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.

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.”

 

 

Leanne Kamekona

Executive chef, St. Regis Princeville Resort, Kaua‘i

Photo: Kicka Witte

 

➸ Years in the kitchen: 24
➸ Male to female ratio in her kitchens: 4:1
➸ Children: “I don’t have children. It’s tough being a chef and being a great mother or a great father. You really have to prioritize.”
 

“I was raised with two older brothers,” Leanne Kamekona, who is 43, says. “You get slapped around and bullied at times; in the kitchens, I felt like I was at home.”

Back in high school, when Kamekona was bagging groceries at KTA Super Stores supermarket in Hilo, she initially turned down a move to the meat department. “It smells back there,” she told managers. “I want to work where I’m gonna stay as clean as possible.”

So much for that.

She’s now spent more than two decades in professional kitchens, where a night on the hot line leaves you sweaty and smelling of fish and meat and grease.

And she did end up taking that job in the meat department. “That was my first introduction to working with food,” Kamekona says. “I learned the cuts of meat and learned to break down these big tunas, big ono and mahi mahi and stuff like that. I took a liking to how food is being prepared, how it’s being cut, how it arrives.”

The head butcher at the Hilton Waikoloa Resort discovered her at KTA and hired her for his team of five at the 1,400-room hotel. She saw it as just a side gig, though, to save money while she went to college. She was planning on becoming a ceramics teacher.

She didn’t. “I ended up mastering butchering and wanted to learn a different area,” she says. “Part of me was thinking, because I was a female, I should go into pastry—generally speaking, most females went into the bakeshop, back in the day. But learning the different things in butchering really pushed me into wanting to cook.”

She worked in various hotels from Maui to California to Kaua‘i, rising up the ranks to executive chef. “I don’t think about [being a female chef] at all. I don’t come into work everyday thinking, ‘Oh no, I need to execute this menu with all these males.’ I’m comfortable in the kitchen. It’s my comfort zone, after being in the kitchen for 24 years.”

 

 

Miya Nishimura

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.’”

 

 

Michelle Karr-Ueoka

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.”