For as long as the love of food has translated into big business, men have controlled that business. They’ve been in charge from the time of hunting-gathering to the industrial revolution to the present, where “rock star” chefs run elite kitchens and CEOs control multinational food companies. Women remain outnumbered in top kitchen positions, and when they do wrestle their way in, they earn 28 percent less than their male counterparts, according to Glassdoor.
It’s no better in “big food.” Scan the Fortune 500 and you’ll find only three female CEOs running food companies. Just a few years ago, Time magazine featured a cover with three men dubbed “the gods of food.” Where were the goddesses?
We’ve got ’em right here: Women who have carved out their own space in the bro-y food world and are pulling up other ladies with them. Because despite all the bad news, there’s plenty to celebrate: Women have nearly 50 percent of ownership stakes in restaurants, according to the national restaurant association. Last year, Barbara Lynch was the only chef, female or otherwise, to make Time's 100 most influential people list. And if the vaunted Culinary Institute of America—where, in 2016, women made up the majority of enrollees for the first time in 70 years—is any indication, the future of food is definitely female. Here are eight women who are taking over the food world.
The Rebel With a Cause
Angela Dimayuga, New York City
Why She's a Boss
By the time she was 30, Angela Dimayuga had earned an executive-chef spot at New York’s lauded Mission Chinese Food (which she’s since left) and honors from Food & Wine, Eater, Grub Street, Zagat, and the James Beard Awards.
“Early on in my career, as people got more interested in me and Mission Chinese, I often found myself being placed in a box that I felt didn’t tell my story, not only as a female but also as a Filipino American and a queer person of color. Once, a male interviewer asked me a question about my height. He was trying to talk about having a big personality for my petite frame, and I felt he never would have asked a male chef that. Things like that deeply upset me.”
“It’s important to me that I teach my staff not only about cooking but also about gender politics. When I was running the kitchen and diners who enjoyed their meals stopped in to say ‘thank you,’ they would address the white male in the room, because they immediately assumed that person was running the kitchen. I would explain to my staff why that was problematic.
“A restaurant can show us the world we want to live in. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s something I take a lot of pleasure in. I want to move past the novelty of being a female chef. I grew up watching people like Jacques Pépin, but he felt like someone I would never meet. I would’ve definitely looked up to somebody more like me. Being an example for a younger generation gives me purpose and drive.”
Jessica Koslow, Los Angeles
Why She's a Boss
In the seven years since she opened Sqirl in L.A.’s Virgil Village neighborhood, Jessica Koslow has become a food-media darling. She’s graced magazine spreads, modeled for J. Crew, hosted restaurant pop-ups, and conquered the world with her jarred jams. Her cookbook, Everything I Want to Eat, includes, well, everything you want to eat!
“I started my career at Bacchanalia in Atlanta, where Anne Quatrano runs the show, so my first mentor was a woman who’s a powerhouse in the food industry. I also grew up with a mom who’s a successful doctor, has two offices, and still works six days a week. She taught me not to see gender as something that stands in the way. It didn’t matter if I was a man or a woman—I could do whatever I want. In the kitchen at Sqirl, we now have three women and three men, and our pastry team is all female. Everyone calls me ‘Mom,’ which is really funny, but I think there’s a truth to it. Mentorship is kind of maternal: listening, being present, and providing support.”
“There can be a bit of a bro culture at times. At a lot of food events, I end up being the only woman there. It’s hard to get into the mix, because it’s the same guys hanging out, doing the same events. But I just had chef Tatiana Levha’s food at Le Servan in Paris, and she is magic. Those are the women who, when you find them, you’re like, Let’s lift up all of these women. Will Best Chef–type awards be 50-50 with five women nominated for every five guys? Probably not. But should there be a female in there? Absolutely.”
The Household Name
Carla Hall, Washington, D.C.
Why She's a Boss
A former model, Carla Hall has grit and determination in spades. After starting her own catering business, she was a finalist on Top Chef. Now she’s a cohost of ABC’s The Chew and the author of Carla’s Comfort Foods.
