Genet Worku, head chef of Addis Ethiopian Restaurant (Photo by Monica Escamilla)
Far fewer women than men head professional kitchens, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (and just about any chef you ask). This is, I should note, restricted to kitchen leaders in full-service restaurants, not caterers or pastry chefs. That handful, constantly asked to speak to the minority's position, are weary of doling out quips. So instead of asking what it’s like to work as a female chef in Richmond, I asked a few chefs and restaurateurs why the city’s restaurants are increasingly staffing its kitchens with women who cook, and why these chefs may actually be the stronger sex when it comes to cooking.
Research shows that when isolating “supertasters,” those alpha outliers born with extra ability to perceive flavor, temperature and texture, women outnumber men two to one. “Ethiopians, traditionally, have female chefs in restaurants. Ethiopian food is about the balance of spice, and I think that women know that better,” says Addis Ethiopian Restaurant owner Dilnessaw Bitew. “I can’t taste how salty the food is, but my female cooks [including head chef Genet Worku] get it right every time. They are much better tasters.”
Mentally and physically grueling shifts that extend far past the average 8-hour workday make controlling the kitchen more of a long-distance run than a sprint. “Women tend to be more detail-conscious and efficient, executing more consistently over a longer period of time, than males,” says Richmond Restaurant Group corporative executive chef Mike Ledesma, who also notes that his female cooks pay far more attention to detail and “figure out the puzzle” faster than their male counterparts.
Lauren Jurk, co-owner and chef of The Naked Onion, believes her use of empathy over intimidation has helped her lead culinary brigades. “We tend to have a softer touch with co-workers initially, but this doesn’t mean that women can’t be just as tough or tougher in top positions as male counterparts,” she says. “The kitchen is a hot, hectic environment and tempers flare. A woman calms that down. I don’t know if it’s because we have to be that in order to work our way up, or if it’s part of our nature, but on the line we have fewer breakdowns.” And don’t think this means that female chefs play The Woman Card. “We should just be referred to as chefs,” she says, “not ‘women chefs.’ We wouldn’t say ‘male chefs.’”