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.''

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.

``I have been treated fairly, on the whole,'' says Sarah D'Evelyn, a chef de parti at the Center Club in Costa Mesa, Calif. Although she found discrimination and harassment during an internship at an American resort in the Caribbean, she concludes, ``In my experience, if you prove yourself, you will not be cast aside. You may have to work harder than a guy, that's definitely true. It's just taken for granted that he can do the job. People are still skeptical of women. But if you prove yourself, then you will be given as much responsibility as a man.''

For some women, the solution is to start their own business. After facing equality issues as employees in professional kitchens, Ms. Uman and Catherine Young, both graduates of the Culinary Institute, formed their own firm, Sweet Home Catering.

Perching on stools in their spacious catering kitchen, set up in an old school in New York's East Village, the partners discuss the trade-offs of being self-employed.

``Owning a business is very time-consuming and has its share of problems,'' Ms. Young concedes, noting that she and Uman have worked 15 hours a day for the past three months.

``But the rewards for a woman or man with a more independent nature are great. It's thrilling to be able to use my sought-after skills, without having to deal with the politics of sex.''

Other women try to avoid inequities by seeking management positions. Even there, Hargis observes, women often find themselves in support roles rather than in direct management or supervision. In addition, she points out, ``The creativity that makes people want to work in food gets squelched in management. When you move away from hands-on cooking into management, you lose that opportunity to create.''

Hargis notes the irony of the challenges women face in professional kitchens. ``Obviously the female has always taken the role in the home of preparing the food for the family,'' she says. ``Somewhere along the way men became interested in cooking because a woman cooked for them.

``This industry is going to suffer a crushing blow if the inequities now present are allowed to remain there,'' she predicts. ``We are going to lose females in the kitchen, in the industry in general. Females do have a great deal to offer in this field.''

To keep women in food service and to help them progress, Hargis says, culinary schools ``must accept some responsibility to train females to deal with these problems.'' This could mean adding courses on subjects as specific as salary negotiation.

Female graduates believe culinary schools should try to identify companies that blatantly discriminate against women in interviewing, hiring, and promotion practices.

The study also recommends the establishment of panels to explore ways to correct inequities now tolerated by the industry.

In general, employers must show more sensitivity.

``If you treat people with respect, you generally get it, if they don't feel threatened,'' says Rochelle Bonelli, who moved from New York to St. Clair, Mich., to open her own restaurant next month.

Employers responding to the institute's survey do give high marks to female employees. Women, they say, are often more dedicated and conscientious in their performance than male counterparts, need less supervision, and follow directions with greater accuracy.

Still other progressive steps may evolve naturally. ``I really think the new American cuisine is going to help,'' says Uman. ``That's women's forte. It's home cooking brought to more professional surroundings. With the trend toward regional American foods, maybe the European tradition of a male hierarchy is going to subside.''

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