AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Three years ago, writer Charlotte Druckman took to the pages of the journal Gastronomica with a question that shook up the online food world. Why are there no great women chefs?
CHARLOTTE DRUCKMAN: The point of that initial article that I wrote wasn't to say are there or aren't there 'cause we know that there are women chefs, it's just that they're not given the same respect and amount of attention as we give male chefs.
CORNISH: So why not? Druckman decided to find out in her new book "Skirt Steak." She spoke to over 70 women chefs and she joined us from New York to tell us about some of their diverse paths to the professional kitchen. And in a world of celebrity chefs and 24/7 food programming on the Food Network, how do you define a chef?
DRUCKMAN: It's this idea that you are the head of a professional galley kitchen. Someone like Rachel Ray doesn't work in restaurants. I mean, she doesn't have that experience of having gone through the ranks and slogged through the trenches and then become a leader in that space. You know, she prides herself on being a self-taught, almost professional home cook.
And I think she deserves so much respect for the success she's had as a businesswoman and as a brander of herself and of content but to say that that is a chef, I think, does quite a disservice to those people who are in fact actually chefs.
CORNISH: So let's talk about one of the women you featured, Naomi Pomeroy. Tell us about her.
DRUCKMAN: Yeah, Naomi, I think, is a wonderful example of someone who took her own path to get where she has. And I think that that is a theme that you see among women because they weren't necessarily welcome in the traditional ultimate restaurant experience. So, Naomi has no formal training in that she didn't go to culinary school and in order to teach herself, she would surround herself with professional cooks and chefs so that she could learn from them.
And I think that that's a really interesting way of looking at ego because you don't find that many men in the kitchen, I hate to say this, who would necessarily feel comfortable surrounding themselves by people who were in lesser positions but had more experience than they had.
CORNISH: She's also somebody who says that she doesn't call herself a chef and is self-perception part of the issue here for women?
DRUCKMAN: Yes. Because if you asked her what she did for a living, she would know that she is a chef. She is the head of her kitchen. She cooks in her restaurant. But she has a hard time with the title, which happened a lot with these women. And I think that when you've got a profession that has been so unwelcoming for so long then you start to associate the term with that kind of chauvinism and you feel reluctant or uncomfortable accepting that title.
On the other hand, it's a double-edged sword, especially for women, because if you say you're a chef and you're a woman, people already presume you mean that you're a home cook anyway. So if you use the word cook instead of chef, then no one's ever going to think that you are in charge of a restaurant kitchen or that you own a restaurant.
CORNISH: On another end of the spectrum is Michelle Bernstein.
DRUCKMAN: Yes. I think Michelle Bernstein had the experience that Naomi didn't have. So Michelle has a much more traditional - I was going to say, upbringing - in the professional culinary industry and having been in all of those very male, very traditional kitchens, got to her...
CORNISH: And we should say, for people who don't understand this, that kitchens are described as macho places, a lot of yelling, a lot of - it's hierarchical and kind of frat boy like.
DRUCKMAN: Yes. And it's set up traditionally as it was in France. It's set up the same way a barrack would be, so it follows the army method. So it really is hierarchical and tough and, yes, male. And you also find a lot of chefs who really do things like throw hot pans around and scream at people. And Michelle felt that she had to repeat that because it was the only way to show that she had chops and that, in a way, she wasn't just a girl.
And at some point, it really got to her and she talks about that moment of going into the pantry and crying because she felt so bad about how she behaved, but it was almost like she didn't know what else to do. And from then on, she started checking herself and she started behaving differently in the kitchen and she found that she was able to be quiet and still get her points across.
CORNISH: Since you first wrote your article and now the book, how have things changed in the industry? You were looking at all these different metrics of awards and James Beard nominations and things like that. And has this prompted any reevaluation?
DRUCKMAN: I don't - you know, we'll see. We'll see when the James Beard nominations come out this year. We'll see if there has been any impact on it. But I'd like to think that this was just a way to get the conversation started and it's not just women. It's just any chef that doesn't fit into that traditional stereotype, how do we give them the respect that they deserve as well? There's room for so many different models.
It seems completely ridiculous in a way that we're still holding up this one standard of restaurant that feels not necessarily relevant or timely and yet that's still the model that we hold everything up against.
CORNISH: Well, Charlotte Druckman, thank you for speaking with us.
DRUCKMAN: Thank you again for having me.
CORNISH: Charlotte Druckman is author of the book "Skirt Steak: Women Chefs On Standing The Heat And Staying In The Kitchen."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.