06/04/2012 12:14 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

Women, Chefs and Professional Kitchens

When organizing a public event, I rely on a routine that is usually both effective and intellectually rewarding: come up with a stimulating theme, find suitable speakers, and work the logistics. This was the blueprint I followed when forming a panel on female professional chefs, Breaking the Mold: Women in Restaurant Kitchens, which will take place on June 6 at The New School. Heather Carlucci, chef at Print restaurant, Mona Talbott, founding director of the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the American Academy in Rome, Cheryl Smith, chef at Cheryl's Global Soul, and Sue Torres, chef and owner at Sueños restaurant, all speakers at the event, are extremely interesting individuals and respected professionals. I am very excited about the line up, and I am sure that the debate will be thought-provoking and refreshing.

Although I am not a speaker nor moderator, I got in touch with the panelists to discuss pertinent topics for the event. In preparation to the public discussion, I suggested that they could address, for instance, the structural and cultural reasons for the very limited numbers of professional women chefs, and the specific obstacles that women face during training, while looking for jobs, or when launching and managing their own restaurants. It is a known fact that professional kitchens are often very testosterone driven, and that the cultural identification of women with domestic cooking and caregiving can often be problematic.

During this process I was sure I was being gender-sensitive, trying to focus public attention to issues that the media too often overlooks, and that the food business is frequently too busy and unconcerned to tackle. Little did I know what I was getting into!

As soon as the email with the suggestions went out, the panel moderator, journalist Charlotte Druckman, responded to all the participants with a request: "Could you, before you look at those questions, think about what you'd LIKE to be asked? What are you sick of being asked (let's skip the clichés)? What do you wish you could talk about that you are never asked to? What are the issues that you think are relevant here? Let's not make this another 'typical' women's chef panel. Let's shake it up, make each other and the audience think differently." I could not agree more, realizing how rigid (some feminist scholars would define it patriarchal) my attitude had been. In a following exchange, Charlotte explained to me that she used this approach to write her upcoming book Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen. She continued "I tried to think of all the usual things women chefs are asked, or the typical corners into which they're painted and look at it from the other side (why are they asked that, or painted into those corners) and then think about questions or approaches that would be more effective in terms of supporting women chefs' successes (those that have already been achieved, and those that might be)."

My schooling had just started. I then met Sue Torres, whose conversation turned out to be quite illuminating. Despite my attempts at bringing her back to her gender, the lack of respect from some suppliers in her early career, and the possible tensions with male cooks, what she really wanted to underline was her role as an entrepreneur, a mentor for younger chefs, and a culinary mediator. Susan, despite her Italian and Puerto Rican roots, has chosen Mexican cuisine to express her passion and her skills. After learning from respected authorities such as Diana Kennedy, Susana Trilling, and Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, she decided to visit with the mother of one of her Mexican (male) employees. From then on she has been cooking with women in private households to familiarize herself the various traditions that compose the spectacular Mexican culinary mosaic. She does admit that the connection may not have been so easy had she been male. However, would her employees treat her differently is she were a man? Would it be easier to run her restaurant? Those are questions that she does not even entertain. She has been running Sueños for nine years (quite an accomplishment, in the New York food scene), and that's what counts.

I am looking forward for the panel and the conversations on women, food, and professional kitchens that I am sure it will initiate. Besides that, however, I am grateful for what has turned out to be an eye-opening experience on how gender shapes not only topics and issues, but also the very processes we implement when facing them.