Women chefs fight `blatant discrimination'
NOT long after Elaine Brower graduated from culinary school, she and a male classmate applied for jobs as cooks at a popular Japanese restaurant here. ``They offered him $500 a week,'' Ms. Brower recalls, ``but he felt it wasn't enough. They only offered me $250. And he had less experience than I did.''Skip to next paragraph
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The incident gave Brower (who asked that her real name not be used) an early taste of the discrimination women still face in food service, a predominantly male field. In the three years since then she has also encountered sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and even physical injury when a male cook shoved her against a hot stove, burning her arm.
As more women seek careers in food preparation and management, experiences such as these are becoming more common. In a study of sex equality issues to be released later this winter by the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., female graduates of the school report ``blatant discrimination'' at all levels in the food-service industry. Disparities in salary, responsibility, and opportunity loom large as issues needing attention and solutions.
Discrepancies in men's and women's pay for the same work, respondents report, can range from $2 an hour to $15,000 a year.
In addition, men are often paid ``under the table'' in cash, above their hourly or yearly salaries.
During an interview in her tiny studio apartment on a day off, Brower talked about some of these inequities. With seven years of restaurant experience, she works as a cook at an upscale caf'e on New York's West Side and is responsible for Sunday brunch.
``I am making less than the men who were in charge of brunch before me,'' she says. ``One guy, not only did he not know how to make soup, but he would come to work high on cocaine, and late. He was making $15 an hour cash, and I'm making $10 an hour on the books.''
At 5 feet, 3 inches tall, Brower is keenly aware of another issue in the survey: women's size. Many men perceive women as less capable of performing kitchen duties because of their smaller stature.
``Men just assume that because you're petite you're not capable of handling the necessary briskness of the work, keeping things moving, and lifting heavy pots,'' says Dell Hargis, alumni director of the Culinary Institute and author of the study.
``They look at females as having low energy levels, as not able to work long hours and stand the heat of the kitchen.''
As a result, women are often assigned to work with cold foods - salads and desserts - rather than on the hot line. ``In every restaurant where I've worked, the male employees are assigned the `macho' stations such as broiler or saut'e cook,'' says Naomi Uman, now a caterer. ``Often the women are either in the pantry or assigned to pastries.''
Although many women find great satisfaction in these specialties, others argue that they are dead-end jobs.
``You can know salads all you want, but that's not going to make you the chef of a restaurant,'' Brower explains. ``You can't become a chef without knowing the hot line. It's where you learn the secrets of the chef, where you get the feel of how the meat should be cooked and how the sauces should taste. That's something you're never going to learn in any book. It takes speed, it takes technique.''
Beginners face challenges common to many occupations.
``Women entering food service fields feel they're not prepared for competition, team playing, negotiating, and assertiveness,'' says Ms. Hargis. ``They feel it's not acceptable for a female to be assertive, that her role should be docile - the helpmate, so to speak, in the kitchen - rather than to direct or to lead.''
Not all women report similar problems.