Chicks Roux: Metro Detroit's Women Chefs

If a woman’s place is in the kitchen, where are all the girls?

Making dinner for the family is perfectly acceptable “women’s work,” but when it comes to heading up high-profile kitchens and overseeing dozens of employees in the high-stress restaurant industry, it seems like women are still treated like delicate flowers who can’t carry their weight in 40-qt. stock pots.

In metro Detroit, there are only a handful of females in coveted executive chef positions, but these girls gone gastronomic are making a serious impact.

It's a man's, man's, man's world

If you look at the Food Network -- the barometer by which all food trends are judged -- you’ll find plenty of women. Some have gone to prestigious culinary schools, some have owned businesses (typically catering companies and markets), and they all seem to have a few cookbooks under their stylish, fashionable belts. The settings for their shows tend to be intimate -- made to look like the inside of a comfortable, spacious home, filmed without a studio audience to interact with. They tell stories of their childhoods and families in a very personal, nurturing sort of way; they speak of wives and mothers cooking easy and healthy home dinners for their families.

By contrast, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse get sprawling industrial kitchens to film in front of a loud, boisterous studio audience, and the more outlandish they are the more the audience adores them (same goes for brash personalities like Guy Fieri and Anthony Bourdain). The term “lifestyle expert” is used exhaustively to describe Sandra Lee, Giada DeLaurentiis, Paula Deen and the Network’s other female stars, regardless of their professional background; Bobby Flay is described first and foremost as a “critically acclaimed chef and restaurateur.”

“Look at Gordon Ramsey [and his infamous] temper,” says Executive Chef Alexis Henslee of the acclaimed Metropolitan Café in Shelby Township. “In a kitchen there’s testosterone; people are trying to prove themselves.”

Working in a kitchen certainly isn’t for cream puffs in stilettos who don’t want to muss their hair. These are 12 to 16-hour on-your feet workdays six days a week. It is physically strenuous, demanding, exhausting work that involves lots of heavy lifting and wielding 11-inch butcher blades that can cut through bone. And you better not screw up an order, even in the middle of a 150-cover dinner rush.

Henslee had been working under Chef Rich Travis at Tribute in Farmington Hills. After it closed, she went in search of work as an executive chef. “I interviewed with someone who owned three restaurants, but his whole thing was that he wasn’t sure I could lead a kitchen. I felt that if I had been a man it wouldn’t have been an issue,” she explains. “That was really eye-opening. People think women are push-overs, that they can’t stand up to a 6’2’’ line cook. But I can.”

Another eye-opening experience for Henslee was Dining with the Masters, a black-tie charity dinner benefiting the Henry Ford Health System Transplant Institute, featuring 30 of the area’s most prominent chefs. After working under other chefs and seeing there were no female “masters” there, she was invited as a “master” for this year’s event. (The only other female master was a private chef.)

“I made a foie gras torchon with a rhubarb compote … someone asked me if my appetizer was pink because I’m a girl. No, my appetizer is pink because rhubarb is in season right now.”

Even still, for Henslee being a woman and being a chef are not mutually exclusive things. “We’re taught not to be competitive,” she says. “You can be as feminine as you want, you just have to have strength in your convictions and do your job. I have no problem putting mascara on in the morning. The boys know I have a pink chef coat because I’m a girl, but you can wear mascara and still do your job.”

Girly-girls need not apply

“People definitely treat females in the kitchen differently,” says Bree Hoptman, former executive chef of Cork Wine Pub in Pleasant Ridge.  “You definitely have to be that person to get in there and gain [the boys’] respect. You can’t be a girly-girl; in the kitchen you have to get your hands dirty and be there with them because they’re definitely judging you in their heads.”

Her position at Cork had been in the works for a couple of years prior to opening; she built the kitchen from the ground up by hiring the staff, writing the menus, even picking out the equipment. The restaurant opened to much acclaim and was an immediate success with her name behind all of it, but in-fighting amongst upper management led to Hoptman’s reluctant departure. “It was really hard because that was my baby. I worked 18 hours a day for seven months.”

