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Naming of White House's first female executive chef hailed as giant leap

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Aug. 22--Until recent gastronomic history, the kitchen was not a place for women.

Not at home, of course, but at the restaurant. From gourmet restaurant to luncheonette to the diner, men have long been the ones wearing the apron.

But this month, the White House named Cristeta Comerford as its first female executive chef. It's being hailed as one small step for chefs, one giant leap for women chefs. But who would have thought there would be a glass ceiling in the kitchen?

Indeed, there's an inherent irony that while women typically dominate the cooking at home, professionally they are a minority in the kitchen.

Local chefs are also struck by the juxtaposition.

"I'm sure a lot of people think it's an oddity," said Susan Crocker, chef and owner of Yankee Kitchen and Holbert's Catering in Montgomery.

"The kitchen is where women started," said Yankee Kitchen pastry chef Michelle Hopkins. "Even to this day I don't understand why it is the way it is."

Sharon Daniel, pastry chef at Le Gorille in Milford, Pa., has an idea.

"It's just a chauvinistic kitchen thing," she said.

Daniel said it goes back to the traditional French restaurants where women were not even allowed in the kitchen. No women were hired as servers, either.

"But it's changing; it's still male dominated, but the tables are turning," said Mark DeLorenzo, culinary arts instructor at Orange-Ulster BOCES.

About 40 percent of his class is female. Nine years ago, when DeLorenzo began teaching at BOCES, he estimates females only accounted for 25 percent.

At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, only 22 percent of the class were women in 1992, 21 years after the school began admitting them. Last year, women made up 37 percent of the class.

One big reason women haven't entered the culinary arts in large numbers is that the hours aren't very compatible for those who are family oriented. When you're enjoying a meal at a restaurant in the evening, on weekends or on holidays, the chef is in the kitchen making that meal.

Nancie Simonet-Fouse, owner of the Waterwheel Cafe in Milford and former chef, hired a chef for her restaurant five years ago so she could have a child.

"I don't know any chef who works less than 60 hours a week," she said. "It's hard to do."

She was still hopeful that the move by the White House would shed more positive light on women in the culinary arts.

"Whenever the magazines list the top chefs, it's always 27 men and one woman," she said. "I think a couple more women will pop up now."

But some wonder whether the hiring of Comerford is a step back while also being a step up for women. As in most industries, equal pay is a sore issue for women in the culinary industry.

Eve Felder, associate dean for culinary arts at CIA, said a male colleague questioned whether Comerford was being paid fairly.

"I think it's thrilling, I think it's fabulous," Felder said of the hiring. "But is she being paid comparable to what a male would be paid? I think it's a question."


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