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Women still struggle to become a top chef

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Knight Ridder Newspapers


PHILADELPHIA - In a historic move last month, the White House hired its first female chef, a petite, 42-year-old mother of a toddler who is now charged with cooking hundreds of meals for President Bush, his family and guests.

The move was lauded by women chef organizations, who had asked first lady Laura Bush to hire Cristeta Comerford to make a statement to the culinary world that women can and should hold more top positions.

But the hiring also cast light on just how grossly under-represented females are in the professional cooking world's top spots.

Of the 12 million U.S. chefs, cooks, wait staff and other food service workers in everything from hotels to chain restaurants to fine dining establishments, women comprise about half the total workforce - mostly as wait staff - and only 18 percent hold top jobs as executive chefs, according to the National Restaurant Association. That top jobs figure represents a 2 percent drop from just five years ago.

Why so few women in chef's whites? Hundred-hour work weeks, untoward sexual advances, piddly paychecks and zero family life.

That's what female chefs say they endure to try to make it to the top in the tough, male-dominated professional kitchen.

The women who do make it to the top often fall into two categories: those who have supportive families and financial backing to open their own places, and those who pay their dues and put their personal lives on hold while waiting for a promotion.

Comerford worked for 10 years in the White House as a sous chef under head chef Walter Scheib III, until he left this summer. Still, the Bushes conducted an extensive round of interviews with dozens of chefs before choosing Comerford.

"The kitchen today is still operated on a European male model, almost run still like an army kitchen, by men," said Bonnie Moore, president of the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs association, a network of female chefs nationwide whose goal is to help educate and promote women in professional kitchens.

"There aren't a lot of women chefs that young women can look to, to emulate or have as mentors. I think this White House chef is wonderful - she is showing the culinary world that this can be done. There really are a lack of role models like her."

Chef Alison Barshak could be considered one of those role models. Barshak devoted her life to the kitchen after falling in love with cooking as a child, when she was the designated snack-maker for friends after school, as well as the dinner cook in her parents' house each night.

She developed such a passion for cooking that she came straight out of college with no culinary training and headed for a pro kitchen. After working her way up the line at small restaurants and bars, she landed at Philadelphia's famous Striped Bass, where she earned national acclaim.

Then it was off to another three restaurants, including her own Venus and the Cowboy. The Philadelphia restaurant was open 10 months before closing in 1999.

Barshak opened her tony, 65-seat BYOB Alison at Blue Bell in 2003 in Montgomery County, Pa. She now works more hours than ever. She is the kitchen seven days a week, sometimes until midnight, and spends most of the day shopping and prepping food.

Barshak admits she's sacrificed a lot to get where she is, forgoing marriage, children and a social life. Needless to say, she can understand why more women don't choose this tough lifestyle. The road is long, winding - and disheartening.

"It's just really hard work," said Barshak. "It's hard working with the guys. You get pinched and that kind of sexual thing. You work nights, so a social life is kind of impossible and raising a family is difficult. ... Now, I'm finding women applicants for entry-level positions few and far between."

Women who are willing to put in long hours in a restaurant kitchen face yet another drawback: Hard work doesn't guarantee they will make any more than $30,000 - for years.

Executive chefs on average make about $75,000, and there's a huge drop-off below that.

Couple that with the fact that women are still paid less than men for the same job, according to organizations and chefs.

"It's interesting to me that when I interview people now for jobs, the men always ask for more money than the women do, for the same positions. It's what women have come to expect," Barshak said.

"There are glass ceilings," said Dottie Koteski, president of the Philadelphia chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier. "And I don't think (those who do the hiring) look through those glass ceilings for their female executive chefs."

Organizations struggling to even the playing field hope more role models like Comerford, who now earns about $100,000 and leads a staff of dozens, will help shatter restrictive traditions.

"Any time there's a woman in a prominent role, it gives the other women hope," said Barshak. "You see someone else can do it, and you know you can, too."


(c) 2005, Philadelphia Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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