WOMEN professional chefs are realizing that creating a perfect souffle may not be as critical to their success as building support systems among themselves.
Last summer several top women chefs and restaurant owners formed the International Association of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (IAWCR) to ``promote the education and advancement of women in the restaurant industry and the betterment of the industry as a whole.''
Founding board member Barbara Tropp (cookbook author and owner of San Francisco's China Moon Cafe) further explains that ``parity and equality are our goals.''
In recent years, women have made great strides toward equalizing the ranks in professional kitchens.
But, there's still room for progress, and groups such as IAWCR are providing a valuable forum for women to share insights and experiences.
The group hopes to raise money for women entering culinary schools, where the male-female ratio is skewed. The Culinary Institute of America reports that only 20 percent of its students are women.
Judith Charles, executive director of the 10-year-old Roundtable for Women in Foodservice, Inc. (RWF) notes growing interest in women's food-industry groups.
``Women are more likely now to join a women-focused organization than they were 10 years ago.... Then there was the question of `Oh, I want to be where the big boys are, where all the action is....' Now the climate is different, and women feel there is a need for an organization that addresses their concerns.''
Many meetings at RWF, which has chapters nationwide, are ``geared to special needs of women,'' who make up more than 50 percent of the industry, Charles says. Sexual harassment in the workplace, for instance, has been a popular topic.
Networking is, of course, a key part of RWF, where women seem without fear of `` `Oh, this might be my competitor,' '' Charles says. This networking, however, is not done to the exclusion of men, who are welcome to join RWF and similar groups.
Charles points out that men in the food industry ``are beginning to realize that there are women who are owners of their own businesses, women who are making buying decisions within corporations, and they want to be able to make contact with these women.''
RWF also provides guidance on topics from financing to marketing for members launching a business or developing a new product, Charles says.
Last summer, entrepreneur Kay Corning was elected western regional vice president of the American Culinary Federation (ACF), the largest national professional organization in the field.
In the ACF's 64-year history it has never before nominated or elected a woman officer at the national level, Ms. Corning says.
Corning, who owns ``Kay's Gourmet Catering'' in Westlake Village, Calif., is in good company as a female business owner in the food industry, where about 85 percent of women have chosen the same route.
Women are also well-represented in the baking profession. At Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., 65 percent of the Baking and Pastry students are women, while men make up about 65 percent of the College of Culinary Arts program.
Catering, baking, and pastry sometimes offer more flexible hours, which often better suit women's schedules.
While Meredith Ford, who teaches at the College of Culinary Arts, says that the earlier hours are a ``nice incentive,'' she entered baking because it is a ``more technical'' field: ``I was interested in the chemistry, in what happens to ingredients when they get wet or go into the oven.''
Ms. Ford warns her female students about discrimation in the industry, which can be especially burdensome for black women.
For nine of her 12 years in upper management at a major hotel chain, Constance Jones, a member of the National Association of Black Hospitality Professionals, says she ``never saw another woman of color in that capacity.''
It's a question of ``needing a mentor and being in the right place at the right time,'' explains Ms. Jones, who was fortunate in both ways.
Despite the challenges, women are optimistic. Ellen McShane, vice president of administration at the New England Culinary Institute, in Montpelier, Vt., where about one-third of the students are women, sees them achieving success - partly because they have had to work especially hard to prove themselves, she says.
Andree Robert, executive chef at Maison Robert restaurant in Boston, says that although she has met with occasionally blatant sexism while pursuing a career in the United States, the US is far more progressive for women chefs than Europe, where she completed seven apprenticeships.
But, she says: ``I've pretty much given up on my personal life.... It's impossible, totally impossible.''
Ms. McShane is gratified by the fact that women's organizations are making an impact.
``The industry is going to have to get creative,'' she says, ``to accommodate increasing numbers of women in the field.''