As an executive chef, Hoptman is very passionate about treating people with respect and leading by example. “I am and always will be a working chef,” she says. “I don’t tell anyone to do something I can’t or won’t do. I worked every night and cooked every night. A lot of chefs are behind-the-scenes; I don’t think that’s the way to have a successful restaurant, plus my name is on everything. You gain respect by being in the trenches with them and sweating your ass off with them.”

Throughout her career Hoptman has noticed being treated differently because she is a woman. “I definitely feel like me being a female was part of being the sous chef instead of the executive chef. [I would be asked] questions about getting married and having children.” She recalls one particular interview with a man who commented that she seemed “really nice and even-tempered” for a chef. When she said she isn’t always that way, his reaction was, "Oh, so you’re a bitch?" "No, I’m just telling you I know how to run a kitchen." "You run into that so much as a female there’s no way to really avoid it.”

“Women have to work harder to be respected on the same level,” says Jody Brunori, executive chef of the French Laundry in Fenton – a French-inspired locally-sourced contemporary American restaurant (not affiliated with the Thomas Keller restaurant). “You have to put some of your femininity aside and be kind of asexual. I don’t look at myself as a woman in this position. Most of my staff is male but they respect me equally, they see my strength. I’m in the trenches every day with them; that’s where you gain their respect whether you’re male or female – we’re all a team, we have a common goal.”

Which is why for any chef, respect must go both ways. “Whether you’re a dishwasher or a sauté cook, everyone deserves the same respect or else the restaurant will go down,” Hoptman says. “I’m not a screamer. I got screamed at for three years [by another male chef] and had things thrown at me and I learned you don’t have to be that way.”

Hoptman thinks that a woman’s more sensitive nature is actually an unsung strength in the professional kitchen. “The kitchen is a very high-pressure environment where if you mess up you’ll hear about it. People think that women can’t handle it the same as men but really women are supposed to be more patient, even have a higher pain threshold. ...'Sensitive’ means you might be afraid to approach somebody or tell them what to do, but really it helps me to approach them in the right way.”

The “Pastry Presumption”

For too many women working in professional kitchens there is an assumption that they are pastry chefs. Henslee inadvertently pigeonholed herself as such early in her career:

“A lot of people feel that that’s where women belong; there’s that underlying ‘oh girls should do pastries’ idea, and guys who do them get picked on … it was more a lack of confidence in myself. Once I got my feet wet with savory cooking and found I could keep up with the boys it really helped my confidence level.”

Jessi Patuano, a line cook at the Root Restaurant & Bar in White Lake, says, “I get seriously offended if people ask if I’m a pastry chef just because I’m a female in a kitchen. No, I can handle hot food too!”

Patuano is in her first year in the Culinary Arts Program at Schoolcraft College. At every place she has worked she’s had to start in the front of the house and work her way to the back by chatting up the chef there; her eagerness, passion and drive were noticed immediately by the Root’s executive chef, James Rigato, and she is now in her first “serious” line position.

“Women have to step up their game quite a bit to make it in this industry,” she observes. “There’s more expected out of you because there’s less expected of you.”

Brunori jokes, “I am 5 feet, 100 pounds. I made pretty darn sure I didn’t ask for any help. I was self-sufficient and pushed my way through it; I made sure I could carry those 40-lb cases of potatoes myself. I was pretty adamant that I was going to be a woman in this position but not as a woman, as an equal.”

Eve Aronoff, proprietor-chef of Ann Arbor’s eve: the restaurant and now the casual Cuban-inspired Frita Batidos, says that throughout her career she has never really thought about being a female chef, but rather simply a chef. “I wasn’t trying to prove myself; I wasn’t scared I couldn’t do it. This was what I wanted to do and was really into it, I just had to go about learning my skills. I sort of put together my own curriculum but it wasn’t gender-related; it was more about being confident and learning.”

While this is still a heavily male-dominated industry (and that won’t be changing overnight), it seems the ultimate key for a woman to be successful is in her confidence.

“I definitely believe one of the biggest hurdles holding back young women from being amazing chefs is being under-confident,” Henslee says. “You can be confident without being cocky. If you just believe in yourself, you can do what any guy can do on the line.”
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