Culinary Women, In Their Own Words

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In cooking school classes a decade ago in San Francisco, the classes were equally split by gender. Our instructors had decades more cooking time than us, and tended to have more men in the top leadership chef positions. More recently, the men often still nab more awards and titles like Executive Chef. The advent of pop-up restaurants and organizations like La Cocina serve up more opportunities for women who want to work with food.

My editor and I wondered what it is like to be a woman in the culinary field right now. I talked to three Bay Area women: Elvia Buendia of the newly opened La Luna Cupcakes, Prospect Restaurant Chef and Partner Pam Mazzola, and Strong Table Owner Fontaine McFadden. I asked them about their own personal growth as a woman in the food industry, their experiences being female in the culinary profession, whether or not they have female mentors, the "state of women" in culinary arts, and what it is like to work with other women in the food industry. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity. Here are their thoughts, in their own words:

Elvia Buendia. Photo courtesy of Eric Wolfinger
Elvia Buendia. Photo courtesy of Eric Wolfinger

As a woman, I have received so much support from local organizations like CEO Women, a nonprofit based in Oakland that no longer exists, and La Cocina, the incubator program based in San Francisco. Both programs target and assist entrepreneur women, like myself, to succeed in the world of business. Before participating in CEO Women, I had no idea how to do a business plan, in fact I did not even know what that was or its importance!

My passion for pastries and baking pushed me to pursue my dream in opening my own cupcake shop despite physical struggles such as English as my second language, finances, and even social discouragement. In fact, many people constantly asked me, "how are you going to open a business if you don't even speak English?" And I always told them, "I'm going to sell my cupcakes, not my English skills."

Being a woman has been a blessing and has encouraged me to push myself for my own well-being as well as for the well-being of my family. I wanted to inspire my children, now 15 and 21, to reach for their dreams no matter how many struggles they faced to meet their goals. I think so far I'm doing well with constant support from programs such as La Cocina.

La Cocina has been a huge help and I admire the women that have given me words of wisdom regarding food and business, among those included are Leticia Landa, Carola Mulero, and Daniella Sawaya. Without their help, support, and words of wisdom, I do not know where I would be.

Overall, my culinary experience is related to the pleasure I receive when I see people eating and enjoying my cupcakes. I am truly honored to contribute to the culinary and baking world, as I bring a mixture of different flavors from my own cultural background and I look forward to continue my professional development as a baking chef in the field.

Pam Mazzola. Photo courtesy of Jeannie O’Connor
Pam Mazzola. Photo courtesy of Jeannie O’Connor

I started my career cooking at the Fairmont Hotel in a male-driven kitchen and quickly realized this was not the direction I wanted my career to go in. My entire cooking career has been at single-owner, female chef-directed restaurants. This has allowed me to be very focused in what I do. Having worked with a great partner and true collaborator (Nancy Oakes) for the past 25 years has allowed me to achieve the success that I have. As in any solid relationship, Nancy and I have always shared in the responsibility of what we do together. We have common goals, a similar sensibility in food, and are like-minded in terms of desires for our careers as well as our lives outside of the restaurant. I raised three children while I was cooking at Boulevard, and I don’t think that would have been possible if I had not been working with someone who was sensitive to my family needs and with whom I shared a deep trust.

I’ve seen a marked growth in gender equality in the restaurant field. Female chefs share equal status with male chefs. The difference I see is that there is a natural camaraderie between women in this industry, and a real sense of shared responsibility between women who work together.

Fontaine McFadden. Photo courtesy of Fontaine McFadden
Fontaine McFadden. Photo courtesy of Fontaine McFadden

My experience in the culinary world started with my first job out of college working the front of the house at an Italian restaurant on Nantucket Island. I then worked as a florist for years, had a brief and uninspiring job in marketing, dabbled in sustainable building and did some personal organization before finding my way back to food when I enrolled in culinary school. I lucked out with my externship turned job at Hands On Gourmet where I worked between the kitchen and the office as the Director of Operations for two and a half years. In November of last year I left to start my own business and am now reveling in that best/worst decision ever. I run a prepared Paleo meal service available for pick up out of local Crossfit gyms. It's been crazy and amazing and I have a long way to go, but I'm excited to take on the hard work ahead.

To get at the very broad question of what it's like to be a woman in the culinary field I would have to rewind a bit and start with what it was like to grow up with my Dad and big brothers. I have been wholly shaped by them and can't really separate out my experience in the workforce as a woman without first pointing to them.

I grew up on an organic farm in Mendocino county and my Dad put me to work, treating me as an equal to my brothers. We all drove tractors, we all did carpentry, we all got up at 5 a.m. and worked in the vineyards until it was too hot to be out in the sun. I built fences, I branded cattle, I installed solar panels and I even did some time in the office. My Dad did an incredible job of instilling a strong work ethic in us all, regardless of the fact they were boys and I was the little girl. And it was the same story with school and sports and social activities; we were all held to an equal standard of excellence. Growing up working, playing and competing with my brothers prepared me to jump into a world dominate by men in charge and taught me how to thrive in that environment. I've been really lucky in that way. My life has not been shaped by discouraging moments or impossible obstacles attributed to my sex alone. I have always seen my abilities and inabilities to be based around who I am as a person and don't believe that something is possible or impossible just because I am a woman.

Having said that, I realize that this is not the norm and the fight for equal rights among the sexes is not over (what fight against inequity is truly over?). I have encountered plenty of situations where my own view of gender equality is definitely not shared. In those instances I use that ignorance to fuel my motivation beyond what is inherent in me. Maybe by throwing back dirty kitchen talk, or changing a tire in a dress... whatever it is, I like to mess with gender-based assumptions. And in brandishing this viewpoint I have found that I generally end up working harder than I might otherwise, thus becoming more successful and proving my point all the more.

Obviously, there are many avenues to explore within this broad topic of women in the workplace. One of the more interesting and applicable ones for me, is the struggle for balance between masculine and feminine. I believe that chivalry is not dead. I love having doors opened for me, but I also want to be taken seriously in my career and respected as a member of my community. Luckily, these are not mutually exclusive. As I've gotten older I have found a better balance between my more overt tomboy tendencies and my girly-girl attributes (of which there are many). I used to think that it was one or the other but thankfully I am finding ways for those two to coexist. For me, the most important thing is that I act in a way that is indicative of how I want to be treated. That is all I can control and if I do my best in that area then I'm feelin' good.