Why Aren't There More Women of Color in Food?

We asked chefs who have defied the odds about how we can get more representation in the $800 billion-a-year industry, one boss gig at a time.
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women of color food industry

In October 2018 Rachael Ray Every Day editors brought together four powerhouse female chefs—(from left) Daniela Soto-Innes, Anita Jaisinghani, Angie Mar, and Nyesha Arrington—for a photo shoot with another formidable food lady, Rachael herself, at Milk Studios in New York City. Following the shoot, our fab four sat down for a roundtable discussion about everything from diversity in the kitchen to the importance of self-care. “I jump on my skateboard when I’m super stressed-out!” says Arrington.

If you ask the most famous successful male chefs who they think the best cook in the world is, “they’re all going to say their mom,” says Daniela Soto-Innes, Mexican-born chef-partner at Cosme and Atla restaurants in New York City. So it’s ironic that, no matter how fierce Mama’s kitchen skills might be, it’s much less likely that she’d be the famous or successful one. That’s because across this country, restaurant kitchens are—and have always been—run by white men. Out of around 465,000 working chefs and head cooks in the United States in 2017, roughly 20 percent were women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; about 4 percent identified as black women, 3 percent as Latina women, and 2 percent as Asian American women. “I came up in fine dining, and most of the time I was the only female in the kitchen, and every time, the only African American person,” says Nyesha Arrington, chef-partner at Native in Santa Monica, California. “When I got my first executive-chef job, it was difficult because my number two was 10 years older than me and male. He looked at me as an African American female who didn’t know what she was talking about. It took a year for me to change that culture.”

Discrimination in professional kitchens goes like this: Yes, women can cook. But when it comes to cooking to make money, the industry looks like many others in this country—men at the top, women further down, and women of color mostly invisible. The reasons are myriad. Bosses might assume women aren’t interested in the tougher parts of the job, and as a result they’re saddled with stereotypically gendered assignments. 

“I did a tasting dinner, and they chose all three females to cook the vegetable and all three males to cook the meat,” says Arrington, despite the fact that she had cooked all manner of proteins at a triple-Michelin-starred restaurant. Don’t tell that story to Angie Mar, chef and co-owner of the New York City chophouse Beatrice Inn, who’s made a name for herself off the strength of her meat-centric cooking. “One of the things I hate is ‘How do you feel being a woman who cooks meat?’ ” says Mar. “What is that even supposed to mean?” Indian-born Anita Jaisinghani, chef-owner at Pondicheri in Houston and New York City, felt the sting of prejudice before she even opened her doors. “I was dismissed by realtors when I was looking at spaces,” she says. It was a reaction, she believes, to her gender and skin color. She now packs the house at both her locations.

Probably the biggest factor leading to the lack of women of color in the kitchen, however, is simply the lack of women of color in the kitchen. It’s a cycle: Without representation—without someone who looks like you to model yourself after, without mentors at the top trying to get you a management position—it’s hard to consider cooking a viable career path. “I’ve worked for restaurant groups in New York City, and in almost all of them there was probably only one woman in leadership, and she was a white woman,” says Elle Simone Scott, a chef and food stylist on PBS’s America’s Test Kitchen. Samin Nosrat, the Iranian American chef and food writer behind the cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and the hit Netflix docuseries of the same name, says it’s not just about having female cooks: “It’s also about having female owners and managers. Giving women power is important.”

Across TV cooking shows—an accessible place for would-be chefs to find role models—diversity has been dismal. The Netflix hit Chef’s Table ran for five seasons before featuring an African American chef, Mashama Bailey of the Grey in Savannah, in this currently running season. On Bravo’s Top Chef, a woman of color didn’t win the competition until Kristen Kish, born in South Korea, dominated its 10th season. Tanya Holland, chef-owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, California, and San Francisco and a former host of the series Melting Pot (which ran on Food Network), says she experienced racial stereotyping on the set of her own show. “The producer wanted to do what she called a ‘soulful’ brunch—this vision of me sitting around with my girlfriends, all of whom, in her mind, were black,” says Holland. “My friends come from different backgrounds, and they’re all very educated. The insinuation was that we were not sophisticated, that we were going to be all ‘Hey, girl!’ It was insulting.” The show had its brunch episode without the sass, says Holland.

Scott—who, in 2017, was the first African American woman to join the cast of America’s Test Kitchen, 16 years after the show debuted—takes representation seriously. “If I’m in a kitchen and there are no women of color other than me, I take that as an offense,” says Scott. “It says to me that there is bias, implicit or otherwise, against people of color in the workplace.” For Scott, the solution is to speak up and to speak to each other: In 2013 she launched SheChef, a mentorship program for women chefs of color that hosts kitchen demos and networking events to give them a boost in the industry.

Of course, women of color aren’t immune to another fixture in many professional kitchens: sexual harassment. As a lesbian woman of color, Brenda Buenviaje, co-owner of Brenda’s French Soul Food in San Francisco, experienced both prejudice and harassment when she joined the restaurant business in the 1990s. “I came from New Orleans, which, especially back then, was extremely racist,” says Buenviaje. “It was racism, it was sexism—there were so many ways to get at me.” She found support among fellow marginalized staffers: When Buenviaje complained of physical harassment at one of the restaurants she worked in, she was backed by a gay chef and the female owner, who immediately fired the abusive worker.

