When I joined Hot Bread Kitchen in 2019, it felt like coming home. After leaving my career as a professional chef and working in the nonprofit sector for 15 years, I was finally back in the kitchen, combining my professional passions. Our training kitchen brought back memories: making perfect pâte à choux, working through sore feet, the heart-pumping excitement of having to complete a dish in 2 minutes. But there was one key difference from my time in the food industry. Our kitchen is a space designed for women, immigrants, and people of color to thrive–including mothers.
During my time in the food industry, this was often not the case. I was fortunate to develop professionally, and was one of few women of color in leadership roles. I saw time and time again that men were promoted faster than me or that they dominated executive chef positions. As a female chef of color, there were hardly role models for me. I pushed through sexist myths that women chefs aren’t tough enough or fast enough to compete in the kitchen, and was able to grow in the field to become an actual chef.
Then, eventually, the industry stopped growing with me. As with many professional women, there came a time when I had to make decisions of priority – career versus family. In the case of being a chef, I chose family over career.
I was my most creative self working as a chef. I felt physically strong and so satisfied to work in concert with talented cooks who felt as passionately as I did about food. I truly loved what I was doing every day: kneading dough, showing a new cook how to pipe pastry cream, or developing a new seasonal menu. And yet, I was also exhausted working 12-hour shifts, often more, usually at opposite hours as my friends and family. When I was baking, my shifts were from 4am until I was done; when I was cooking in a restaurant, I worked from 2pm to 2am. As someone who had already changed careers to become a chef, I was further along in my life and felt ready to get married and start a family. At no point did my desire to work in the food industry wane; it still hasn’t all these years later.
I started thinking about having children around the time I finally became a chef, after years of working in junior roles in a variety of kitchens. This isn’t uncommon: given the time it takes to rise through the ranks, many women find themselves having to step out of the field to have a child just when they’re ready to step into a leadership role. The lack of flexibility in the industry and typical working structure of most professional kitchens make it nearly impossible for women who want or already have kids to keep growing in the culinary field. Food workers are already particularly impacted by a lack of guaranteed health insurance, family and sick leave, and affordable childcare–not to mention the dearth of overnight childcare options for restaurant staff, who most often work during hours that childcare is not traditionally offered. When I imagined having a family and maintaining my career, it felt impossible to do both.
Of course, it is possible: of the 12 million+ restaurant workers in the United States, 15% are mothers. That’s roughly 2 million women who are finding a way to show up in the kitchen every day, while trying to show up for their kids. Generally speaking, these women are often not making it to leadership positions even as they make hard sacrifices to be there. The lack of leadership opportunities is especially true for women of color, who are underrepresented in the food industry, and tend to be excluded from traditional expectations of what a leader looks like. According to a 2017 report, women of color account for only 14% of entry-level roles in food and a mere 3% of leadership positions; men occupy a whopping 70% of kitchen leadership. In my experience, women of all backgrounds were often pitted against each other to see who could be the better or faster cook, always measured against the male chefs’ standards.
There is a persistent myth that women leave the food industry at higher rates than their male counterparts, when in fact attrition is roughly equal across genders. What’s different, and important to highlight, are the reasons women leave the industry. Women are more likely to be primary caregivers, and therefore more likely to have to take time off–usually unpaid–to be present for our families. Altogether, these challenges make it difficult to climb the culinary ladder, which perpetuates the lack of women in leadership positions. And without women in leadership, there continues to be a lack of more flexible, family-friendly policies that would make it possible for mothers to grow in their food careers. It’s a frustrating cycle.
At Hot Bread Kitchen, we want our members to have the agency to choose their career paths – not be forced out due to family responsibilities, or other choices they make to have a full life.
At Hot Bread Kitchen, we want our members to have the agency to choose their career paths – not be forced out due to family responsibilities, or other choices they make to have a full life. What drew me most to Hot Bread Kitchen’s mission is our work in shifting the industry towards creating good jobs. We want our members to work in an industry where employers understand and recognize the importance of creating a workplace that is inclusive and celebrates the contributions of working parents. Our Quality Jobs Initiative works directly with food industry employers to enact changes and policies that create more accommodation and opportunity for women and parents. This is only the beginning, and we know there is still more work to be done.
There are many people in the food industry who know this to be true as well, many of them mothers of color who have experienced the nightmare of trying to make it to their shift when the babysitter cancels. We are seeing positive change in the industry, including the formation of groups like the Abundance Setting, which provides support for women and working mothers in the hospitality industry so they can thrive in their careers and at home.
While I sometimes still miss cooking professionally, I truly love being a part of Hot Bread Kitchen, where our mission is to make it possible for more mothers and women of color to find their place in the kitchen and in leadership roles. Closing the gendered leadership gap in kitchens and making culinary workplaces work for mothers is the right thing to do–not just for the women and parents doing the cooking, but for all of us. We are pushing the industry forward so that when the mothers in our community show up for their first day on the job, they walk into the kitchen and feel like they, too, are coming home.