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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Chef de cuisine, Alan Wong’s
Photo: Linny Morris
➸ Years in the kitchen: 9
➸ Male to female ratio in her kitchen: 1:1
➸ Children: “One step at a time. I need a boyfriend first.”
Miya Nishimura is Alan Wong’s first female chef de cuisine, and it seems to have changed the dynamic in the kitchen. When she took over the position last year (from Wade Ueoka, who left to open a restaurant with his wife, Michelle Karr-Ueoka, also featured in this article), she remembers being one of only a few women working the hot line. Now, almost half are women. “It makes me happy to see so many females in the kitchen now,” she says.
“A lot of young girls, they need a female role model. When they see there’s a female chef in the restaurant, they become excited about working. If I were in the same position, I would want to work for a female chef.” She frequently interacts with Kapi‘olani and Leeward Community College culinary school students through events, and while she encourages all the students to stage (intern) in the kitchen, it’s “the females that actually connect more with me,” she says.
Born in Japan and raised in Southern California, Nishimura grew up around food: Her parents had an eclectic, American-style coffee shop and diner. She told herself if she didn’t get accepted into college, she’d go to culinary school. Instead, she went to the University of Southern California and worked as an accountant. “But I didn’t enjoy sitting in an office all day,” she says. She enrolled at the California Culinary Academy, and, upon graduating, headed to Alan Wong’s. She’s now been with Wong’s restaurants for almost 10 years.
In that decade, she’s witnessed a changing kitchen culture. “Wade was a little more aggressive (as a chef de cuisine),” she says. “But I guess he could be because they were all male in the kitchen.” It’s not just gender, though—she thinks there’s also a generational difference. The strict, bordering-on-hazing culture of old-school kitchens doesn’t fly anymore. “People are more sensitive,” she says. “It’s a younger crew—most are 10 years younger than me.” (She requested we not print her age.)
She has a maternal view of her cooks, which could be equal parts the age difference; the high-pressure nature of the kitchen, which forges bonds; and a style passed down by Alan Wong. “I have kids ... 20 of them. Ultimately, their success is my success,” she says, quoting a Wong-ism. “I teach them right from wrong, good from bad, make sure they’re happy, find out what’s wrong if they’re not. Give advice or just sometimes let them learn for themselves. Help them grow to become stronger and better than what they were. And eventually they leave the nest. When they don’t do well, I wonder what it is that I may not being doing right as the ‘mom.’ I never thought I would ever have so many ‘kids.’”