A woman’s place is in the kitchen.
It’s a phrase often used sarcastically in modern conversation as a throwback to an era when women either couldn’t or weren’t encouraged to work outside their homes.
Rejecting the original intent, women in the restaurant industry have now adopted that phrase as an unofficial battle cry – a woman should have a prominent place in commercial kitchens.
In fact, of the seven Greenville-based female head chefs interviewed for this story, each one mentioned that phrase, challenging the inference and asking why, then, if women are meant for the kitchen, are there comparatively so few in executive roles?
“There are differences between a man and a woman,” says chef Teryi Youngblood Musolf, culinary director for The Cook’s Station. “But as far as cooking goes, there is no difference in the ability to make something taste good. There’s no heavy lifting involved. There’s no extra brainpower that a man or woman has that’s going to make it better for one or the other. So that’s why I can’t understand why there’s not more equality, because it doesn’t require anything extra.”
Numbers don’t lie
Of the hundreds of restaurants in the Greenville area, our research indicates there are fewer than 10 female head chefs or chef-owners in the higher-end establishments. This number does not include the soul food cooks and food truck owners, of which there are many more.
Using this framework to evaluate Charleston, one of the most celebrated culinary towns of the South and the United States, The Post and Courier reports there are even fewer – three women currently hold the executive title.
“It’s easier up here,” says Heidi Trull, chef and co-owner of Grits and Groceries that is open only for pop-up events for the foreseeable future.
A 30-year industry veteran, Trull refers to the cutthroat nature of the Charleston market and says Greenville’s isn’t as competitive – yet – though it’s certainly no cakewalk.
Anecdotes aside, the numbers confirm that the tradition of women holding the central role in their home kitchens doesn’t translate to the outside world.
Census Bureau statistics show that men in the role of “cook or head chef” occupy 78.1% of positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines that role as one who “may participate in the preparation, seasoning, and cooking of salads, soups, fish, meats, vegetables, desserts, or other foods. May plan and price menu items, order supplies, and keep records and accounts.”
The gender gap is even wider if the definition is narrowed to true head chefs or even further, chef-owners.
“A Fine Line: A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen,” a 2018 multi-award-winning documentary that encapsulates the challenges facing women who desire careers as high-level chefs or restaurant owners, purports only 7% of head chefs and restaurant owners are women, while an estimated 51% of Culinary Institute of America students are female.
No matter the geographic location, being a woman in a commercial kitchen environment is less common and, by most accounts, often more difficult for many reasons – the well-publicized and pervasive sexual harassment, the frequent disregard of her abilities and authority, the lower pay than male counterparts, and the lack of maternity leave, child care, or benefits.
“Being a chef and putting things on a plate and running a menu and managing a crew – we all have those common capabilities. So why? Why is it so difficult? Why do the guys always make more money than we do?” Musolf asks.
‘Twice as hard’
“Just be sure that in your summation to tell her the only difference between a male chef and a female chef is that female chefs have to overcome adversity and work twice as hard to earn that title,” said Steven Musolf (chef de cuisine of The Anchorage) in a text to his wife, Teryi, before our interview.
Teryi Musolf, who left a career working in a pharmacy to follow her passion for cooking, fought her way as a self-taught cook through several of Greenville’s kitchens, to ultimately open Passerelle Bistro as executive chef before moving into her current role with The Cook’s Station.
She recalls one day circa 1999 at the former Bistro Europa on North Main Street, walking into the kitchen where she’d worked only a short while and seeing a 70-pound, whole fish on the counter. With the help of the chef next door at Blue Ridge Brewing Co., she figured out how to break it down.
“And after that, it was like, I’m doing any damn thing,” she says.
And she did. Moving to The Cazbah and then to Table 301 as pastry assistant because the daytime hours were better for her when her daughter was born, she encountered more than her fair share of resistance. If she properly dressed a beef tenderloin, she was asked, “Who did that?” or “Who helped you?”