Buenviaje was lucky to get support. In many top kitchens, where a powerful male chef is given license to do whatever he needs to get his masterpieces on the table, aggressive or even abusive behavior can be the norm. “When it’s a male-dominated environment, it’s easy for biases to be performed,” says Scott. “If there are only men in charge, there’s no advocacy. There’s no one to say, ‘This isn’t right.’ It can just go under the radar as tradition.” When she started on the kitchen line, Soto-Innes noticed a direct link between severity and success. She saw chefs literally burn new cooks with hot spoons over a mistake. “The more of an a**hole you were, the more respect you got,” says Soto-Innes.

For women who make it to the executive-chef level, the pressure to prove themselves to a mostly male staff can lead some to believe they must adopt the same terrible habits. “I didn’t know how to manage men who didn’t necessarily want to listen to me,” says Nosrat. “The only way that I knew how to get them to listen to me was to become mean. It was a bad cycle that I’m not proud of.” In January 2018 Jaisinghani penned an op-ed titled “#NotInMyKitchen” for the Houston Chronicle, a mea culpa about running a toxic workplace. “I opened my first restaurant and got a divorce within a year, and I turned into an ugly person,” she says. “I would take my frustration out. I began to feel sick over it.” Jaisinghani realized she had to restructure her priorities. “If I’ve made people in my kitchen unhappy, I go home sad,” she says. “The food still has to be good, but I stopped caring at the level where I was a complete nazi. Instead, I thought, I’m going to give up a few things for some peace of mind. And I began to groom my kitchen staff to think like me.”

That shift in management style is happening in kitchens all over the country. Stories of chefs throwing Gordon Ramsay–esque tantrums are being replaced with ones about bosses who focus on personalized feedback, one-on-one mentorship, and group activities meant to foster cooperation and fix exclusionary practices in the industry. “We’re a product of our environments,” says Mar. “It’s whoever is at the top—that’s the learned behavior you’re going to get from everybody else. If I’m not mentoring my ‘kids’ so they’re going to be better than me one day, then I’m not doing my job.” Nina Compton, chef-owner of Compère Lapin in New Orleans, understands it’s her responsibility to set an example. “I create this environment where my staff feels safe and they want to come to work,” she says. “If they don’t feel comfortable, they can come to me.” Many female chefs find these ways to compensate by going beyond basic good behavior—part of the old story about working twice as hard for half the credit. “I’m not one of the chefs that’s like, ‘Dinner rush is over—I’m out!’ ” says Mar. “I’m there before my team, I leave after them. I take out the trash with my porters, I help scrub down the kitchen.” Arrington hosts soccer games between her service and kitchen teams to build camaraderie. Soto-Innes learns the names of every spouse and child of her staffers. “I connect with my cooks because we’re around the same age,” says Soto-Innes, who, at 28 years old, is one of New York’s most celebrated young chefs. “I don’t want them to go through what I went through.” 

Crucial to all these stories is a sense that change, however incremental, is afoot. At last year’s James Beard Foundation Awards, more than half the winners were women or people of color for the first time ever. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, when assault allegations were lobbed at some of the biggest (and, notably, white male) food personalities in the game, the conversation about inclusion and diversity went into overdrive. Talk of accountability began to take hold in an industry known for boozy after-hours, leniency with staff affairs, and tolerance of harassment.

Of course, equality in the kitchen is not a burden for women alone—it’s a group effort that requires buy-in from the entire industry. “Many of us are talking about equity, but we have a lot of work to do,” says Julia Turshen, author of the cookbooks Now & Again and Feed the Resistance. “Men need to become active accomplices in the fight for gender equity and racial justice.” Soto-Innes points to Enrique Olvera, her partner at Cosme, as an example of inclusivity: “I’m in business with a very strong chef who respects women,” she says. “I’ve been lucky to have mentors who choose women to be next to them.” Tom Colicchio, one of the culinary world’s most recognizable names, called out his peers—and himself—for their role in the subjugation of female chefs in an essay titled “An Open Letter to (Male) Chefs” on Medium in 2017. “It’s not enough for us to ask, ‘How can we behave differently around our women employees and coworkers?’ ” Colicchio wrote. “Instead, we should be asking, ‘What barriers to their success do I owe it to them to remove?’ ” Chef-restaurateur Edward Lee cofounded the Let’s Empower Employment Initiative, a nonprofit that offers mentoring and training for young women chefs in Kentucky. “I am a male chef, and I have benefited from the system, a system I did not create but nonetheless one that made my path an easier one to follow,” Lee wrote in the initiative’s opening statement last year. “The future of our industry will rest upon the vital role of empowered women who will lead with strength, fairness, and respect.” (Admittedly, both these manifestos focus on gender only, not on gender and race or how the confluence of the two further complicates the road to equality.)

Jaisinghani is hoping women maximize the moment. “What happened in the last year made us aware that as women, we can do everything men can, which we should have always believed,” she says. “It’s not about being better than men or like men. I just want to be myself and have no limits on what I can do.” As much as progress is still needed to achieve equity, female chefs of color are seeing positive change. “When I was coming up, it was the white male with the chef’s hat, and that was my idea for a long time,” says Arrington. “Now I’ve been able to see a lot of my friends who are Latinos, Filipinos, and females rising to the top.” For Soto-Innes, the ideal kitchen is not gender-specific: “It’s not just one ethnicity. It’s everyone as a whole, all being celebrated.”