“Welcome to Friday night,” one of the prep cooks says as she chops and dices Swiss chard at The Root Restaurant & Bar in White Lake. Dinner service is like a dance. This adrenaline-fueled environment is what chefs thrive on: punching out meals amid knives and fire. Shouts of “Right behind you!” mix with the sounds of brisket simmering on the stove and the hiss of food hitting pans. The ticket machine spits out orders in a steady stream.
Tonight, executive chef James Rigato is out of town so sous chefs Jessi Patuano and Nicholas Rodgers are running the show. Aside from the usual Friday rush, they’re preparing for a party of 28. As Rodgers oversees the plates that go out, Patuano calmly leads in the back.
Patuano, 27, calls to a young cook. “If you put something in the oven, set a timer or write yourself a note.” She grabs a tray of roasted tomatoes out of the oven. “They’re further than I’d like them to be,” she says.
Meanwhile, pastry chef Emily Davis, 25, sprinkles salt over focaccia dough on a sheet tray. “I’ve made 75 pounds of bread today,” she says. Typically a pastry chef comes in early, bakes, and goes home. But Davis, who displays her baking passion with tattoos of a cupcake on her left arm and a whisk on her right, comes in early to bake, then stays late to help during dinner service.
Davis says she and fellow Schoolcraft College alums Patuano and Sam Stanisz are “three bad-ass girls banging it out” in the kitchen.
The Root’s 2-to-1 ratio of women to men is more the exception than the rule. But it’s symbolic of the strides an industry infamously known as an “old boy’s club” has made the past few decades.
These young women could become tomorrow’s top chefs. But upscale kitchens still have a long way to go — and not just in metro Detroit. A recent Bloomberg article reported there’s a larger percentage of women CEOs than head chefs. It’s apparent in metro Detroit, where a group of chefs known as the Young Guns make headlines for dinners that sell out in a flash. Rigato gets a lot of flak for not featuring any women in those dinners (although Patuano and Davis can be found in the background working these events). But he asks of top female chefs in metro Detroit: “Where are they?”
‘The Back Page’
It’s a question with no clear answer. Yet many food world pioneers have been women. Julia Child made French cuisine accessible to the home cook — and paved the way for today’s Food Network stars. Alice Waters did “farm to table” in the ’70s and ’80s before it was trendy.
During interviews for this story, when asked “Who are the top female chefs in the area?” half of the chefs and industry professionals responded with a lot of head scratching: “I’ll get back to you,” or “I don’t know.” Those who didn’t pause offered up a very small group, including Sweet Lorraine’s Lorraine Platman; Eve Aronoff of Frita Batidos in Ann Arbor; Kate Williams of two new restaurants slated to open this fall in the Grand Army of the Republic Building downtown; and Diamond Jim Brady’s Mary Brady — one of the first women in Michigan to achieve the American Culinary Federation’s Certified Executive Chef (CEC) title.
“It’s an impressive three-letter stamp after your name, especially if you’re a woman,” Brady says. “I would say it’s really helped with acknowledgement from fellow chefs for the most part because I think women get … the back page a lot of times.”
“It’s not a huge pool,” says chef Sharon Juergens, who is Brady’s partner at Diamond Jim Brady’s and will eventually take over the business.
Female chefs like them who are in charge at restaurants are in the minority. According to 2010 census figures, of the 337,000 people working as chefs and head cooks, 19 percent were women (figures are even lower for minorities: 12 percent black, 16.5 percent Asian, and 18 percent Hispanic). There’s more parity further down the food chain. For example, women make up nearly 60 percent of food prep workers.
According to the 2013 National Restaurant Industry Survey, women represented 30 percent of the workforce in fine, upscale dining where wages and benefits are the highest. But in the more price-conscious segments of the industry, minorities and women make up the majority. In casual fine dining, women represented 38 percent of the workforce, with 48 percent working in moderately priced establishments and 49 percent in fast food.
Pay is also not equal. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings for male chefs are $589, compared to $510 for women.
Susan Baier, program coordinator of Oakland Community College’s Culinary Studies Institute, says while executive chefs at the very top can earn six figures, culinary workers in general earn somewhere in the middle. But in terms of working in the kitchen, including the infamous browbeating typified by screaming and thrown plates, “I feel the industry is a little behind [other industries],” she says.
A Different Era
Shows like Hell’s Kitchen are more entertainment than reality, but not long ago, that was the norm.
In the early years of her career, Nina Scott was often the only woman in the kitchen.
Now in her mid-50s, Scott honed her culinary chops after years of working up the ranks (she was 14 when she started cooking professionally).
At Scott’s first job with a local fine dining chain, the corporate chef kept telling her “he was going to make me quit and he was going to make me cry because he didn’t want women in his kitchen,” she says (she had been hired while he was on vacation). She had to take on tasks others wouldn’t be asked to do, such as cleaning out the grease trap with a toothbrush.
“I’d clean it and he’d say, ‘It’s not clean enough’ and dump more grease into it.”
