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For every Alice Waters, April Bloomfield, Julia Child, and Paula Deen, a quick Google search can show you more than 50 equally acclaimed male chefs. While there isn’t a Canadian statistic handy, a mere 10 per cent of those who reach the executive chef level in the US are female. But that’s not to say the field isn’t gaining popular attention from young females today.

Karen Rachlin, owner of Bite Catering in Toronto, says she works and interacts with an ever-growing number of female chefs, caterers, and food business owners every day. But since it takes the average person 15 to 20 years to gain ample culinary experience to become an executive chef, it’s hard to determine whether females pursuing an education in culinary arts today will soon be more prominent than the number of males in the business. Perhaps the problem isn’t getting women into culinary school, but rather convincing them to stay in the restaurant business, where issues like sexism unfortunately persist.

It was controversial chef Paul Bocuse who once said, “the chef who names a dish after a woman is a gentleman and a diplomat; the chef who invites that same woman into the kitchen as a colleague is a fool.” Similar beliefs held by male chefs have left women like Rachlin in a constant battle to prove their abilities.

“If you look at the number of women who are business owners and have been around for 10 years in the catering or culinary field, you probably won’t find many,” says Rachlin, who earned her bachelor of science in food and nutrition from Ryerson University. “I just think it’s a male-dominated field. As women, we always have to continue to prove ourselves. I’ve had a lot of people I know that are male in the catering industry say, ‘Oh, you’re still in business?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I am. And I’m doing very well, thank you.’ You just take it in stride. Everyone has challenges.”

She says aspiring female chefs should be passionate about the food industry if they are eager to become renowned chefs. In movies, the catering business is depicted as elegant and “pretty,” but Rachlin begs to differ. Since she prepares and cooks all her food from scratch at events, she says at the end of the day her job can get fairly messy and chaotic. Regardless, Rachlin believes “education is the key to life.” She jumps at any opportunity to attend cooking classes, especially in rural communities. And in many cases, small towns are ideal ventures for up-and-coming chefs.

She says small town restaurants “are a little more relaxed in their atmosphere and their food is obviously so important. So I try to take that all in when I’m producing an event because I want to recreate in many ways that intimacy and that socialization that sometimes we forget is the most important element of the dining experience.”

Pemba Doma, chef and owner of Tibetan Kitchen in Victoria, B.C., has a similar take on women in the industry. “Female chefs can be equally talented as male chefs; I know that,” she says. “Keep learning, work hard, follow your dreams, and don’t let anyone ever get you down. I am the biggest example. I don’t have a family here in Victoria and I live alone, but my wait staff and kitchen helpers who work for me are my family.” She adds that work ethic is key. “I work hard, learn new skills every day, and don’t complain—all while doing what I love to do best: cooking!”

Photo: Nick White/Thinkstock