By Cindi Avila
Beyoncé says, “Who runs the world? Girls.” and, as it turns out, they now run many kitchens too. We’ve noticed this first hand at the Institute of Culinary Education, where females make up at least 50% of our student body.
Female ICE grads have gone on to amazing success, including James Beard Award-winning chefs Allison Vines-Rushing, Claudia Fleming, and Gina DePalma.The most recent examples of female alumni accolades include Mesa Grill Executive Pastry Chef Clarisa Martino, 2013 winner of Dessert Professional’s Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America and Chef Rachael Yang, whose Seattle restaurant Joule was recently featured as one of Bon Appetit’s 10 Best New Restaurants.
And this success isn’t limited to the restaurant industry. Other female alumni are leaders in national and international culinary enterprises as well, with ICE grad Tina Borbeau as Fresh Direct’s Director of Research & Development, or grad Jill Talcott, Corporate Product Development Manager for Starbucks.
Beyond the facts, chefs and restaurateurs alike have noticed major changes for women in the culinary world. Mentions ICE alum Elisa Strauss—Owner of Confetti Cakes, and recognizable from her many TV appearances including the Today Show, Sex and the City, Food Network Challenge and 30-Minute Meals With Rachael Ray— “In the last decade you have really seen a better representation of women in the culinary field from sommeliers to restaurateurs. The professional kitchen used to be just for male chefs, but I’m happy to see more women chefs [in general], not just a few famous ones whose names keep being regurgitated.”
ICE’s Director of Management Studies and accomplished restaurateur, Stephen Zagor says “It wasn’t long ago that restaurants were the domain of the male. Kitchens resembled men’s gyms – steamy, sweaty and brassy.” However, change has come steadily The increased presence of women in pro kitchens and restaurants has generally fostered more civil and calm working environments, and according to Zagor, “that’s a good thing.” Cites Zagor, “In the last 10 years the ‘lipstick ceiling’ has been cracked with more and more women owners, chefs and managers.”
ICE Chef-Instructor Michelle Tampakis agrees, citing from the earliest days of her own career that women working in restaurants were mostly waitstaff. ”It was hard to get a position in the back of the house. Kitchens were mostly male dominated.” Tampakis’ own story supports the trend of progress. After breaking new ground as Executive Pastry Chef at Windows on the World in the 1980s, she went on to become a successful competitor on the international pastry circuit and ICE Chef-Instructor. This year, she launched Whipped Pastry Boutique, specializing in gluten-free pastry and baked goods.
Alum and southwest cooking expert Ivy Stark has also experienced this change first hand. As Corporate Executive Chef at Dos Caminos, Stark is about as high up on the industry food chain as one can get. The ’95 grad says, “I am very fortunate, aside from very isolated instances. My employers, colleagues and staff have never treated me differently. I see young hard-working women cooks and chefs in kitchens everywhere being treated as equals by their male colleagues.”
2009 ICE graduate Brooke Siem says one thing that has helped women rise in the industry is the variety of jobs now available. “The wave of artisan products and the push for small businesses has really changed the game for female chef. Food is no longer just about dining out at a high-end restaurant. There are more opportunities to create something new and make a name for yourself.” Siem should know. She owns Prohibition Bakery, an innovative cupcake shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, crafting sweet treats with a splash of liquor.
Another instrumental tool that Siem says has helped women isn’t found in the kitchen. “Throw social media into the mix, and suddenly it seems common to see women working and owning their own businesses in the food industry. That inspires more young women to pursue a similar path, and so on.”
When it comes to media influence, for alum Gail Simmons—judge on Top Chef and Director of Special Projects for Food & Wine—the sky is the limit. In a day when reality stars are more likely to be bad influences than role models, Simmons proves that it’s possible to build an intelligent public image and dynamic career.
As for the next generation, Stark says, “I absolutely do feel that it is important to mentor other women. It has been an extremely rewarding career for me, and I love passing along my experience to [those] just starting out. The kitchen is still largely male-dominated and can be intimidating [at first].” Stark reinforces her words with action, stating, “I am very proud to say that all of our current Executive Sous Chefs at Dos Caminos are female and started with us as line cooks, some of them straight out of school.”
At ICE that’s something we love to hear!