Reinventing the male-dominated restaurant industry

The restaurant industry has traditionally been hostile to the needs and aspirations of women. Here's how a new generation of leaders is trying to change that

May 9, 2016

By Alexandra Gill / Photo: Evaan Kheraj

Let me tell you a story about the appalling lack of women in the top tiers of Vancouver’s restaurant industry.  Wait, was that a yawn? It’s okay—I initially rolled my eyes at the idea too. After all, we know that the culinary world is still a bloody sexist boys’ club, where screaming bullies run rampant. But how do we make this hoary old chestnut palatable, I wondered, without sounding like shrieking shrews?

Then I thought about all the Earls girls who were only recently informed that they are allowed to wear pants at work—and all the servers at other restaurants who are still required to wear obnoxiously short skirts and heels. I thought about the female restaurant critic who once asked me—in all seriousness—about an award-winning chef I was profiling: “Didn’t she just sleep her way to the top?” I thought about the young chef in training who should have won a contest I judged last year. She couldn’t handle the heat of the kitchen, the head judge reasoned, while persuading the others to change their scores.

Then there are horror stories that must be told about verbal abuse and sexual assault on the job, even in this day and age. Last summer, Toronto pastry chef Kate Burnham went public after filing a harassment complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. In addition to being groped in the crotch, smacked on the rear, and badgered about her sex life, she said she was routinely sprayed in the face with pressurized cans of hollandaise sauce by a male coworker, who jokingly likened the creamy projectile to porn-style cum shots.

The worst part about that case? No one who had ever worked in the industry was shocked. Yes, it galvanized widespread discussion about such sordid behaviour, and led to a sold-out conference called Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time. But what happens after we sweep up the shattered remains of all that shame and fury? This is the point where the real work begins, when we must roll up our sleeves and put the pieces back together into more durable vessels.

Now that I have your attention, I would like to tell you some stories about local women who are quietly cooking up a revolution, rearranging the floor plans and devising practical solutions to help bridge the culinary gender gap and drag the restaurant industry out of the Stone Age.

UPWARD MOBILITY 

We can complain all we want about the lack of women in the upper levels of the restaurant industry, but the only real way to change that reality is by hiring more women—and, more importantly, promoting them. Sometimes, it takes a sympathetic man to get the ball rolling. Take the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, for instance. When Philip Barnes was made general manager in 2011, he immediately started placing women in leadership roles. Today, he is the regional vice-president for the Pacific Northwest, and nearly 75 percent of his leadership group (approximately 60 positions) is female. “I don’t have a bias one way or the other,” he says. “I just want the best person for the job.”

Jill Spoor is a prime example. Hired shortly before Barnes, she was promoted from supervising sommelier for Giovane, the hotel’s Italian wine bar, to assistant manager, manager, and then hotel wine director (a new position). She now oversees the entire regional wine program, and all the people on her hotel wine teams, save one, are women. “It has become a very efficient property,” she says. “We all laugh about it—we actually cackle—but I think women in the workplace are a bit more no-nonsense. We just get it done.”

EMOTIONAL RESCUE

Kitchens run by women are generally perceived to be kinder, gentler, quieter places. That was certainly the way Meeru Dhalwala decided to run hers when she and Vikram Vij opened Vij’s, and later Rangoli. “I never wanted to behave like a male chef,” she says. “The kitchen was my cocoon. And within my four walls, I was determined to create the world that I would wish to work in. The first rule was, ‘No yelling.’”

Outside those four walls, however, there were different expectations. “Once, I was in a managers’ meeting and a guy said to me, ‘Why are you crying?’ He was genuinely perplexed. I said, ‘This is how I deal with my anger: my eyes well up. Why don’t you ask a man why he yells?’”

Emotions are not a weakness, she says. “This is where I’ve had the benefit of being the owner and the boss. I try hard to let the women who work for us know that they can express their womanhood.”

IF YOU LOVE SOMEONE, SET THEM FREE 

Restaurants can be challenging places to work, given both the long hours and hard labour they require and the time off that almost never materializes for most employees. “If you don’t absolutely love it, it will suck your soul dry,” says Andrea Carlson, the chef/owner of Burdock & Co. and Harvest Community Foods.

But Carlson is determined to create a workplace environment that is as organic and respectful as the food she cooks, which is why she offers her kitchen staff extended time off—up to five weeks at a time. “In most kitchens, they say ‘the schedule is the schedule, go screw yourself,’” Carlson says. “Five weeks is a bit of a stretch for a small restaurant kitchen, but we have a great group of people that we can call on to pick up shifts. We try to be as flexible as we can.”

Gabriella Meyer is one employee who took advantage of the unusual perk, and she travelled to India every year. But when she decided to commit to staying in Vancouver full-time, Carlson offered her the chance to buy a piece of Harvest and come on as part owner. Given that, it’s probably no coincidence that Meyer’s employees happen to be all women.

CREATIVE ACCOUNTING 

Maternity leave benefits in Canada are already meager for salary workers who aren’t being topped up by their employers—which is to say, most of them. For restaurant workers earning unclaimed tips and a less-than-minimum base wage, meanwhile, they’re even worse. But one local restaurant has come up with a novel solution that allows some of their most valuable employees to keep their tips and earn a “managerial” wage too. “They give their cash tips to our controller, who adds it onto the payroll,” says the restaurant owner, who requested anonymity to avoid the wrath of the Canadian Revenue Agency. “We do an average calculation based on their weekly tip earnings and roll it up into a higher hourly wage.”

There is a small cost to the business in the form of additional contributions to EI and CPP. But when the employees apply for maternity benefits—or a mortgage—they can show what they actually earn. “If we can help an employee have a better life, and earn their loyalty by caring about them, it’s worth going that extra step,” says the restaurant owner. “If we want to keep women in this industry, there needs to be room for them to have children.”

POST-LABOUR RELATIONS

What happens after the baby is born? Without decent maternity leave, many restaurant employees return to work shortly after giving birth and are expected to fulfill the duties of the job “as it exists.” But these aren’t desk jobs, and most require a lot of running around and heavy lifting, which is almost impossible for someone with a traumatized pelvic floor and leaking breasts. “The physical demands aren’t realistic for new mothers,” says Chambar’s Karri Schuermans.

That’s why, in order to avoid losing her executive chef to motherhood, Schuermans offered her a job-sharing arrangement. Before Tia Kambas went on leave, she trained a male sous-chef to do her job. When she returned, he stayed on the line and she took on the administrative role, working fewer hours per day (eight, rather than 10), often from home. “It’s about being creative,” says Schuermans, who notes that similar arrangements could be made for servers (doing inventory) or bartenders (working on recipe development). “The traditional structures of the restaurant business don’t work for women. There has to be flexibility and new organic models that make it work.”

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