Since Kate Siegel, executive pastry chef at Fairmont Pacific Rim, started her pastry career more than 20 years ago, has often been the only female member of the kitchen.
“I never worked under another female pastry chef. There just wasn’t that many around especially, and I found that very challenging because there was a lack of role models,” said Siegel.
There remains a large gender gap in this male-dominated industry. For every female chef in B.C., there are around three male counterparts. The gap is wider across Canada with a male and female ratio of four to one, according to WORTH Association.
“Thankfully, I do see some change now.… I see more young women coming into the industry and there is starting to be some more female leadership, but it’s something we need to push for because the numbers are still wildly skewed,” said Siegel.
To showcase female chefs and connect them with those entering the industry, WORTH Association – which stands for Women of Recreation, Tourism & Hospitality – is hosting an annual culinary event called Yes Shef on Nov. 6.
Fifteen of B.C.’s top female chefs will demonstrate their culinary talents. The purpose of the event is to elevating women working in the food and beverage industry.
“Our goal is to make sure we put more women in the spotlight and get more women embracing their ambition in the industry,” said Joanna Jagger, founder and president of WORTH Association.
More female cooks quit during the pandemic
The pandemic hit the hospitality industry hard and many people working in culinary roles lost their job. In particular, more female cooks left the industry compared to their male counterparts – and they have not come back.
The number of B.C.-based female cooks – individuals who follow chefs’ recipes and prepare food – fell to 5,400 people in 2022. That is nearly half the level reported in 2021, according to WORTH Association statistics.
Meanwhile, there were around 17,900 male cooks in 2022 – a 33 per cent increase from 2021, pushing the gender gap for this particular role to the widest its been in a decade, when data was first collected in 2013.
By comparison, there were around 3,000 female chefs and 8,000 male chefs in B.C. in 2022 – numbers in line with those reported in 2019, before a decline during the pandemic.
“A lot of women lost their jobs so started working in different fields and elected not to come back to kitchens. That was a big game changer for women who decided, ‘I’m now working in a new field and I’m going to try this now,” said Jagger.
“We still see women in the minority of executive chefs, sous chef, those leadership roles. And a significant decline in women in cook employment is a concerning stat for us.”
Siegel, who leads a team of mainly women, said a diverse team is essential to foster growth and creativity, which is what the industry is about.
“It’s important to have different points of view in the kitchen. I also think it’s important because it makes it a more comfortable environment. Any environment that’s skewed too heavily one way is going to start to feel really exclusive to people.”
A career for everyone who loves it
Nutcha Phanthoupheng, founder and executive chef of Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine, says anyone can be a chef.
After moving to Vancouver in 2014, the mother of two – who was previously a long-time nurse in Thailand –decided to pursue her dream of becoming a professional chef.
“A lot of male chefs said it’s impossible because I had no experience, nothing. But in my heart I felt, I cooked with my mom when I was young, cooking is in my soul, in my hands. Why not? I told everyone I can do it,” said Phanthoupheng.
She went back to Thailand to take private cooking courses from top chefs and opened Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine in 2021. The restaurant has since received significant industry recognition and was named to Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list in 2022. Phanthoupheng was also voted Best Chef in Vancouver for three consecutive years in the Golden Plates Awards.
“I showed everyone I got a lot of [customers]. That is the success I want to show them – the woman that wants to be a chef can prove herself and do it,” she said.
Jagger said many of the top-performing students at culinary schools are women, but sometimes factors such as a lack of work opportunities, an unsupportive work environment, pay inequity and long working hours can keep even very talented people from entering the industry.
Those who stay often work twice as hard to prove themselves in kitchens.
“Nobody should be made to feel they have to prove themselves because of their gender,” she said.
Changing the industry’s culture
The culture in professional kitchens has been shifting to a more friendly and supportive working environment, according to those who spoke with BIV, and they say they hope this will attract more women to the field.
“We know hospitality [traditionally] has some of the highest level of sexual harassment of any industry and that is what I’m seeing changing a lot that employers are taking a zero-tolerance policy, so that women have that psychological safety and safety in their workplace,” said Jagger.
More employers have recognized that to attract and retain talent, they need to adapt – and offer professional development, work-life balance and flexibility, she added.
Siegel says she has also seen improvements in hospitality over the years.
“When I was a young cook in my early 20s, you hear a lot of things like, ‘Oh, you’re too pretty to be back here, you should be in the front of the house as a waitress.’ ‘You should be at someplace where you can dress nice and wear makeup,’ recalled Siegel.
“I think that mentality is very much changing.”
Having more women in leadership, she said, will help to foster a work environment where women feel comfortable talking about the challenges they may be facing.
“Women seeing other women in this industry being happy is a huge thing. And just seeing more women in management in this industry I think is so key.”
For Siegel, cooking has been a rewarding and fun career. She said she hopes to see more women enjoy it like she does.
“I love the science behind it, I love the structure it has, I love the flavours, I love the artistry and I love the people. Some of the greatest people I’ve met in my whole life I’ve met in kitchens.”