Also a pastry chef, as well as a 2019 South Carolina Chef Ambassador, Tania Harris of The Lazy Goat knows what it’s like to have assumptions made about her skills. She graduated with a four-year degree from culinary school in Mexico City and has worked in some of Greenville’s most celebrated kitchens – yet often feels her managerial role in the kitchen isn’t respected or valued.
“I mean, there are different challenges, but if you want to make it, I guess you just have to do it. Regardless of whatever. Because it is difficult to be a woman in the kitchen,” she says.
Pushing through adversity is the only way Passerelle Bistro executive chef Jenifer Rogers knows how to operate. She and her fiance, general manager Mike Minelli, are on track to take ownership of the bistro from restaurant group Table 301. Their infant son, Michael, joins the family in the restaurant on weekends when they don’t have child care. And while this arrangement is positive for all involved, it isn’t always that way for women juggling motherhood in a male-dominated industry.
“You have to work harder than the guys that you’re working with,” Rogers says. “You have to lift the boxes, you have to do all those things. It’s a struggle anywhere, to be quite honest, just because it’s been so male-driven. And the sad part about that is I feel like ladies have to be, like, so aggressive about it. And I shouldn’t have to be.”
‘I’m a bitch’
Having graduated from the CIA in 1987 and worked in high-volume hotel and catering positions before opening Two Chefs Cafe and Market in 1996 on Main Street, chef Judy Balsizer is well-versed in what it takes to be a successful woman in her chosen industry.
“If you don’t want to stay in here and do the work with me, then you have to move elsewhere,” she says about past co-workers. “I’m not gonna play those games. And that’s what I think you have to say when you’re an executive chef, as a woman in a power position, because you let people walk all over you, and you’re never going to succeed. So I have to stand my ground whether they like it or not.”
Adopting more aggressive male-like tendencies is how many women have succeeded in restaurant kitchens. That also has its challenges.
“If a man says it, he’s assertive. If a woman says it, she’s a bitch,” is another phrase each of our sources repeated.
Kitchen Sync chef and co-owner Karin Feeny says that during her years in San Diego’s high-volume restaurant and catering scene in the mid-1990s, she wasn’t as assertive as she now wishes she had been. Rather than speaking up and earning an unwarranted designation when her staff was out of line, she’d move on.
“I kept my mouth shut a lot,” she says.
Her confidence has grown, but she’s still concerned about the perception.
“I try to pick my battles so it doesn’t seem like I’m a bitch all the time,” Feeny says. “Whereas I think, you know, a male, he just comes across as being strong, right? Whereas I come across as nitpicky and bitchy.”
Balsizer says her husband, Bill, also a chef, can give a direction in the kitchen, and the staff immediately jumps to action. If she says the same thing, she has to give all the background reasons, and her cooks still might question her directive. If, in that circumstance, she were to scream and carry on like a male chef might, she’d be labeled.
Trull, whose husband, Joe, is also a pastry chef and co-owns their restaurant, says that to succeed in this business, a strong, dominant temperament is key, and after accepting her own leadership style, she makes no apology.
“I’m a bitch. It’s pretty much my personality,” she says.
From female chefs’ perspectives, there are distinct advantages to the balance they bring to the typically male-dominated industry.
“I found that men and women both have attributes that are very important to a kitchen,” says executive chef Nicci Hughes of Oak & Honey. “I think there’s a level of balance there. Some of my favorite kitchens I’ve ever worked in or been a part of is where it’s a nice even balance of both.”
Where traditional male-dominated kitchens of 10-20 years ago often included panic-inducing, Gordon Ramsay-style yelling and instruction, women are more prone to ditch that in favor of encouragement and hands-on teaching, Musolf says.
“Because we nurture, not torture,” Musolf says.
Feeny, like all of these chefs, says she often feels like a mom in the kitchen, whether the nagging version or the supportive matriarch, acting as psychiatrist, banker, doctor, and life coach.
The ability to care for her staff in a more diverse, nuanced way is one of the major assets a woman brings to the restaurant kitchen to help combat the oft-toxic culture, Feeny says.
“We all have to be able to find a reset button,” Hughes says. “There have been bad things done to both sides, you know, and we have to be able to be willing to go in and see a person as a person, not by their gender.”