Career advice from some of the best chefs in the U.S.

March 25, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

Undeniably, the restaurant industry is still dominated by men. The numbers are glaring: Of the 75 Michelin stars awarded to chefs in the United States last year, only 11 went to women. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 22% of head chefs in the country are female.

Still, the past few years have seen some progress in recognizing women who have long gone overlooked in the culinary world.

Resy’s annual Women of Food program—established in 2018 and now in its third year—doesn’t shy away from underscoring those paltry statistics, highlighting them while also celebrating female chefs through a series of ticketed dinners at $150 per plate or 110 pounds per person in London. (All Women of Food dinners originally scheduled for March 13 have been postponed and will be rescheduled for a later date amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.)

Ten women in the United States and one in London have been tapped to organize these intimate gatherings at each of their restaurants and to dedicate the meal to a woman who has inspired them over the years.

Fortune spoke to some of the chefs on the event’s roster to learn how the restaurant industry is changing, what we can do as consumers to better the situation, and what up-and-comers should consider when entering the business.

No-compete clause

“I think things are changing for the better, but I think now we’ve gone into the era of ‘They’re really good…for a woman,’” says chef Deborah VanTrece of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in Atlanta. “That’s really not the answer; it almost pits us against other women. It doesn’t make sense to me, because I’m doing the same thing that a man is doing—except for I do it better than a lot of them do.”

In an effort to minimize the competition, VanTrece suggests keeping the vastness of the industry in mind alongside the availability of multiple “top” roles. “We have to stop feeling that [there] can only be one woman in a position. There is room for all of us,” she says.

Chef Deborah VanTrece of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in Atlanta.
Courtesy of Twisted Soul Cookhouse

Champion differences

“It’s not about changing your way to become like your contemporaries,” says Anastasia Koutsioukis, founder of Mandolin Aegean Bistro and Gregory’s in Miami and the only restaurateur tapped by Resy for the project. “Success comes from having your own voice and carving out your own vision, not trying to be a carbon copy of what’s happening or what’s working for somebody else.”

Her advice tracks with a changing global palate: Eaters around the world seem to be craving lighter, cleaner, and overall healthier fare—which, according to Koutsioukis, has historically been consumed by women, which could render women as more in tune with the culinary industry’s current demands.

Chef Jess Shadbolt (right) of NYC’s King with co-owners Clare de Boer (center) and Annie Shi.
Courtesy of King Restaurant

Look to the past

At the helm of King in New York City, chef Jess Shadbolt and co-owners Clare de Boer and Annie Shi are dedicating their Resy-related meal to Elizabeth David, the late British writer who prized home-cooking practices.

“There are many women who have gone before us,” Shadbolt says. “It is important for those women to be recognized, and it’s encouraging to know that those voices were there originally.”

The trio urges aspiring cooks to look to the enduring popularity of recipes like the ones championed by David for inspiration in crafting their own menus.

Seattle chef Renee Erickson with her dog, Arlo.
Courtesy of Sea Creatures Restaurants

Ask yourself: Do you really want to cook?

“If you want to cook, it’s a lifetime choice, so you have to be willing to work really hard,” says chef Renee Erickson of Bistro Shirlee in Seattle.

Although shows dealing with food-related topics—from Netflix’s Ugly Delicious and Chef’s Table to Bon Appetit’s über-successful YouTube series—have enjoyed rising popularity in recent years, Erickson urges would-be chefs not to fall prey to the romanticization of the industry on-screen.

“For sure, in America, we work more than we should,” she continues. “But in restaurants anywhere in the world, you work more than the average job. Whether you’re in France or Chile or Seattle, working at restaurants is not an eight-hour job.”

Erickson goes on to mention the importance of sustainability when striving for success. Not only are the ingredients sourced by chefs fundamental to their food, but so is the kitchen as a living, breathing organism largely made up of the employees working in it. “It’s important to pay attention to your people,” she says. “You want to cook, but you want to do it in an environment that supports you and cares about you and rewards you.”

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