What it’s like to attend a conference that shouldn’t have to exist — the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs Conference, where participants offer support and harrowing stories of their careers.
There’s no Male Chefs & Restaurateurs national conference — there’s no need for one. Men run the industry. Men hold 80 percent of executive/head chef jobs in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And female chefs make 28.3 percent less base pay than male ones do, according to a 2016 study by Glassdoor.
Women’s work in the restaurant industry is chronically underrepresented in the media and awards. This year’s 50 Best Restaurants list contained zero restaurants helmed solely by women — not one in the whole world. Same with last year. While they might want to, women who work in restaurants can’t forget coverage like Time’s 2013 “The Gods of Food,” with not one female chef mentioned. An editor defended the choice as a reflection of “the harsh reality” of the restaurant world.
On the job, women often encounter disrespect, if not outright sexual harassment. Allowances for family are desperately few and far between: Only 4 percent of food-service workers get any paid family leave, per U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the face of this harsh reality, the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (WCR) conference in Seattle this past weekend felt like a revolution — one with a lot of hugging and a fair amount of profanity. “Walk with confidence,” WCR president Alicia Boada urged in her 9 a.m. Sunday introduction. “Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor every morning, the devil says, ‘Oh, crap — she’s up.’ ” The well-caffeinated crowd occupying a big ballroom at the W Hotel cheered — 278 attendees total, from all over the U.S. and Canada.
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The devil’s got nothing on Seattle’s own Maria Hines, chef/owner of Tilth, Agrodolce and Young American Ale House, who took the mic (handed over with a hug) for a keynote address that involved a laughing apology for “dropping F-bombs.” But the story she told of her journey from an ADD–afflicted teenage kitchen serf to a James Beard Award winner in the man’s world of restaurants merited cursing.
Hines loved the work from the get-go, in her first job in the pantry of Carlos Murphy’s, an Irish/Mexican bar and grill (cue audience laughter) in San Diego. “I couldn’t believe I was getting paid $5.75 an hour to peel carrots!” she said. She thought it was “[F-bomb] amazing!” She then spoke poetically about how senses come alive in the kitchen: hearing the sound of a simmer, the smell when roasting veal bones are done, the feel of just-right pasta dough, the all-encompassing focus required when a service descends into chaos. “And something really beautiful comes out of that,” she said.
Back at Carlos Murphy’s, at the start of her career, she just wanted to get on the line — to move up to making hot food. She was told no, over and over. When she pressed for a reason, she was told she was too short to reach the ticket machine. She showed the kitchen manager that she could reach the button to unspool the dining room’s orders down to her level, but he was unmoved. Finally, Hines went to the female general manager, who did her the kindness of telling her, “They just don’t want to put a woman behind the line,” along with the vast disservice of doing nothing about it.
Like many before her, Hines didn’t have it in her at the time to put up a fight, but, at a juncture where many women have departed the industry, she continued on. She found a female chef to work for, but one who’d school her in the time-honored, male-dominated-kitchen way. Once, when Hines plated some food wrong, “She punched me in the stomach,” Hines said. The audience collectively gasped; there were a few laughs, maybe of disbelief, or of empathy. Hines said she was “a hot mess” at the time — that learning discipline, even this way, helped her.
Eventually, assuming leadership roles, she’d consciously choose to set aside the traditional, often abusive model of training. Trying to command respect in this culture, often as the only woman in the kitchen, “I didn’t have a whole lot in my corner,” Hines said. “I was a lesbian, I was five-foot-nothing.” She did her share of screaming and pan-throwing; she once made a guy who’d shirked carrying five gallons of soup up from downstairs bring five times as much up, then back down, then up again. “Then I realized that’s not really the right way to go about it,” she said. “I found out you could get the same results with nurturing, compassion, communicating.”
Hines ended her conference address with a rallying cry, courtesy of her long-ago mentor. Hines was, she admitted, “really busy partying” back then — she was 16 or 17. Along with the gut-punch, her mentor finally sat her down. “She said, ‘Maria, there are three kinds of people: people who watch it happen, people who make it happen, and people who say ‘What happened?’ ” Hines paused. “So let’s make it happen!” she said, to thunderous applause.
Later at the conference, food historian Ana Kinkaid addressed the key roles women and food have played in human rights in the United States, from female colonial tavern owners, to the activism of Eleanor Roosevelt, to Dooky Chase’s integral part in the civil-rights movement. “When democracy happens, women and food are involved,” Kinkaid declared, pacing breathlessly, practically pounding the podium. “And it’s a story that’s largely forgotten, because history is written by men.” Whoops and cries of “Yay!” punctuated her exhortations. She told crowd members that they were “part of a legacy,” one of women “who changed the history of our country through food!” Bringing it home, she proclaimed, “Now it’s your turn!” She got a standing ovation.
Two days of more speakers ensued, with talks on leadership, on legal negotiating, and on lobster, plus mentoring sessions, tours of Pike Place Market, Washington wine drinking, and more hugging.
Hines also emceed the conference’s live, onstage cooking competition: three teams of chefs from all over matched with three local chef/coaches, two burners per team to make a sweet and a savory dish in 30 minutes. Coach Holly Smith (of Cafe Juanita) selflessly tracked down an additional cutting board for each team, while coach Rachel Yang (Revel and more) attempted to bribe the judges (Nina Buty of Walla Walla’s Buty Winery, Kathy Casey of Dish D’Lish and Leslie Mackie of Macrina) with a cocktail. Coach Meeru Dhalwala (Vij’s in Vancouver, B.C.) bemoaned the lack of turmeric on the premises, but declared herself “majorly impressed” overall as the time ticked down, with the ballroom smelling better and better.
Hines, sampling cocktails, making jokes, and working the crowd, found probably the youngest conference attendee, a little girl named Evie (sitting next to what looked like her mom). Handing her a business card, Hines offered her a job as a sauté cook, starting right away, what with the industry’s staffing shortage. Then Hines asked her what she was most excited about for the conference. She hesitated, then said, well, it wasn’t really a particular thing she was most excited about, then said, wait, yes it was — just that “WCR is a place for people that didn’t have a place.” More thunderous applause.