A Woman's Place Is in the What?

Ann Cooper remembers when the phrase "a woman's place is in the kitchen" made her cringe.

At the time, she was in culinary school, working day and night to take classes, study, and pay for her schooling. All that work was to try to get into a kitchen.

But today, that saying holds positive meaning. Ms. Cooper used it for the title of her book, "A Woman's Place is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Chefs" (Van Nostrand & Reinhold/John Wiley & Sons, $29.95.)

Cooper, executive chef at the Putney Inn in Vermont, interviewed more than 200 female chefs, and surveyed more than 1,000 female cooks and chefs for her book, a fascinating look at the past, present, and future of women "in the kitchen."

From the pioneers of cooking schools to today's upwardly mobile chefs, the pages highlight women's experiences: triumphs, trials, sacrifices, balancing acts, and more.

It may seem ironic: Women have long been regarded as the food providers around the world, yet only recently have they been welcome in professional kitchens.

Years ago, prestigious kitchens in the United States were "manned" by male French chefs who fostered the image of head chefs as a kind of military officer - in dress whites.

But along with the increase of women in the work world in many professions, America witnessed a growing cadre of women chefs and restaurant owners.

The trend has played out in culinary school enrollment: For example, in 1972, the Culinary Institute of America's student body was only 5 percent female; today it's 25 percent.

Still, of the 2,134 certified executive chefs in the US today, only 92 are women - 4.3 percent.

"Historically, women have always had a strong presence in the kitchen, but never in the upper echelons of the professional kitchen. As the twenty-first century begins, we see more significant shifts in the industry's culture, work, and gender representation as women bring their perspective into the workplace," Cooper writes.

In 1993 Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR) was formed to provide a network for the increasing number of women in the restaurant industry. Founders included such well-known women chefs as Lidia Bastianich, Joyce Goldstein, Johanne Killeen, Barbara Lazaroff, Mary Sue Milliken, Anne Rosenzweig, and Barbara Tropp.

Many women chef-restaurateurs emerge because they feel the need to be on their own, says Cooper during an interview. "They want to be their own boss."

Similarly, food-related companies headed by women - such as mail-order and catering - have also grown. "Women are finding ways of getting into niches," says Cooper, "much of their success is dependent on risk-taking."

The time is ripe to recognize women in the kitchen, Cooper says. Not that there still aren't discrimination problems, and not that male chefs aren't doing spectacular jobs too. But "for a lot of women, people said you couldn't do it .... and they did."

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