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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Pastry chef/owner, MW Restaurant
Photo: Linny Morris
➸ Years in the kitchen: 14
➸ Male to female ratio in her kitchen: 1:1
➸ Children: “If Wade and I were to have a child, I would still be here, but I’m not worried that I would have to be here every single day. Right now, I have a really good girl, Kayleigh Guyon, who works with me. She makes my life easier. It’s about finding that right person to cover for you, the way a sous chef covers for the chef. That makes a big difference.”
Michelle Karr-Ueoka, 38, cites Thomas Keller as one of her two most influential mentors (the other—Alan Wong). They still correspond frequently: Keller invites her to The French Laundry’s important milestones and sent personal advice when she and her husband opened their restaurant a year ago. It’s a relationship based on a five-month stint at The French Laundry 15 years ago.
“I think that nurturing and caring and that part you would think is feminine as a mother, I got that from chef Keller when he took me under his wing,” Karr-Ueoka says. “Values are not gender related.”
Karr-Ueoka graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) with a culinary degree (as opposed to pastry) and learned both the savory and dessert side during her stints at The French Laundry and Per Se, before she decided to focus on pastry. (She has said about pastry: “For me, it teaches and emphasizes patience, discipline, creativity and artistry.”)
She’s noticed more women are entering the culinary program at the CIA, an observation backed up by a Bloomberg article that noted female enrollment in the culinary arts rose from 28 percent in 2003 to 35 percent in 2012. (Locally, the Culinary Institute of the Pacific could not provide a gender breakdown of its programs, though it said that overall, for its programs in aggregate, the enrollment numbers for men and women are about equal.)
Asked if she thinks MW having a female owner is one of the reasons more women apply to be in her kitchen, she says she never thought of it that way. But she recognizes that her right-hand woman, the one that Karr-Ueoka could rely on if she needed to scale back her hours to raise a family, sought the position specifically so she could work with Karr-Ueoka, underscoring the dual benefits of women chef mentors.
“The industry is changing,” she says. “For a while, there weren’t many new restaurants popping up. In this past year, so many restaurants have opened in Hawai‘i. It’s all different styles, all different kinds of food. Conditions change. There’s more diversity in the types of restaurants. Maybe that’s why more people—and more women—are entering the industry.” She and Wade opened MW to provide their own spin on Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine and to continue its legacy of promoting Hawai‘i agriculture and culture.
“One of the best [pieces of advice] chef Keller gave me,” and Karr-Ueoka says this part in a way that suggests she’s repeated it often: “‘Don’t be part of a trend. A trend has a beginning and an end. Be part of a movement. A movement makes a difference. A movement lasts forever.’
“It might not be popular, maybe it won’t ever be popular, but maybe it will make a difference. Maybe it will make the world a better place.”