After about a year, “he said something that was way out of line that I won’t even repeat.” She had had it and said she was leaving.
He said, “wait, wait!” and then told her he wanted to see how far he could push her, but she finally had his respect. He told her she was the best on the hot line, man or woman.
Scott worked for the company for 12 years and went on to executive chef roles at establishments such as Big Rock Chophouse, but in recent years took a step back because of family obligations. These days, she runs the men’s locker room, feeding breakfast and lunch to members of the prestigious Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills (and where she works 60 hours a week, which seems like a vacation compared to earlier jobs).
Breaking the Barrier
Before Scott arrived at the tony club, a fellow female chef rose through the ranks. When Julie Selonke, now a chef-instructor at OCC, tells someone of her trade, many assume a culinary stereotype: that she does pastries.
Breaking the barrier wasn’t easy but she set out to prove herself and worked her way up from garde manger (the cold kitchen, where women are usually placed in many kitchens) to interim executive chef.
Reva Constantine, the executive chef at Great Lakes Culinary Center in Southfield who has led the kitchens at Joe’s Produce Gourmet Market in Livonia and Gravity Bar & Grill in Milford, employed the same strategy.
“You worked just as hard or harder than they would,” she says. “You didn’t whine and you didn’t cry … you stayed as late and you mopped the floors and you did whatever you had to do to show that you’re just the same as they are.”
Constantine recalled one day when she pulled aside a fellow female cook and told her: “You can’t let those guys see you cry. … If you’re going to cry, go cry in your car, and get some Visine. … Once you show weakness back there that’s when people are going to step on you. It’s kind of like being in the military … you have to be tough and stand your ground.”
When Casaundra White, now a sous chef at Mex in Bloomfield Hills, started working at Andiamo, “I barely ever saw women on the line … I was one of [Andiamo’s] first female chefs.”
Reflecting on some of her previous jobs, White feels she didn’t have support and believes gender was a factor. But she found success, holding leadership roles in the kitchen — including Bastone Brewery as executive chef. Now she’s content as sous chef at Mex. She likes working for the restaurant group headed by chef Zack Sklar because there’s opportunity for growth. “If I want it I’ll take it,” White says.
Get Out Or Deal With It
Aside from working “five times harder,” sexist comments were common, says Scott. “Back then you tuned it out … [If] you had to put a roof over your head, lemme tell you, you tune it out. Because who are you gonna go to? The chef?”
Alison Costello did just that. Before she started feeding hundreds daily as executive chef at Capuchin Soup Kitchen, she honed her craft at area fine dining restaurants after going to New York for culinary school. She learned to “suck it up” when it came to the kitchen’s macho culture.
But after repeated harassment from one male colleague at 1940 Chop House (things like “When are we getting a room?” and inappropriate sexual comments), she finally had enough.
“I went to the Dearborn Public Library, and I looked up sexual harassment. This was in the ’80s and I was like, wow. I thought it was something that I was just going to have to deal with.”
She told the executive chef, who demoted the colleague to salads — poetic justice because the cold station is where women usually get stuck.
The locker room atmosphere of the kitchen “would never fly today,” Scott says.
It certainly doesn’t for Elizabeth Parfitt, a 26-year-old sous chef at Marais in Grosse Pointe. “Whenever I start somewhere new I just keep my head down and prove myself with my work ethic and skill level,” she says. ”I’ve found that if you are a competent cook and are able to hang on the line that if someone makes a remark about being a girl, all of the other cooks [male] will rally around you and the person making the comment will generally end up looking like the ass.”
When she first started teaching, Baier says the ratio of men to women was around “10-to-1.”
“Then it became more 50-50 and then … now I actually see more women coming into the program,” she says.
In this year’s OCC graduating class, 10 of 16 graduates in culinary arts were female.
In baking and pastry, of 15 students — only one was male. Schoolcraft’s numbers are similar. In this year’s graduating class, 50 of the 120 graduates were women. Half of the 200-plus students are women, who dominate the pastry classes.
But even though more women are going to culinary school, they appear to be getting lost in the shuffle.
“I see the skill set there. I see them going off and taking jobs but somehow I don’t see them advancing in the same ratio as I do men,” says Baier, who then asks herself: “Do they not want it? Are they being held back? Do they change their minds? It’s a puzzle for all of us here.”
Juergens says her class was almost 50 percent women, and she knows of only two who still work in the industry.
The Next Generation
They may not be there — yet — but young up and coming chefs like Davis and Patuano of The Root, Parfitt of Marais, and Sarah Rougeau, banquet chef at Oakland Hills Country Club, are making names for themselves.
Davis, Patuano, and Stanisz are “gonna come out of here just ready to kill it. That’s the goal,” says Rigato. “Their greatness is still to be determined.”
He’s grooming them to take that next step. For Davis, it’s to help her become a well-rounded chef who can run her own establishment. For Stanisz, it’s to become sous chef, who is an executive chef’s eyes and ears. Patuano’s next step is executive chef, Rigato says.
