Michelle Bernstein on Why There Are So Few Women Chefs
"Unfortunately, there's also not a lot of women still who want to be executive chefs," she told Eater. "Maybe they don't like the pressure of it or working in a male-dominated kitchen where there is so much ego. I don't welcome ego or attitude in my kitchen, but maybe for some of them, it's not worth it. Maybe they want to have kids and a family, but I really don't know."
We were wondering the same thing when we spoke with James Beard winner Michelle Bernstein last week, the powerhouse behind Michy's, Sra. Martinez, and Michelle Bernstein at the Omphoy Ocean Resort in Palm Beach. We caught her at the day's end Thursday, when she spoke to us from the car with her 4-month-old son.
Clean Plate Charlie: Why aren't there more women executive chefs in South Florida?
Michelle Bernstein: Well, it used to be worse. Twenty years ago, 10 percent of culinary schools had women as students and 3 percent went on to become chefs. Now, I tour around to speak at culinary schools around the country, and I'm seeing that it's more like 40 percent of culinary school classes are made up of women. As they move up the ranks, I think you'll start seeing the numbers of women executive chefs increase.
Still, no one in school or on cooking shows tells you how labor-intensive it is. It's backbreaking work. You look like shit. You can't wear anything attractive. This is not appealing to most women.
In South Florida, I was one of the only women and I stuck out like a sore thumb. For my first job, the test was lifting two big bags of flour across the kitchen. Now, you can't get away with that. But it really is one of the most labor intensive jobs you can have. A lot of people are shocked when they start working in a kitchen at how difficult it is.
The other factor is, no one gives a crap what you can create in the first ten years of your career. You're cooking what someone else tells you to make. And you're making $9, $10 an hour. It's disillusioning. It's really the large numbers of people who move on from these conditions -- not just women.
Clean Plate Charlie: Do more women apply to work for you?
Michelle Bernstein: I was hoping I'd make women feel more comfortable.... My first staff only had one woman. Since then, I've picked up a few incredible women on our staff. Right now at Michy's, there are no women on the hotline. You have to fight like a beast to get on the hotline. It's survival of the fittest. I want strong people there. I'd love to see more women there.
Clean Plate Charlie: Why are more women working pastry as opposed to on the line?
Michelle Bernstein: Pastry isn't as many hours for the same pay. It's not 180 degrees by the ovens. You're not constantly hurting yourself over there. They may feel they have more of a chance to make it. Maybe it's a sign they're smarter.
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