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Women of the Kitchen: Area Chefs Find Success in Industry Dominated By Men

Women of the Kitchen: Area Chefs Find Success in Industry Dominated By Men

Women are still breaking into the restaurant industry, which has been male dominated for some time.

Justin Paprocki, The Island Packet | Hilton Head Island, S.C.

There’s something unusual in the kitchen at Christine’s Cafe on Hilton Head Island. The head chef and co-owner – Christine Bohn – is a woman.

Paula Deen and Rachael Ray may have become familiar faces on the television screen, but behind-the-scenes in restaurants across the country, women have less of a presence. Starchefs.com, a Web site that covers the restaurant industry, estimates that about 18 percent of executive chefs are women, according to their annual Salary Survey. The percentages were even less for female owners/chefs, sous chefs or line cooks.

“The culinary profession is still dominated by men, with white men representing a bigger percentage at the top,” the survey said. “Clearly, women still have that glass ceiling to break through.”

Female chefs exist in the Lowcountry, of course, whether that’s in catering, pastry, restaurants or working as private chefs. Although no numbers exist for the Lowcountry, local chefs note that the national trend most likely carries through. So, the question remains: Why?

Christine Bohn grew up cooking with her grandmother and spent her whole career in food and beverage, starting as a waitress in college and rising to be a culinary director with a restaurant chain.

About a decade ago she moved to Hilton Head and started her own restaurant and catering business. She recently relocated her restaurant, Christine’s Cafe and Catering, to the Atrium Building near the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.

Coming up in the corporate side of food and beverage, Bohn said being a woman didn’t hinder her career.

“The restaurant business has always been a man’s world,” she said. “But I was never intimidated, never uncomfortable. They never carried my suitcase for me or anything like that. I think they just thought of me as one of the guys. … For me, it was just the right place at the right time with a little talent.”

The restaurant business, like many other industries, isn’t kind on the family. Restaurant hours are long and at odd times. Chefs often get off work late in the evening or get a day off during the week. It’s not the most conducive environment to raising children, Bohn said.

Bohn was able to establish her career while her husband and mother helped take care of her daughter. She can see how women in a different situation might not end up in the same position. Between the hours and the physically stressful environment, “there’s not a lot of women who want to do it,” she said.

In a recent series of interviews with female chefs, Starchefs.com offered this advice to women looking to have both a culinary career and family: “Wait. Focus on your career, pay your dues, and then have a family. By then, ideally, you’ll be in a position to prioritize.”

Lynn Hicks, a former restaurant owner and current president of the local Johnson and Wales Alumni chapter, said part of the issue stems from male chauvinism. Not that all men in all kitchens think the same way, but that an antiquated mindset does still exist.

“I’m not male bashing. But I still hear people say, ‘Women belong in the kitchen at home, not the commercial kitchen,’” she said.

The solution is about promoting the fact that men and women each bring their own strengths and weaknesses to the kitchen.