At Marais, Parfitt works directly under executive chef David Gilbert, for whom she started working as an intern at Forest Grill in Birmingham. As sous chef, she takes care of ordering and prepping. She also manages the other cooks to ensure the kitchen runs smoothly and standards are enforced.
“A kitchen is an empowering place for a competent female chef — you are basically one of the guys and I think it’s a compliment to your abilities when you are treated like it,” she says.
Rougeau is a part of a management team that oversees approximately 25 cooks at Oakland Hills, where she has worked for nine years. The 33-year-old chef, who won a silver medal in the International Culinary Exhibition (Culinary Olympics) in 2012, works 10- to 12-hour days, 5-6 days a week — sometimes more.
Older men have told her, “I’ve been here longer than you and I’m not a sous chef.” Rougeau’s thoughts on that: Maybe they weren’t working hard enough.
At The Root, Patuano took ownership of the charcuterie program when she felt she needed more of a challenge. She’s honed her skills with the help of Rigato and charcuterie expert and chef Brian Polcyn.
A new generation of restaurateurs like Sklar emphasize transparency and are trying to build a family-oriented culture. His company, Peas & Carrots Hospitality, includes Social Kitchen in Birmingham, Mex, and Beau Jack’s.
The Culinary Institute of America graduate personally trains back of the house staff and says the company’s smaller size allows it to be more hands-on.
The goal is to become “known as one of the best companies to work for, like Zappos or Google,” he says. “Being so new and small, we aren’t there yet, but that is a huge part of our culture even now, to provide meaningful and important positive reinforcement to our staff.”
Being a chef is more than just cooking — it’s also about crunching numbers, multitasking, and, most importantly, being a leader.
Rougeau says work comes first, feelings come second. But her serious approach has garnered respect at Oakland Hills.
“The beverage manager came up to me and said, ‘I thought you should know that one of your employees said you were a powerhouse and can do anything.’”
Being assertive in the kitchen if you’re a woman can be a challenge especially when a tough exterior can be viewed negatively. When leading kitchens, Scott says she was tough but fair. She also looked for ways to support her crew. As executive chef she would relieve the dishwasher or the line cook. “What you’re trying to do as a chef is to create a good team.”
Restaurateurs like Brady are sensitive to their staff’s personal needs. For example, on Mother’s Day, they closed early so their employees could be with their families.
And more established chefs look to help younger chefs.
Kelli Lewton runs the successful 2 Unique Caterers & Event Planners, marking 25 years in the industry. It recently partnered with Door to Door Organics and became the exclusive caterer for Temple Israel.
The Schoolcraft graduate still teaches at her alma mater because “young women need women” working in the industry as role models.
Price to Pay
A common theme among chefs: There is always a price. And for women, family priorities are usually the cost.
Rigato has seen valuable cooks leave because of family life; one worked right up until she gave birth. His last pastry chef, who has three kids, got a day job in search of better pay and hours.
Sacrifices are part of the job, Patuano says. “I have chosen to put my work first, always. My own personal health, relationships, and free will come second to the job. You have to in order to be successful.
“There are always 10 roaring and ready cooks behind you waiting to take your place,” she says.
“I think a lot of women don’t think about how hard they’re going to have to work and how much they’re going to have to give up especially when it comes to family life and relationships,” says Costello. “You gotta be there for your kids. … You can’t work 60-80 hours a week and be a parent. I’m sorry. You can’t.”
Selonke wonders if her choice to not have kids helped her advance. Being a chef is a “full-on commitment,” she says.
For chefs like Parfitt, families are not on their immediate radar screens.
“I see having a baby as the end to my career, and I don’t want that to happen anytime soon. I think I would much rather work than have a family … I don’t see it like it’s either one or the other — I see it as I love my job.”
Staying — and Thriving
JoAnne Grear, owner and president of Brown Bag Catering that serves high-end clients such as the Detroit Opera House, says it’s all about finding your niche. Women who find success in the industry “are at the top because we put ourselves there,” she says.
Lewton agrees. “If something doesn’t serve me, then I move on. I don’t cry ‘girl’ or ‘woman’ or ‘foul.’ I just go and find my next opportunity. Have I been treated inappropriately because I’m a woman? Perhaps. Have I been denied some opportunities because I’m a woman? Perhaps. I don’t get some of the big hoopla … [But] I’ll get something else because I have more business than I know what to do with.”
Costello says her job at the soup kitchen, which she runs like a fine dining restaurant, allows her to grow as a chef as well as a wife and mom.
Constantine has also found the perfect job at Great Lakes Culinary Center.
Life in the kitchen is hard, she says. “You are old at 35 in the kitchen. It is hard. It is tough. It is hot. … You’re on your feet all day long.
“I choose my life before this culinary life. I choose my children; I choose my family,” Constantine says. “I think that’s why a lot of women and other chefs choose to do other aspects in this world … we choose to have a life outside of the kitchen.”