From the Classroom

Why women rule the kitchen, but not the restaurant industry

While women have traditionally held the role of the head chef in the household, this title does not typically extend to leadership positions in the food industry today.

DESCRIBE THE IMAGE FOR ACCESSIBILITY, EXAMPLE: Photo of a chef putting red sauce onto an omelette.

It was 4 a.m. in Echo Park. Ryan Lagasse, the founder and operator of The Little Lamb Coffee + Clay mobile shop, was waiting for her delivery man to bring her pastries for her food truck.

He would knock on her door, hand over the pastry boxes and wish her a good day. Then, he would turn around and close the door behind him.

But this time it was different.

He knew the door code to Lagasse’s building. He knew that she lives alone. The first time he tried to converse with Lagasse for longer, he commented that her “body was beautiful” and asked if she was a runner. In her robe, Lagasse was caught off guard by the comment, but she dismissed it. She gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was just being friendly, so she tried not to think much more into it.

The following day, Lagasse grabbed the pastry boxes and turned away, but something seemed different from the normal routine. She never heard the door close. When she looked behind, she was startled to see that he was peeking through a crack in the door he had left.

Since the incident occurred, Lagasse installed a video doorbell camera so she no longer has to face the fear of answering the door. But this type of misogynistic behavior is what perpetuates the gender inequality gap that often occurs at top positions in the food industry.

Despite women traditionally being the household’s head chef, their title does not extend beyond the home kitchen in contemporary society.

In a 2022 Industry Insights reeport by Lunchbox, women make up nearly half of the workforce in the restaurant and food service industry, but only 20% of head chefs identify as female, while 77% identify as male.

Lola Olivares, owner of Lola’s Tacos, said, “Traditionally, women are always in the kitchen. So why is it shocking that a woman is good [at her food business]? Because there’s always a taco man? ... But never a taco woman?”

This was made clear to Olivares when a male customer assumed that one of Olivares’ male employees, Ryan, was the owner instead of her. But even when Ryan pointed to Olivares as the owner, Olivares explained, “[The customer] looks at me. He goes, ‘Huh? Does she know what she’s doing?’”

Though many women are starting to become business owners in the food industry, gender discrimination still persists. According to a research summary by Zippia, nearly half of the people attending the Culinary Institute of America in 2021 were female. But women like Elvia Huerta still faced disrespect from her male counterparts, despite getting a degree from culinary school and being the lead cook when she worked at the UCLA dining hall kitchens.

“I felt the difference,” Huerta said. “The pay was different. The opportunities didn’t come as easy for me as it did for my colleagues, who were males. When it came to certain responsibilities and jobs, the male colleagues would be the ones who would get first dibs on it.”

In an article by Forbes Advisor, the male median salary was $34,476, while women’s was just $31,096. This meant that men received 11% more money than women in the food preparation and serving industry.

In addition, Huerta regularly faced sexist remarks from her manager and male colleagues. She eventually decided to quit when her manager told her that because she’s a woman, she should vacuum and wipe the tables while her male coworker finishes her job in the kitchen.

“I walked away. I went home, and then the next day, that’s when I put in my resignation. That was my breaking point,” Huerta said.

“Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of machismo. There’s still a lot of men that [think] ‘women [should be] in the kitchen, but [they] can’t run a business,” Olivares said.

The struggles of prejudice and sexual harassment against women are a common occurrence and should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, the women who have faced uncomfortable situations in the industry have highlighted the importance of speaking up.

“Use your voice and stand up for yourself. … Do not give [the haters] your energy, but learn how to speak up,” Olivares said.

“If men don’t have accountability, they’re not going to care enough to change on their own,” Lagasse said. “They’re going to keep in their same pattern of what’s comfortable. … But there needs to be consequences.”

“I wish I would have been angrier and really made a scene during that time,” Huerta said.

Despite Huerta’s regret, she reported a separate misogynistic incident to management. Lagasse reported what the delivery man did to her at the bakery. And Olivares has made it apparent to male customers that she will not get pushed around.

“We’ve let [men] get away with it. … [that] they don’t even know when they’re making a woman uncomfortable anymore. So call men out. Women, stop saying sorry [when] you know, you’re not doing anything wrong,” Lagasse advocates.

While women can do their best to speak up, there are still systemic gender inequities in the food industry that must be addressed. In this present day, it’s unacceptable to confine women solely to certain domestic duties only when it’s convenient for men. Instead, we must normalize seeing women not only excelling in their culinary skills but also in their professional pursuits within and beyond the food industry.