In chef Gabrielle Hamilton's best-selling memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, she tells of running into a colleague on the street, where he introduced her to his mother as "one of the best female chefs in New York City." Hamilton, owner of beloved East Village restaurant Prune and newly minted James Beard Award winner, then cracked, "Now, if we could just get that word 'female' out of the sentence."
Yes, women chefs are still definitely a minority, even though the likes of Hamilton, Nancy Silverton (Los Angeles's Osteria Mozza), Stephanie Izard (Chicago's Girl & the Goat)—and of course the old-school game changers Alice Waters and Lydia Bastianich before them—run wildly popular, critically praised establishments. So how do female chefs not only deal, but thrive in a notoriously macho industry? Here are some tips:
Learn how to navigate office politics. "I tried to align myself with people who could help me and avoid working with people who could hold me back," says Amy Eubanks, executive chef of BLT Fish in NYC. "You need to be very good at what you do and don't give anyone any reason to question or doubt you. They may not want you there, but if you show up early every day, work harder than anyone else, keep your head down and your mouth shut—there isn't a negative word anyone can say about that. And when you're finally in charge, start changing the system from the inside."
Acknowledge that there will be prejudices—and then move on. "I always experience discrimination because I am a woman in BBQ," says Lee Ann Whippen, chef and partner at Chicago's Chicago q restaurant. "The only way I've been able to overcome it is by being strong, successful and winning contests." Whippen has won a slew of barbecue competitions, was the only woman featured in the TLC series BBQ Pitmasters, and beat out Bobby Flay in a pulled pork Throwdown. "It has been a rough road but with tenacity and being goal-driven, I have received a lot of respect from my peers."
Use PR wisely. "I take the fact that I'm in the minority and capitalize on it," says Whippen. "When promoting my restaurants or competition teams I emphasize that I'm a woman in my public relations content. Sometimes being the underdog drives customers or fans to be on your side and help you succeed."
Don't play into stereotypes. "Never lose sight of the fact that most of the world considers cooking women's work—just because it's professional doesn't make it men's work," says Eubanks. "Try to surprise people with your work ethic and positive attitude, don't sleep around at work, and above all else, become friends with the dishwashers."
CLARISSA CRUZ is the Fashion Features Editor of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the former Style Editor of People magazine and has written for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Food & Wine, and Budget Travel. @clarissanyc1