Food

From Housewives to Entrepreneurs

“The difference between me and a male cook is that I find myself thinking about being a woman, comparing myself to him, while he doesn’t.”

Women cook at home but not in restaurants (unless they happen to be entrepreneurs). What is the difference from men? Women reflect on being women and compare themselves to men, and they, in turn, don’t.

Italy is a Republic founded on mothers. Grandmothers, mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law,  girlfriends, daughters. They reign in the kitchen, these angels of the hearth, dispensers of domestic wisdom and custodians of our gastronomic traditions. They are the ones who bake delicacies with hands of gold, make the best ragù in town and who, through their recipes, imprint indelible memories into the national fiber. However, this is only at home in an apron, because when it comes to wearing chef’s whites, or being sommeliers and restaurant managers, the presence of women is rare. So rare that it is still cause for media sensationalism.

Articles, interviews, and special awards dedicated to female chefs highlight stories that give strength and courage to new generations. Simultaneously, there is a divide in public opinion between the belief that “pink quotas” are a necessary incentive for gender equality, versus having alternative championships for the “less capable” women who can only hope to sit at the back of the proverbial professional bus.

Having curated for two years the Michelin Female Chef Award, sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, I pondered the subject. That is, the millennia socio-economic problem that numerous historians, sociologists, trade unionists and feminists before me have investigated well beyond the scope of pans and stoves. Here is what I came to understand. 

The specific reason why there are few female chefs, from a personal example: all sorts of reasons have been cited, from the excessive weight of pots and pans, to long hours, and the harshness of a profession not suited to the “fairer” sex.

 

Haute cuisine is not the restaurant business 

In the world of haute cuisine, kitchens are almost always made up of men, divided into teams and organized like armies. It’s true that starred restaurants are the ones talked about the most, but they make up less than 1% of the industry’s sector. The business is made up of regular restaurants, pizzerias, canteens, bars, which although less newsworthy, are the reality.

Apart from the Michelin guide, there are plenty of women in the restaurant field. Indeed, in Italy this has always been one of the few sectors where female employment is generally higher than male (52% according to data from the Italian Federation of Public Exercises, 2019). Women work in snack bars, cafeterias and trattorias, as cooks and waitresses, in part-time and temporary jobs, while female leadership positions are in short supply. Why? For the same reason we don’t have the same number of female parliament members, professors, and managers.

 

TV, the actual mirror of the country

Frankly one just needs to turn on the TV to realize that despite the media attention that cooking in Italy gained in the last ten years, women are still relegated to cooking on morning shows. Meantime, male chefs are the rock stars du jour, the harsh judges on Masterchef or those who lend their voices as opinion leaders on issues ranging from world hunger to economic development. If they are good cooks, women turn their passion into a job, becoming food bloggers, while men make a career from one restaurant to another, leading up to the role of chef (literally, boss). Are they just better at cooking? In the country of “mammoni” and great home cooking, the reason is not apparently due to men’s worth or a prejudice toward female management skills.

 

Resignation and the glass ceiling

The glass ceiling is a socio-economic factor, and has nothing to do with gastronomic creativity, team management or budgets. Companies – restaurant business or not – are biased toward entrusting leading roles to women. This is due to how much more involved women are in family life; the concern being that it comes at the expense of the job. In fact, in 2020, women in Italy were the most affected by the crisis that accompanied the pandemic. So much so, that decades-long progress toward increasing female employment, albeit very slow and regionally unbalanced, was not only interrupted, but completely reversed. Terminated or unrenewed contracts, along with voluntary and involuntary departures of female workers, these comprised the great resignation – before it became the social phenomena of 2021. When women decide to start a family, between maternity leave and child rearing, they slow the pace of their careers or completely give them up, and not only in restaurant kitchens. Consequently, they are left behind in terms of pay and responsibility, overtaken by their male colleagues – who, when they do choose to have a family, do so at the other’s (spouse or partner) expense. It happens everywhere, and while statistics from the International Labor Organization (ILO), data from the EU Gender Equality Index and the National Statistical Institute (ISTA), indicate a concerning gap in female employment, just talking about chefs is not seeing the forest for the trees.

Changing the rules of the game

In 2021, Isa Mazzocchi, holding her Michelin Female Chef Award, sarcastically thanked all those in her life who had repeatedly told her she would never make it. She would not have made it as a chef, have children, been happy and win a Michelin star (in Bilegno, a village of one hundred people in the province of Piacenza). “Just because they couldn’t do it with their rules doesn’t mean you can’t do it by following yours! What arrogance!” she said, retelling how she nursed her children in the restaurant kitchen and the method by which she manages her restaurant, La Palta, with her sister and husband. At work everyone has lunch together, but dinner is at home, with the family, and they are off two days a week. Isa is one of those women who inherited her restaurant, and by doing things her way, was able to invent a way to reconcile her private and professional life.

This former small town convenience store, turned haute cuisine restaurant, is a perfect example of Italy as a whole. Italy is a country with the highest percentage of small and medium-sized enterprises in all of Europe, where the restaurant sector is mainly a family business. This is why, although the gender gap in chef positions remains evident, Italy has a high number of awards going to female chefs and roughly 40% of all female Michelin stars in the world.

In Italy, women become chefs because they are first entrepreneurs, having inherited or founded their own ventures. They certainly don’t build their careers as part of a kitchen crew or in large ventures backed by outside investors. And so, the vast majority of newspapers stories about pastry chefs, bakers, and winemakers are about those women who didn’t wait for someone to promote them.

 

A female entrepreneurship

As in all previous instances, it was a chef and entrepreneur who was crowned Michelin Female Chef: Martina Caruso, of Signum Hotel in Salina, Fabrizia Meroi of Laite restaurant in the mountains of Sappada, and Caterina Ceraudo of Dattilo in Strongoli. In 2020 it was Marianna Vitale’s turn. In 2009 she opened her restaurant Sud in Quarto, a deeply Neapolitan suburb. Does she feel disadvantaged as a woman? Absolutely not. “Honestly, I don’t think being a woman put me at any particular disadvantage as a chef”, she laughs. “I was already socially disadvantaged. A woman, Neapolitan, from Porta Capuana, chubby, with a language degree, starting a business in Quarto…” The question remains purely economic, “All starred restaurants with female chefs are family restaurants, like mine. This is because in Italy, investors are men and they invest in men” explains Marianna. “Eventually when we have female executives and investors, we will see if they choose to support women in kind.” So, is anything different in the kitchen? Just look for flowers on the plates! “The difference between me and a male cook is that I find myself thinking about being a woman, comparing myself to him, while he doesn’t. Male cooks have a penis, and female cooks have a vagina, period.”

Photography by Andrea Moretti