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Austin Chefs Cut Through the Gender Divide in the Kitchen

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Lori Belloir/flickr
Only about 20 percent of chefs in the U.S. are women, according to the Department of Labor Statistics.

There was a time when women were told their place was in the kitchen. Despite that history, there continues to be an imbalance in the food industry – and not in the way you might think.

A new book by a Texas State University sociology professor explores why only about 20 percent of restaurant chefs in the U.S. are women. And, as Austin's restaurant scene explodes, are things changing? 

Celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay are icons in the world of rockstar chefs, so it might come as a surprise to some that back in the day, in France, being a chef was hardly the path to celebrity.

“It was a really low-status career,” says Professor Deborah Harris, author of the new book "Taking the Heat.” In response, male chefs “made a big focus on the differentiating between the cultural, high-status intellectual cooking of men, and the low-status, everyday work of women.”

“I just grew up in a family that loves to eat. And I just grew up loving food,” says Chef Ileana de la Vega as her staff chops onions and limes.

She reminisces about when she decided to join the business. 

“In Mexico in my time — I'm a little bit older — there was no culinary schools,” de la Vega says.

So she dreamt of studying in Paris, which perplexed her family. Some of their concerns had to do with class — they saw being a chef as a step down. But also “for my mom, that I wanted to be a cook or a chef was like, ‘no, we always do that anyways.’ So why don’t you go and do something else?” de la Vega says.

Eventually she moved to the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, known for its intricate and flavorful cuisine. She opened a restaurant there, and she's since become a recognized chef. But she says even to this day there’s a gender distinction about food preparation itself.

“There is a lot of people still, nowadays, if you go to Mexico, even chefs... you say, 'can you make a tortilla?' and they'll say 'no, I won’t do that, that's a woman's labor,'” she says.

De la Vega recently moved from Mexico to Austin to head up a new restaurant called El Naranjo. It’s part of a wave of hip new eateries popping up across the city. Austin is one of America's metro areas with the highest growth rates for restaurants, hotels and bars. But does that mean anything for women trying to make it as chefs?  Professor Harris from Texas State thinks so.

“More and more people are getting interested in food, and where their food comes from, and that's opening a lot of doors for chefs, and women chefs in particular, to take a lead on that.”

But Harris says it's still not enough. Her book analyzes more than 2,200 recent articles on food and chef reviews.

“They tended to talk more about men, and to talk in terms of, they're geniuses and iconoclasts. But to compliment a woman, they'd say, "this is just how my grandmother used to make it.” 

At laV restaurant in Austin, which specializes in French cuisine, Chef Janina O'Leary is the executive pastry chef. She says because she works in pastries, she was surrounded by women at culinary school.  But once she joined the workforce, “I saw for myself that it was male-dominated, and I was working around like 90 percent men at the time.”

But O'Leary says the industry has changed completely. 

“I was lucky throughout my career that I always had somebody who I really respected, and truthfully they weren't yellers or screamers. I mean they were very stern — don’t get me wrong.”

O'Leary says the macho, rockstar chef serving a steaming heap of bravado seems to be quickly becoming a relic of the past.

“It's so outdated," she says. "It literally doesn't work. We've learned you simply can't keep cooks that way.”

* An earlier version of this text story, and the audio story, misstated Ms. O'Leary's last name as 'O'Neal.' The text has been updated.

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