A Woman’s Place

The traditional adage about women and kitchens never really applied to restaurants. But things may be changing.

July, 2000

California girl Jacqueline Lau came to Hawaii to cook. Armed with a culinary degree and burning ambition, Lau arrived in Honolulu in 1988 to catch the new culinary wave, a nascent pan-Pacific style dubbed Hawaii Regional Cuisine. But getting a suitable kitchen job did not prove easy. “There weren’t many women in the restaurant business back then. I would go and apply for a job as line cook and they would say ‘You’re applying as a hostess,’” recalls Lau.

In hindsight she chalks a portion of these difficulties up to her youth and to her malihini status. But Lau also saw a darker side of the cooking biz. While working as a prep cook at a prominent Honolulu restaurant in 1989, Lau volunteered to fill in for a broiler cook who had just quit. “The chef told me, ‘No you’re a woman. Women belong with lettuce.’ I gave him my two weeks right then.”

Where Lau was going is now clear. After becoming the youngest executive chef in Roy Yamaguchi’s acclaimed chain of upscale Pacific cuisine eateries at 23, Lau last year ascended to the post of highest ranking chef in Yamaguchi’s Hawaii operations. Aside from running day-to-day cooking operations at the Roy’s Waikoloa Grill, Lau also jets around to other Roy’s restaurants in Hawaii to maintain quality and provide consultations and assistance.

Lau is one of an elite group of top Hawaii female chefs who operate in a decidedly male-dominated cooking world. She is also a pioneer in a place where women traditionally stayed out of the kitchens of fine restaurants. Not that Hawaii was so different from the rest of the world.

The traditional adage that a woman’s place is in the kitchen never really applied to restaurants. These commercial settings were deemed too hot, too dangerous, and too physically demanding for dainty and delicate women. While women might wait tables or seat guests, the heavy lifting was reserved for the men. In France, for centuries considered the pinnacle of haute cuisine, women were not even allowed to work at many restaurants, let alone cook there.

In Hawaii, women work in top positions at many of the premier eateries in the state. Yet, their numbers remain scant. A handful of women occupy top slots in the empires of Roy Yamaguchi and other big name chefs. But their presence is dwarfed by a strong male majority in the kitchens. What’s more, their experiences are quite different than those of women in professions where females are more entrenched, such as medicine and law.

Take the experience of Barbara Stange, one of the top chefs in Alan Wong’s growing operation. At her first restaurant job in Toledo, Ohio, Stange worked as a pantry girl along with a number of other women. The executive chef’s office, with a big window, fronted their kitchen post. And the executive chef would sit and watch his girls work. “We were like little hens. We were only good for pantry, cleaning lettuce and making dressings,” recalls Stange.

Like Lau and Stange, some of the other female chefs we interviewed mentioned annoying instances of blatant sexual discrimination. Thankfully, they all said this discrimination seems to have waned. What has not, however, is the fear of families. Having them, that is. Female chefs are scared that if they take off time to have a family they will lose their edge and their jobs.

The restaurants themselves fear hiring women chefs who will then take the training and apply it to home economics and feeding baby Kimo. “I took a year off and had my son. As far as being a woman in this business, that would be the hardest thing,” says Lau, who worked until two weeks before she gave birth and stopped only on doctor’s orders. For Maui restaurateur Beverley Gannon, who both opened her restaurant and found her biological clock ticking in her 30s, the choice was stark. “My husband said, you can’t do both. You can’t open this business and have a baby,” says Gannon. For Gannon the solution was a de facto family. “My employees are my kids. They are my family,” says Gannon.

Indeed, the motherly touch and the emphasis women place on communication are attributes they all cited as a major advantage they have in the kitchen over men. Sometimes, however, communication skills run smack into male dogma. “I have had guys come to work for me who I absolutely know were not listening to me because I was a woman,” says Gannon.

“I had blond hair, blue eyes and I spoke with a funny accent. It was hard for me to earn the respect of some of the Asian men I work with,” says Stange. “I’ve had to learn to be very quiet and soft spoken.”

A soft-spoken chef might seem an oxymoron in a culinary world where screaming in the kitchen is a time honored right. Everyone expects a male chef to lose his temper but that same expectation did not carry over to the women. “For a long time they called me the Dragon Lady. But I wasn’t doing anything a guy wouldn’t do,” says Gannon. “I mean, would they call Roy or Sam the Dragon Man?”

But someone must have eventually listened to Gannon. In 1999 her Haliimaile General Store and Joe’s Bar and Grill grossed over $5 million, more than double the business they did in 1995 and nearly five times the gross sales in 1990.

The women chefs claim to have several traits apparently in common. Lau and Stange credit their rise to the open mindedness of their mentors in Yamaguchi and Wong. And all of the women chefs interviewed spoke of their love for the art of cooking and making people food—even at the expense of other normal parts of life.

“If you want to date me, you have to accept that I might go out in chef wear and clogs and smell like fried fish,” says Stange, who oversaw the transformation of Liberty House’s Henry’s Market into the first Hawaii regional gourmet food store. And all spoke with stubborn intensity about their progress in the cooking world. “As many obstacles as I ran into, I was not going to quit. I said, I am not going to quit so don’t try to make me,” says Lau.

Not that society is helping them out too much. “The West Coast seems to me to be easier for women than the East Coast. On the East Coast, there is still a belief that the kitchen is a male domain,” says Eve Felder, a former chef at Northern California’s Chez Panise who is the Associate Dean of Advanced Cooking at the Culinary Institue of America.

Alas, Hawaii probably falls closer to the East Coast than the West. Less than a half-dozen female restaurateurs have produced viable operations at the top end of Hawaii cuisine, including Gannon and Kona Chef Amy Ferguson Ota, who was the first female executive chef in the Ritz-Carlton chain. Women also speak of the difficulty of getting serious financing as a restaurateur, let alone as a woman. And, as one of the top female chefs noted, in everything from Sprint PCS advertising campaigns to HVCB promotional campaigns to Emme Tomimbang television specials, the face of Hawaii cooking inevitably is male.

But, they say, things are definitely getting better. Felder believes that these days nearly 20 percent of the popular top chefs around the country have ovaries, as opposed to only 5 percent a few decades ago. In Hawaii, more female chefs are on the horizon. “There are a lot more women that are in the business now,” says Lau. “Maybe 12 years ago there weren’t as many and they weren’t as accustomed to seeing a woman applying for the job. It is not as big of a deal anymore.”

 

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