“Being black, I’ve noticed that some African American food traditions are not necessarily valued when my grandmother makes them but become so when adopted by other cultures, and I’m like, Wait a minute—we’ve been doing that for years, but it isn’t recognized until you guys do it? The same thing happens with women chefs. I’ve been doing this all my life, and now, because a man does it in a professional kitchen, it’s celebrated.”
“Work hard—no, harder! When I did Top Chef, people counted me out. They’d say, ‘Oh, she’s just a caterer.’ When I didn’t get eliminated, they said to me, ‘How is it that you’re winning? Are you hiding your actual training from us?’ Well, a caterer can walk into a kitchen she’s never seen before and get the lay of the land very quickly. I know how to come in, be flexible, and get it done. And I am not afraid to work hard. I literally—literally—worked every single day for five years. The reputation that preceded me wasn’t focused on just my sex, but also my work ethic. No one could have any question about my commitment.”
Kerry Diamond, New York City
Why She's a Boss
The editorial director and cofounder of Cherry Bombe, a food magazine that celebrates women, and its female-focused Jubilee food conference, Kerry Diamond is a champion of women in the industry. She’s also the owner of Smith Canteen Coffee Shop in Brooklyn.
“When I started dating a chef and we later opened a restaurant, I was like, What’s going on? There were role models on TV like Rachael Ray and Ina Garten, but when you looked around the restaurant world, where were all the female restaurateurs and chefs? Why were magazines like Food & Wine doing Best New Chefs back then and it was 12 guys and only one woman?”
“When we started Cherry Bombe, I realized there were so many women in this industry who felt completely unacknowledged. It’s a combination of detective work and word of mouth, but the truth is, you don’t have to look that hard to find incredible women doing incredible things in food today. “When I walk onto an airplane and the business-class section is all filled with guys, I think, We have so much work to do. A lot of women in our industry are trying to figure out how to have a family and a career in food, which is almost impossible because of the hours. Most restaurants don’t have any maternity leave. And forget day care. Guys had hundreds of years to figure it out but didn’t. So now it’s up to us.”
Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez, New York City
Why She's a Boss
The first woman to work the bread station at acclaimed New York City restaurant Daniel, Rodriguez is using her know-how to train low-income women and place them in fair-wage jobs. Her nonprofit, Hot Bread Kitchen, has a 100 percent job-placement rate, and recent grads have gone on to work at Whole Foods, Google, and New York’s Great Northern Food Hall.
“In most parts of the world, women bake bread—in Mexico, they make tortillas; in India, they make chapati—yet men are the ones getting the good jobs here. Women are relegated to roles in the professional kitchen that don’t pay very well and don’t provide the opportunity for financial freedom. There are hiring biases and stereotypes: ‘How do you pick up those bags of flour?’ or ‘Unloading the oven is difficult work.’ Even though my coworkers at Daniel were welcoming and accepting and taught me how to mix and shape, they never let me work the oven. It was a gentle kind of discrimination.”
“My not-so-secret agenda is to change the gender balance of the industry. At Hot Bread Kitchen, every woman graduating is a rock star on the oven, so they can go into a situation where their skill set is viewed as equal and valuable. Every time we have a graduation from our Bakers in Training program, it’s a whole new pool of women going out to kick butt and show people what an alternative-reality kitchen could look like. People want to hire the best talent they can, so to exclude 50 percent of that talent doesn’t make any sense.”
Niki Nakayama, Los Angeles
Why She's a Boss
Nakayama is a rare female master in the Japanese tradition of kaiseki, an elaborate but restrained multicourse meal. (Think of it as a tasting menu with only the best ingredients and the most beautiful preparation.) Her restaurant, N/Naka, which she runs with her wife and sous chef, Carole Iida-Nakayama, has a three-month-long waiting list and is run almost entirely by women.
“We all have images we conjure up when we think about sushi chefs—I always felt like nobody envisioned somebody like me. Just the visual of being a woman got in the way of the work I was doing, because I felt I was being judged for things other than the work. Early in my career, I was making sushi in Los Angeles, and these men came in, saw me behind the counter, turned around, and walked out. It was heartbreaking. But at the same time, it was incredibly motivating, because it served as real fuel to propel me to go further.”
