January 2020

She's in Charge

Women are Making Inroads in Professional Kitchens

By Marisa Finetti

The jovial Chef Auguste Gusteau, in the 2007 Pixar masterpiece film Ratatouille, said “Anyone can cook…but only the fearless can be great.”

That goes for men and women, all the same. Certainly, women. Because she has always been part of the food world and regarded as the predominant cook in the domestic setting for as long as we can remember.

Yet still, in most societies, women tend to be poorly represented at higher-status levels associated with food. Even when food writers hailed Alain Ducasse as the first chef to earn six Michelin stars in 1998, they forgot to mention that Eugenie Brazier, the unsung female hero of French cuisine, actually accomplished that feat more than 60 years earlier.

More baffling is that nearly half the students at the Culinary Institute of America are women – same with UNLV’s hospitality program – yet less than 20 percent of the chefs or head cooks in the U.S. are female.

For one, women in the culinary world face the same challenges that women in all professions face: balancing work and family. Women’s relationship to food has been typically relegated to the areas inside the picket fence, if you will. The role of the home cook is often associated with women, while professional “chefs” are men. Not that women aren’t at all proud to be moms, the nurturing guiding stars, the indispensable glue and comforting nourishment providers of the household. You can footnote me there.

Along the same lines, some female chefs believe that men receive more attention due to the different styles of cooking between men and women. Whether it’s true or not, a higher value is placed on men in the culinary world for their trendy, high-caliber dishes. But are those dishes higher in the souls of diners?

Let’s go back to that the big scene in Ratatouille, where Remy sends out the deciding dish to food critic Anton Ego. The dish instantly transports Ego back to his childhood, to a day when his mother gave him a bowl of ratatouille, provoking a deep emotional response. This is exactly what every serious cook wants to do. And what do you know? The emotion was prompted by a memory from a home kitchen.

Outside of the home, however, it is seemingly an unfavorable environment for women. Alan Richman, of the New York Times writes, “Excessive manliness is widespread in restaurant kitchens…I suspect it’s due to restaurant kitchens’ militaristic command structure.”

How did it get like this?

A little history…

If we’re talking about food and survival of early men and women, studies show that early and even modern hunter-gatherer tribes operate on an egalitarian basis, (M. Dyble, G. D. Salali, N. Chaudhary, A. Page, et al). But the findings also led to the idea that the dawn of agriculture was where the imbalance between men and women emerged. Labor roles became more gendered and the rise of systems of property and inherited wealth also contributed to sexual inequality, the researchers say.

Military history might also explain it. As early as the 14th century, members of the military were cooks by default. In Royal Taste: Food, Power and Status at the European Courts after 1789, author Daniëlle De Vooght tells how “domestic cookery has always been associated with women, [but] whenever a technical, more elaborate, socially more prestigious cuisine has begun to develop – usually in princely courts – it has been associated with male chefs.” He goes on to explain that “this was because men always cooked with armies and that their function in kitchens began as an extension of their role in the field.”

For centuries, men have reigned in restaurant kitchens. They have also been noted to be among the first “celebrity chefs.” Take for example, Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1883), master of the grand cuisine. Alexis Soyer (1810-1858), arguably the inventor of the soup kitchen during the Great Irish Famine and also the person who developed a technique to cook with gas. And of course, Francois Vatel (1631-1671) who, when after not sleeping for nearly two weeks in preparing for King Louis XIV’s grand banquet, heard of a delayed fish delivery, became so overwhelmed he ran into the very sword given to him by the royal court. Haute cuisine was high pressure, indeed.

In the film Ratatouille, Colette, the only female “cook” in the kitchen says, “How many women do you see in this kitchen? . . . Only me. Why do you think that is? Haute cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world… But still I’m here. How did this happen? . . . Because I am the toughest cook in this kitchen!”

It was in the second half of the twentieth century that women began making inroads into professional kitchens. Cooking legend Julia Child popularized French cuisines in U.S. households, while Alice Waters shared her passion for organic, local, and healthy cuisine with the opening of Chez Panisse in the early 1970s. In 2005, Cristeta Comerford was the first female Filipino-American and Asian ever to be appointed as the White House Executive Chef. Let’s not forget to mention some of our own from Las Vegas who have galvanized these efforts in extraordinary ways – Elizabeth Blau, Jolene Maninna, Nicole Brisson, Kim Owens, Gina Marinelli, Nina Manchev, and Jamie Tran, just to name a few. These are inspirational female chefs, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs who have worked with tenacity and perseverance to thrive and exert influence in the industry.


(L-R) Mary Choi Kelly, MCK Leadership, Elizabeth Blau, Blau & Associates and Jolene Mannina, Secret Burger

Women's Hospitality Initiative Inaugural Event

In Las Vegas, healthy conversations have been building actionable momentum, especially with a new organization called the Women’s Hospitality Initiative (WHI). The Women’s Hospitality Initiative, a component fund of Nevada Community Foundation 501(c)(3), is committed to developing and implementing programs for women to grow and achieve leadership positions in the food and beverage community.
“It is time to truly make a difference for young women in our industry,” says acclaimed restaurateur and co-founder Elizabeth Blau. “I had the good fortune of being surrounded by extraordinary mentors, from my parents, to dear family friends, as well as the professional community. My gut tells me that we are not supporting our young women with enough educational support, confidence, and tactical skills in the high school and college years.”

“While the restaurant field is a tough business, it’s also a place of family and opportunity,” says Jolene Mannina, president of and WHI co-founder. “There’s a lot of talented women that do not understand how to value themselves and were not given the skills to advance themselves in the workplace. WHI is implementing mentor and leadership programs, starting at a pro-start level in high schools, and I find that exciting.”

“Our goal is to reach women at all stages of their careers, and what is a better way to launch this initiative than having our first event in Las Vegas and at UNLV, College of Hospitality,” adds WHI co-founder Mary Choi Kelly of MCK Leadership Talent Group.

On Tuesday, February 18, WHI will hold its inaugural event with a culinary celebration and a screening of A Fine Line, the acclaimed documentary by Joanna James, which examines the gender gap in the culinary industry.

The film explores why less than 7% of head chefs and restaurant owners are women, when traditionally women have always held the central role in the kitchen. 

In the film, the viewer hears perspectives and experiences from world-renowned chefs, including Dominique Crenn, Lidia Bastianich, April Bloomfield, Cat Cora, Daniel Humm, Michael Anthony, and many more. The film also follows James’s mother Valerie, a chef and single mom, on a mission to do what she loves with the odds stacked against her. It’s an inspiring success story about perseverance, family, and food. 

“The evening tells a story. The documentary touches on the statistics of the restaurant field and the lack of women in executive positions. After the film, Mary Kelly will lead an interactive panel of leading women and men from the hospitality field. Lastly, everyone finishes the evening touring a UNLV Hospitality Hall filled with local chefs and mixologists ready to celebrate the launch of the Women’s Hospitality Initiative. Eat, drink, and meet amazing women chefs who make Las Vegas unique.”


February 18, 2020
5 – 9 pm
Film Screening: Judy Bayley Theatre, UNLV
Culinary Celebration: Hospitality Hall, UNLV
$30 for UNLV students
$60 for general admission,
$100 for VIP attendees
Tickets can be purchased at


Share this Article