With red barns, grassy fields, a half-acre garden and free-range animals, the picturesque setting of Serenity Farm in Easley resembles something out of a storybook. The Mill Village Farms property will be the site of a new event in this year’s Euphoria lineup, the Farm to Fork dinner. But the event — hosted by chefs Vivian Howard (chef-owner of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, N.C.), Heidi Trull (chef-owner of Grits & Groceries in Belton, S.C.) and Teryi Youngblood (chef de cuisine at Passerelle Bistro in downtown Greenville) — is not unique just because of the pastoral backdrop. It’s the first all-female chef event at Euphoria.
This year’s Euphoria lineup features 61 chefs. Only five are women. But this lack of female representation is not exclusive to the Greenville event; it’s common across food festivals and in mainstream media coverage.
Although cooking may be considered a stereotypically feminine activity, men are the ones dominating the kitchens at high-end restaurants. A 2013 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor titled “Women in the Labor Force: A Databook,” reveals that in 2011, only 18.7 percent of chefs and head cooks were women. In 2014, Bloomberg News analyzed 15 prominent U.S. restaurant groups and found that out of 160 head chef positions, women held 10 of them — a rate of 6.3 percent.
Despite this gender disparity, Howard, Trull and Youngblood believe conditions for women in the male-dominated culinary industry have improved over the years.
“Twenty-five years ago when I started, it was very hard to get in as a woman. I had to be very persistent,” said Trull. “I picked jobs very carefully to work with people who would treat me as a cook, not a woman in the kitchen.”
“I think maybe when I first got started, women were not taken as seriously,” said Howard. “But I’ve always seen [being a woman] as an advantage. I think women bring something to the table that men don’t necessarily.” Howard believes most people working in a professional kitchen today appreciate a greater gender balance.
However, the dismissal of female chefs has not completely vanished from the industry. Due to the long hours, physical labor and high-pressure environment, a perception can still exist that women just can’t cut it in the profession.
“Equality in the workplace is one of the most important things I can think of to fight for. We [men and women] may be constructed differently, but we are capable of doing the same things,” said Youngblood. “Some of us have different skillsets, but I think it’s ludicrous in 2016 that we still have these ideas that a woman can’t do the job. … I meet the condescending chefs in the great wide world that I encounter, and I still find it utterly mind-boggling. Luckily, that’s not the case in my current workplace.”
Howard, Trull and Youngblood all acknowledged that the demands of motherhood (or being pregnant and then taking maternity leave) are often at odds with the necessities of the profession — even to the extent that they can impede women from advancing in the field.
“I think [having young children] holds a lot of women back,” Howard said.
Howard, who has young twins, explained it was difficult to work while pregnant, but many chefs continue to work until they are eight or nine months pregnant. “You have to be there on your feet to do your work,” she said. “Men [in the kitchen] can have children and be great fathers, but they don’t have the physical aspect that women do.”
That pregnancy, maternity leave and motherhood can be difficult to negotiate with a burgeoning career is not exclusive to the culinary industry. However, they’ve become such a notable roadblock to advancement that food and restaurant website Eater.com published an article titled “Escaping the Restaurant Industry’s Motherhood Trap” outlining how the industry’s lack of workplace flexibility coupled with insufficient family leave policies hinder women.
Both Trull and Howard co-own their restaurants with their husbands, which affords them some flexibility. Trull’s husband, Joe, is the pastry chef at Grits & Groceries, and Howard’s husband, Ben Knight, runs the front of Chef & the Farmer while she works in the kitchen. As owners, Heidi and Joe have the freedom to set their own work hours. “We have weird hours at the restaurant, and part of that is because I do have a son, and I want to be at home with him,” she said.
Trull notes that the altered hours impact the restaurant’s earning potential, but she and her husband are ultimately happy with the arrangement. “It’s a choice we’ve made [as a family], and it works for us,” she said.
“America has this weird thing where sometimes we are still in the dark ages,” said Youngblood, a mother of two. “It shouldn’t be difficult for a woman to be a mom and have a career.” She credits her employer, Table 301 Catering, for “bending over backwards to help me be a mom and a chef.”
IN THE LIMELIGHT
But even when women overcome various obstacles to reach the top of the field, the lack of mainstream visibility often persists. In “Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen,” authors Deborah A. Harris and Patti Giuffre analyzed 2,206 restaurant reviews and chef profiles from 2004–2009 sourced from the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Gourmet and Food & Wine. Female chefs were the focus of a review or profile in 230 articles, or 10 percent. In articles that featured male and female chefs together, women were still only mentioned in 22 percent of articles. In 2013, Time magazine caused a stir with its “Gods of Food” cover story, a profile of the industry’s most prominent tastemakers and influencers. As the title indicates, the story was about 13 men and zero women.
“I think money and marketing project those men, and people are more willing to put their money behind a man and promote him,” said Trull. “They feel more comfortable with it.”
Within the culinary industry, there’s still “a good ol’ boys club,” explains Howard regarding the gender disparity of chefs appearing at food festivals. “There are a lot of great women chefs out there, but I think the people who do the inviting are often men. And I think they just invite their friends, the men they play golf with or hang out with. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it’s more a result of who the people in power think to invite.”
Youngblood believes the culinary industry’s male-dominated market will continue, but she notes that all-female events at food festivals are often a sure bet to draw a substantial crowd. That’s true of the Farm to Fork dinner, which has been sold out for weeks. “There’s a waiting list a mile long,” said Brianna Shaw, executive director of Euphoria.
But even with the popularity of such events, Youngblood is ambivalent about the decision to market the event as being “all-female.” This emphasis can further reinforce the idea that the male chef is the norm, whereas the female chef remains an anomaly. (This same line of thought has led to some debate within the culinary industry about the purpose of female award categories, which some argue place female chefs on a different — and lesser — plane than “regular” male chefs.)
“It was a little bit of a struggle [to brand it that way],” Shaw said. “We do have female in the event title, but the lead is ‘farm to fork’ … So really it’s more about that than the fact they’re all female.”
Shaw believes the event would have sold out regardless of how it was marketed. “All three are outstanding chefs,” she said.
“That’s a good thing if [attendees] are drawn to all-female events. Then they obviously respect us and think that we do a good job,” Youngblood said. “I know it helps expose us and give us credibility … But until we gain that equality, it’s always going to just be a novelty. But you also have to be grateful that they’re taking notice; you can’t discount that.”
- Opened Chef & the Farmer in 2006 in Kinston, N.C.
- Owner of Boiler Room Oyster Bar in Kinston, N.C.
- Named a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016
- Host of “A Chef’s Life” on PBS, which has won a Peabody Award and Daytime Emmy
- Releasing her first cookbook, “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South,” in October
- Opened Elizabeth’s Restaurant in New Orleans, which garnered praise in Gourmet and Southern Living and was featured on CBS Sunday Morning
- Chef-owner of Grits & Groceries in Belton, S.C., which has been featured on Food Network, the New York Times and CNN.com
- Author of cookbook “Real Food Done Real Good”
- Former chef ambassador for the state of South Carolina
- Member of advisory boards for Atlanta Food & Wine and Euphoria
- Chef de cuisine of Passerelle Bistro in Greenville
- Previously served as a pastry chef at Soby’s on the Side and Soby’s New South Cuisine
- Current chef ambassador for the state of South Carolina