It’s not that the restaurant industry doesn’t have women chefs. It’s that nobody paid attention to them until stories of sexual harassment and assault came flooding out. That’s the argument from chef Amanda Cohen, who owns the NYC vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy and wrote about the disparity of media coverage on female chefs versus male in a fall 2017 issue of Esquire.
Cohen is one of seven female chefs profiled in the documentary The Heat: A Kitchen R(evolution), by Canadian filmmaker Maya Gallus. They range from three-Michelin-star French chef Anne-Sophie Pic, who followed in the footsteps of her chef father although she had no formal cooking training, to Toronto trailblazer Suzanne Barr, breaking down barriers as a black female head chef. And from NYC’s Anita Lo, a role model for her mad cooking skills as well as her leadership as the owner of the late Annisa, to Victoria Blamey, who dazzled diners when she ran the back of the house at NYC’s storied Chumley’s. They’re navigating their way through the industry, trying to forge their own path and not dwell on the negativity surrounding the male-dominated profession. But asked to comment, they do, and they have a lot to say.
Blamey, a native of Santiago, Chile, who left her university studies for culinary school, at one point describes cooking as the only lover she’s never tired of. As for the perceived novelty of women-run restaurant kitchens, she sees the historical irony: “Women have been cooking forever. They’re the ones who cooked for the men and the men who became the chefs. It’s not like you recall your dad cooking for you.”
Shown prepping, plating and mentoring young chefs at Annisa (which ended its run, after 17 years, in 2017), Lo talks about feeling “other” from childhood on and not embracing the “feminine” expectations of being a woman. She followed up her French literature studies at Columbia University with culinary school in Paris, during which time she interned for renowned chef Guy Savoy. Being a woman in a male-run kitchen didn’t feel that weird to her, she says in the film, and has seen it as an obstacle. “There’s a saying: Men cook for glory; women cook for love,” says Lo. “If we [women] do, it’s because of how we were raised and that social construct. But as a chef, you really want to be judged on your work…”
While at least one of “The Heat’s” subjects is outspoken about the crudeness and abuses endured – Toronto writer Ivy Knight describes (and wrote about) being assaulted by her sous chef – British chef/restaurateur Angela Hartnett sets a culture of civility and respect in her kitchens. She apprenticed for chef-tyrant Gordon Ramsay, who earned his reputation by yelling and calling her names.
What isn’t spelled out directly is where we go from here. If nothing else, it’s this growing conversation that’s given women the courage to speak up about sexism, harassment and abuse. But for change to happen, there needs to be action. As one of the voices in “The Heat” notes, it’s up to the chef to set the tone and dictate the culture in his or her kitchen.
Go See It: The Heat: A Kitchen R(evolution)
- Sunday, Oct. 28 | 1 p.m. | Fox-Bay Cinema Grill
- Tuesday, Oct. 30 | 3:15 p.m. | Oriental Theatre West