What Does It Take to Succeed as a Woman in the Male-Dominated World of Hawai‘i Cuisine?
Thoughts from four women who have spent up to 24 years in professional kitchens.
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You’re more likely to find a woman running a company than a restaurant kitchen. Given that fewer than a quarter of CEOs are women, the odds your favorite restaurant is run by a woman are pretty slim. But while women may not be the ones in charge, they make up the bulk of the food service workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s not as simple as overt sexism keeping young female chefs out. Instead, other, more complex factors tend to pull women out of the kitchen: culture, different definitions of success, family. While the last might affect all genders, in today’s society, women are still presumed the primary caregivers.
What is it like for the rare woman leading a professional kitchen? And does she believe, as Kevin Hanney, chef/owner of three Kaimukī restaurants, does: “This business is not a family-friendly business for anyone”?
Lee Anne Wong
Chef/partner at Koko Head Café
Photo: Mark Arbeit
➸ Years in the kitchen: 15
➸ Male to female ratio in her kitchen: 3:1
➸ Children: “I’m at that tricky age where part of me wants a family, part of me understands a lifelong commitment to something like this (restaurants).”
“I’ve consulted, I’ve opened up restaurants, I’ve flipped restaurants, I’ve opened movie theaters, worked in TV production on both sides of the camera, done culinary school. I’ve worked on movies. But I hadn’t done this (my own restaurant). I knew this would far and away be the most life-changing, challenging thing I’ve done,” says Lee Anne Wong.
So why do it, knowing it would be so hard?
“Bobby [Flay] and Mario [Batali] (TV chefs/restaurateurs) would say, ‘Yeah, don’t open a restaurant.’ But you all did. Why is what’s good for you not good for me? What else would I do? ‘Be smart, do something else,’ they said. But you have to start somewhere.”
Wong insists that, even though she works in a male-dominated field, she doesn’t feel the need to compete with anybody. But given that she made her name on a Top Chef competition, take that with a grain of salt. And because, frankly, what ambitious woman in a male-dominated field doesn’t find a little motivation in the idea “if men can do it, why can’t I?”
It’s not the reason we do anything, but sometimes, it’s what keeps us in the game longer than reasonable.
And to (mis)quote George Bernard Shaw, “... all progress depends on the unreasonable [wo]man.”
Wong’s desire for a neighborhood restaurant was the main reason she teamed up with Kevin Hanney of 12th Ave Grill and Salt. Around the same time Wong was contemplating a move to Hawai‘i, Hanney was looking for a chef for his new brunch place.
Wong, originally from New York state, made her career in New York City. She had spent the last seven years working in TV; after her run on the debut season of Top Chef, she later became its culinary producer—the one who ordered all the ingredients and set up all the challenges. Then she was back in front of the camera, for the show Unique Eats, for three seasons. When the show wasn’t renewed, “I made a very conscious decision to step away from TV,” Wong says. “I needed more. I didn’t have a restaurant. I didn’t have an answer when people would ask: ‘Where can I go eat your food?’
“Feeding people is a necessity. People need to eat. Do people need to watch TV? No. Do people need to hear my glorified opinion on something that I ate somewhere else? Not necessarily.”
Wong is 37, stepping into the restaurant kitchen at an age when some other women begin pulling out to start families. “Working 15 hours a day in a restaurant is not really conducive to a healthy lifestyle,” she says. “So [some women] figure out other things to do.” She hasn’t quite decided whether she’ll have children, but either way, she thinks about “the idea of a legacy. I’d like to be part of something bigger. Helping to shape lives.” Whether it’s raising her own kids, shaping a restaurant culture for her employees and customers, or even encouraging other female cooks and chefs.
“I want to inspire other young females to stay in the game. I believe you can find balance. I believe I can have a family and run a business. I’m not there yet, but I’ll get there. It’s the idea that I have to put in six days a week to make it happen. I’m not afraid of hard work.”