learned a lot about how to run a business from Paul McGuinness, who was U2’s manager,” says Ken Friedman, Bloomfield’s business partner. “Paul always surrounded himself with women. He feels there’s less drama and testosterone.”
Friedman, while noting that Bloomfield is responsible for the kitchen hiring, says he feels “more comfortable in lots of ways having women around me and working for me. I just trust them.”
Bloomfield, in a separate interview, said “the people I have in charge just happen to be women. The jobs were available to everybody.”
The North American focus of this article notwithstanding, it’s hard in this regard to overlook the enormous success of Bloomfield’s compatriot, Angela Hartnett. She was Gordon Ramsay’s chef at The Connaught in London before the famously foul-mouthed Scot opened up the now Michelin-starred Murano with Hartnett (and later sold it to her). It’s equally hard to ignore that Ramsay employs female head chefs at three of his 12 U.K. restaurants, including the three-Michelin starred flagship on Royal Hospital Road in the British capital.
Friedman intends to invest in his chefs, female or male, as well. “We often say, look, we’ll go open a restaurant for you if you stay with us for another year or two or three.” He cites Christina Lecki, The Breslin’s “superstar” chef.
“She’d like to do her own thing, but she loves us, so eventually we’ll do a restaurant built around her.”
Barbara Lynch -- a stalwart of Boston’s dining scene, with seven venues, a catering arm, 260 staffers, and approaching $20 million in annual revenue -- has also developed a reputation for cultivating and fostering female talent. Women chefs run two of her venues and are general managers at five of them.
“I think that’s where we have a chef-owner in Barbara that is known to give women an opportunity,” said Jefferson Macklin, the group’s chief operating officer.
Lynch has been hosting a pop-up doughnut joint by Stephanie Cmar, a sous-chef who’s departed the company, at The Butcher Shop (where the chef de cuisine, Michele Carter, is a woman).
And Kristen Kish was promoted from Stir, Lynch’s demo kitchen, to head chef job at Menton, where a menu of Southern French-inflected fare will run $155. (Kish will leave the company later this week to pursue other opportunities.)
Top chef jobs, while typically the most prestigious and highest-paying kitchen assignments, do not approach banker salaries. U.S. head chefs make, on average, $46,570, with the New York metropolitan area boasting the highest mean wage, at $66,520. But the median head chef pay for women is just 83.5 percent of men’s, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics.
That percentage is tied with that of waiters to make those food-service occupations the ones with the biggest earnings disparities by gender. By contrast, female “food preparation workers” make 95 percent of what their male counterparts earn, as per the same report.
There are no female head chefs at Gabe Stulman’s group of six Little Wisco eateries in Manhattan (although all but one general manager is a woman). There are also none at Andrew Carmellini’s five brasseries in New York and Florida, at Marc Vetri’s five Philadelphia restaurants or at John Besh’s eight venues down South. And when contacted by Bloomberg, each of Stephen Starr’s 31 restaurants across the Eastern seaboard said men occupied the head chef role. Starr’s group declined to comment.
Batali and Brisson
Mario Batali, the famously orange-clogged chef, has three female head chefs in his empire of 18 U.S. restaurants, two of them at his Pizzeria Mozzas on the West Coast (which Batali runs with chef Nancy Silverton) and another at his Carnevino steakhouse in Las Vegas, where Nicole Brisson leads the kitchen. She works. A lot.
“If I did make the decision to have a child, I would probably have to quit my job,” Brisson said during a phone interview, citing the pressures of running a top-tier kitchen.
The 33-year-old Brisson described herself as 5’2’’, 130 pounds and an “all-American girl next door.” She said she feels like she has to work “five to ten times harder” because of her gender, and that diners are shocked that she’s not a “big fat male.” She can spend as many as 19 hours a day at work, said she hasn’t “gone on a real date in five years” and doesn’t like how people “immediately assume I’m the pastry chef.”
“I already only sleep three to four hours a night. I can’t imagine waking up to a screaming baby. It would be a sacrifice.”
What about maternity leave? Men or women who take time off for the birth of a child are generally guaranteed up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave under the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act. Momofuku, in addition, offers up to four weeks of paid maternity leave, while employees at other groups often rely on paid vacation time or state disability payments (up to $170 per week in New York).
Amanda Cohen, the Canadian-born chef-owner of the vegetarian Dirt Candy in Manhattan’s East Village, says she believes there should be stronger protections for mothers.
“As an industry we’ve sort of failed,” she said. “We haven’t set ourselves up so that women can take six months off, or take a year off, and come right back into their position.”
Many of the chefs and executives interviewed for this article recounted stories of male chefs taking paternity leave.
But almost no one could recite the specific case of a female sous-chef or higher taking maternity -- and returning. One exception was April Bloomfield, who said a female sous at The Spotted Pig took time off, twice, for the birth of each of her two children.
Her job was there when she came back.
The other exception was Barbara Lynch herself, whose water broke at The Butcher Shop, Macklin recounts.
The restaurateur took eight weeks leave.
Michael White, who ranks with Batali as one of America’s best purveyors of Italian fare, is another operator that doesn’t employ a single female executive chef.
Olivia Young, head of communications for White’s AltaMarea Group, says that might soon change at one of the White’s 10 stateside venues. Lauren De Steno is the new chef de cucina at Marea, a two Michelin-starred hangout for the wealthy (and wannabes) on Central Park South. De Steno works under that restaurant’s head chef, Jared Gadbaw.
“As long as we continue to grow, Lauren should be executive chef very soon. Why not?” said Young. There’s also a woman executive sous-chef at White’s Michelin-starred Ai Fiori, where a tasting menu runs $130.
“Our head of HR is a woman. Our head of business development is a woman. Our head of group finance is a woman. So on the corporate level there’s so much female energy it would be impossible for us not to parlay it throughout the rest of the company,” said Young.
Most of those interviewed said women-run kitchens were quieter and more orderly.
“When Lauren is running the pass at Marea it’s like a symphony. There’s much more communication,” AltaMarea’s Young said, while Jared’s leadership style “is much more brash. He’s a dude.” Ken Friedman, for his part, said that at the female-heavy Spotted Pig kitchen, “there’s no screaming and yelling. It’s just calmer.”
He adds that Bloomfield is “always 100 percent honest where most men, including me, are 92 percent honest.”
Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, the force behind the global chain of Shake Shack burger joints, runs nine full-service restaurants in New York, including the Michelin-starred Gramercy Tavern. Among those, there’s one female executive chef. Lynn Bound runs Café 2 and Terrace 5 at The Museum of Modern Art. While these two spots are Meyer’s most low-profile venues (they close at 5:00 p.m. most days), they also happen to be USHG’s most highly trafficked spaces outside of Shake Shack.
Momofuku’s Chan acknowledged that Chang’s restaurants lack any female head chefs, but cited strong female sous chefs at various properties, including Eunsook Genardini at Ma Peche, Paula Navarrete at Toronto’s Daisho and Veronica Trevizo at the original Noodle Bar.
Will any of them take over a kitchen in the coming years?
“Anyone, man or woman, with any kind of background can take over our kitchens,” said Chan, who’s also a co-founder of the Toklas Society, a network for women in the hospitality industry. “The chefs we select for these positions must also fill a strong leadership role at our restaurants and we would love to see a female chef occupy one of these positions.”
(Ryan Sutton reviews restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)