“In most Japanese kitchens, everybody is male. Male chefs get to train under very amazing chefs who tell them, ‘Hey, this is for you,’ so they follow their paths. With all of the things Japanese women are expected to do, it’s just a harder path to step into a kitchen, say they want to learn, be very capable, and work at high levels. So I wanted to give women the opportunity that I didn’t have. In my kitchen, five out of six of us are women. I’m not trying to work with just women, but more apply than men.”
Anita Lo, New York City
Why She's a Boss
The chef-owner of Michelin-starred New York City restaurant Annisa for 17 years, Lo was named Best New Restaurant Chef by The Village Voice and Best New Chef by Food & Wine. She was nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: New York City nine times—six of those times she was a semifinalist.
“When I was in cooking school in the early 1990s, the kitchen certainly wasn’t a happy place for women. When we did our finals, I made a pastry that turned out lovely. The chef from this two-star Michelin restaurant was obviously impressed and asked, ‘Who made this?’ When he found out it was me, he turned up his nose and left. He wouldn’t give me a recommendation. Still, I hustled, working from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., taking half an hour off, then working until midnight, sometimes seven days a week. I graduated first in my class.”
“I was on a panel recently at the International Culinary Center, and someone said we need to make kitchens more feminine. I don’t know what they mean by that, because gender is a social construct. And I hate those Best Female Chef awards. It’s like, ‘You’re not one of the 50 best, but you’re the best woman out there.’ It’s degrading. We’re supposed to be equal, but putting us in a separate category accentuates that we’re different. “But if you don’t talk about this gender disparity, you’re not going to solve it. And support is vital. It’s important to have positive role models in this industry, because it is an incredibly challenging one. When women who have done well by me leave my kitchen, I feel it’s my duty to be there for them throughout their careers, to let them bounce ideas off me or ask for advice down the line. The system is a bit broken and the pay sucks, so it’s incumbent on me to help them grow, to get to the point where they can make more money. I wish I’d had that when I was younger.”
The 20-Something CEO
Katlin Smith, Chicago
Why She's a Boss
At the age of 24, Smith started her own company, Simple Mills, which makes gluten-free, non-GMO baking mixes, crackers, cookies, and frostings. Her products are found in more than 12,000 stores nationwide. Last year, Smith was named on Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 list.
“There are things that you run into as a woman and also as somebody who’s young and hasn’t proven herself yet. When we were developing our package design for Simple Mills, the agency we’d hired kept showing us logo after logo, and I kept looking at them thinking, No, this isn’t it. This isn’t it either. But we were on round four of designs. I told my mom, ‘Maybe I’m being too demanding. Maybe these are perfectly fine or I don’t even know what I’m looking for. Maybe it’s just not out there.’ She thought for a minute and said, ‘I can’t think of a great CEO who wasn’t known for being demanding.’ That helped me go back to the designers and tell them we weren’t there yet. On the next round, I knew the winner as soon as I saw it, and that’s our design to this day.”
“Many women struggle with having confidence in their ideas. I like to joke that men will display full confidence when they are 80 percent sure, but women like to be 150 percent sure. It’s this idea of impostor syndrome, but that lack of confidence can make the difference between getting funding and being stocked by a retailer or not. For a long time, I believed in ‘Fake it till you make it,’ but now I’ve replaced it with a phrase that’s more empathetic: ‘I haven’t learned this yet.’ You can still come off as confident when you don’t know something yet, because it means you’re learning.”
Plus, This Is Why We Love South Carolina!
Just as we were pulling together this celebration of women and food, the state's Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism was rolling out the first all-female lineup for its Chef Ambassador Program, which sends chefs around the country to spread the gospel of the Palmetto State's eats. It was a match made in magazine heaven! They supported our efforts, and we applaud theirs. Chef Heidi Vukov of Croissants Bistro & Bakery in Myrtle Beach summed up the group's vibe—and ours—nicely: "All four chef ambassadors have different backgrounds and experiences, but we face similar challenges. Working together, we can overcome those challenges." Exactly!