Five of Maine’s best female chefs are planning a benefit next month for the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, but, despite the name of the event, “Fabulous Femmes,” they don’t want you to focus on their gender.

Krista Desjarlais Jack Milton/Staff Photographer

Krista Desjarlais says the qualities that draw people to restaurant work aren’t necessarily gender-specific. Jack Milton/Staff Photographer

Krista Desjarlais of Bresca & the Honeybee in New Gloucester says she thinks people make too much of women working in restaurant kitchens these days, especially since there are so many more female chefs and restaurant owners today than 20 or 30 years ago. She said people who are drawn to restaurant work tend to have a certain personality that is strong, outspoken and passionate about food – qualities that are not necessarily gender-specific.

“We’ve always done the same job as the men,” Desjarlais said. “And if we do it more or better, it’s just because I’m a better chef or a better cook. It doesn’t mean that just because I’m a woman I have to work harder.”

Desjarlais and three of the other chefs participating in the Oct. 25 dinner at Flanagan’s Table, an elegant barn venue in Buxton that hosts monthly dinners prepared by guest chefs, met at Piccolo recently to talk about their menu and about life as female chefs in Maine. (Tickets go on sale today at noon.) The other chefs were Ilma Lopez of Portland’s Piccolo, who organized the dinner; Kim Rodgers of Hugo’s in Portland; and Cara Stadler of Tao Yuan in Brunswick and Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland. The fifth chef, Melissa Kelly of Primo in Rockland, couldn’t make it to the meeting.

The women generally had good things to say about working in Portland, although sticky issues such as the minimum wage debate and the challenges of juggling work and family also came up.

“I know it’s cheesy,” Lopez said of running a restaurant in Portland, “but it’s friendly,”

“You’re one of the first chefs I knew in town,” Stadler said to Desjarlais. “I came and I staged. I wanted to work for you, but you didn’t have a spot open for three months.” (A stage is an internship in which a cook briefly works in another chef’s kitchen for free to learn new techniques and cuisines.)

Stadler says the makeup of modern Maine restaurant kitchens often illustrates how much things have changed for women in the industry. When she and her mother opened Tao Yuan, her own kitchen was almost all female, a situation she surmised must have been as tough for the one guy on staff as it was for her in a male-dominated kitchen when she started out.

Cara Stadler

When Cara Stadler and her mother opened their restaurant, they had only one man working in the kitchen. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

“I said ‘You’re the only dude in the kitchen!'” she recalled. “It must be just as awkward.”

The American restaurant kitchen was once a high-pressure, testosterone-fueled boys’ club where women were unwelcome or at the least treated very differently – and rarely put in charge. The landscape has certainly shifted over the last half-century or so. The Culinary Institute of America’s first class, in 1946, included just one woman; today, nearly 50 percent of the school’s student body is female, up from 21 percent in 1992. And, according to the National Restaurant Association, half of all U.S. restaurants are now owned or co-owned by women.

Women are now stepping confidently into the roles of chef de cuisine and executive chef – even if in small numbers – and they are turning to each other for support through groups such as “Women Chefs & Restaurateurs,” founded by pioneering chefs to give women a voice in the kitchen and help them advance their careers.

But there is still much progress to be made. Remember that Time magazine cover in 2013 that named the “world’s most influential chefs” – and caused an uproar because they were all men?

Ilma Lopez and her husband and business partner Damian Sansonetti.

Ilma Lopez and her husband and business partner Damian Sansonetti. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Lopez is in her early 30s, and Stadler is in her late 20s, but they have both experienced the sting of prejudice in the kitchen.

Lopez noted that when she started working at Daniel, a renowned French restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in New York 13 years ago, she was the only woman on staff and she spoke only Spanish. She was a pastry chef, but everyone who met her thought otherwise.

“If you’re speaking Spanish or you’re not American or European,” she said, “people assume that you’re washing dishes.”

Stadler said she worked at a restaurant here in the United States – she won’t say where – where the chef refused to put women on the hot line, the space in the kitchen where the cooking is done.

“He said I could go from garde manger to sous chef, but I couldn’t work on a hot line,” she said. (The garde manger, also known as pantry chef, prepares cold foods.)

“I was, like, ‘This is stupid, How am I going to learn to do anything?'”

She quit.

Desjarlais recalled that when she started working in commercial kitchens here in the mid-1980s, they were filled with men – men with colorful backgrounds. “It was pirates,” she said. “It was literally guys right out of prison and off boats.”

These big, burly guys surrounding her just bided their time, “waiting to see me completely fail.”

“And when I didn’t, they were like, ‘Well, all right, I guess you can stay,'” she said. “You work really hard, and that was the end of the issue. I worked hard, and I understood what it meant to be a cook – not a woman – in the kitchen.”

Desjarlais said while pockets of prejudice in restaurant kitchens remain, she firmly believes certain personality types will always be attracted to the work and stay, whether they are men or women. They are strong, hard workers who know how to set boundaries (read: won’t put up with sexual harassment) and are comfortable with long hours doing “a million things every day.”

Kim Rogers, a chef at Hugo’s Restaurant in Portland, roasts hazelnuts for use in a special recipe. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Kim Rogers, a chef at Hugo’s Restaurant in Portland, roasts hazelnuts for use in a special recipe. She says the restaurant’s three male owners “treat everyone equally.”
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

It helps that the younger generation is more aware of gender issues. Kim Rodgers works for the three male owners of Hugo’s and says “they treat everyone equally.”

“They’re super nice and knowledgeable, and they want to teach you regardless of who you are, if you’re male or female,” she said. “If you show interest and desire and passion, they’ll give you the tools that you need.”

Restaurant work has not exactly been known as family-friendly, but that is changing too, particularly when both parents work in kitchens. Desjarlais challenges the very notion that most of the parental responsibilities still fall on women in the 21st century.

“People presume that the mother automatically has the priority to stay at home with the child, but it’s shared,” she said. “And I think women working in the kitchen know that too – it’s all team, or it doesn’t work. Home life becomes the same type of thing.”

Portland has become known as a friendly place for younger chefs to raise a family, the women said, especially if both parents work in restaurants and understand the demands of the industry.

“I know so many chefs who are new restaurant owners who have children,” Stadler said. “I think there are a lot of people moving up here to be chefs because they can be a chef and have a family, regardless of sex.”

Lopez, who has a daughter with her husband and business partner, Damian Sansonetti, said each member of the couple has to step back a bit and sacrifice at work sometimes, “but if you build a restaurant as a team, you can totally do it.” Lopez said that becoming a mother has made her a better, more efficient worker at Piccolo.

“I know that I don’t have 15 hours, seven days a week, to be in the kitchen,” she said. “I know I have to really plan out. I have to be more streamlined with everything I do.”

And being a mother is one reason why Lopez sticks with it – she wants to be a good example for her daughter, Isabella.

“I want her to be strong and be determined and do something that she’s happy about,” Lopez said. “I’m happy about my decision every single day. We get to do what we love, and I want my daughter to do the same thing.”