“Everything I learned about food I learned from a woman. It started with my grandmother’s hands, which touched everything I ate as a child. They were frail, wrinkled and clenched with the muscle memory of a lifetime of cooking,” wrote Brooklyn-born Top Chef Edward Lee in his James Beard Award for Writing book Buttermilk Graffiti.”
Most of us have similar experiences– learning about food and cooking from a mother or grandmother. And yet women, even in this day and age, are underrepresented in professional kitchens, especially in top executive positions and among Michelin awarded chefs.
“It’s a man’s world,” said Vicky Schrage, assistant professor and department chair at Guam Community College. Of the 120 students currently enrolled in Culinary Arts, only 40 percent are women, she said. And not all those women eventually pursue jobs in the industry. Nationwide, only 40 percent of professional chefs are women, and only 7 percent of restaurants are led by women.
Although there has yet to be a formal study done on women chefs on Guam, one has the sneaking suspicion that the picture is not as lopsided on Guam. We have the chef /owners – Sara Pleadwell and Monique Genereux of Mosa’s Joint, Pika Fejeran of Pika’s, Shizuka Louboutin of ParisCo, Casey Troung of Ma’s Kitchen, Rena Diego of Gourmet Guam, Tonnie Guzman of Z’s Canteen, Krystal Talato, formerly of Kitchen Lingo and Terri Jeanine Hotmer of Marianas Yacht Club, Ronnie Calvo of Cup and Saucer. Then there are hotel chefs Jasmine Nadres and Myra Tiamzon Abat of Lotte, Katie Lusk of Dusit Thani, Madoka Hosotano Tenorio of Leo Palace, Jackie Borja of Pacific Island Club, Mina Aflague of Hyatt, Marivic Sibal Capati of Dusit Thani, Kinara Buekea of Hyatt and Joannyssa Rance of Eataliano. Plus many others not mentioned here.
Dusit Thani Executive Chef John Beriker said there should be more women chefs in Guam. He just hired two recently, and will be hiring more.
“They are amazing. Very responsible,” he said.
Pleadwell, one of the most successful female chefs on island, says her kitchen is 60 percent female. She said women balance the dynamics in the kitchen. “Men will not admit it but they have more drama…men tend to want to compete with each other…a woman will come in and do her job and perform for herself.
On Guam there has never been a hotel female executive chef or food and beverage managers. This lack of representation in top spots is typical nationwide.
"There's a lack of representation in the top spots for women in general and women of color in particular,” said Elle Simone, a food stylist who is also the first African-American cast member on the PBS series America's Test Kitchen and founder of SheChef, a networking group for women of color in the food industry.
Could it be the brutal working conditions that is keeping the women away from executive positions? “Aside from rock musicians, policemen, firefighters who are putting their lives on the line on a daily basis you’ll be damned to find professions that is more taxing on an individual losing control of one’s life,” said Chicago chef Philip Foss.
“It’s from as early as you can stand up to as late as you can stay awake. You almost start to shut down and shut out everything. At least for me, it’s not spending time with your wife and not communicating with your family,” said David Beran, ex-chef of Next.
“You can ask my kids – I neglected them when they were younger. I really had to give up a lot to start my career. I have more time to spend with them now,” Pleadwell said. “But I feel guilty, thinking back to that 10-year span.”
Her advice to younger chefs? “You have to be the whole package. It’s not just about being able to put food in the plate that tastes and looks good. Don’t limit yourself just because you are a woman. If you get hired at Mosa’s you have to do what others do. Just because you are a girl does not mean we will throw trash or lift that heavy cake for you.”
Competition is an important component of the industry. Although some female chefs were awarded Michelin stars when the Micheline guide first started in 1926, in recent years men have been the majority of awardees. This has led to a criticism of the Micheline Guide, which has turned around and said there are fewer women chefs awarded Michelin stars simply because there are fewer women chefs.
Some have advocated for a women-only category to give women chefs a chance to elevate their status in the male dominated industry. On Guam, American Culinary Federation president chef Miguel Moral said he is willing to start the discussion about adding a women chef category in ACF’s prestigious ECARA competitions.
But will the women compete?
“Competition is not for everyone. Priority is to earn a living and feed the family. To earn the title of Top Chef on Guam is the least of (some chef’s) priority,” Schrage said. “The few women chef competitors on Guam who do compete were trained under our GCC Culinary program from high school to compete locally and nationally. The female chef competitors on Guam are all products of our ProStart culinary program at local high schools.”
Pleadwell said she competed more when she was starting as a chef and would like to do it again. “My partner Monique and I can compete together,” she said. “I would want to be involved in that.”
Lee believes passionately about putting women in higher ranking positions in the restaurant industry that he started the Women Chefs Initiative in Kentucky last January.
“By shining a spotlight on little known female chefs…we intend to elevate their presence as well as their capability,” said Lee.
Yes, indeed. A woman’s place is in the kitchen.
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Jeni Ann Flores is an educator, blogger and freelance writer. You may read more of her writing in