New York Times Story on Two Lady Chefs Is a Love Letter to Female Mentors

What Women Really Think
March 31 2014 5:15 PM

New York Times Story on Two Lady Chefs Is a Love Letter to Female Mentors

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Chef Kristen Kish, a protégée of Barbara Lynch.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Last weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran a joint profile of celebrity lady chefs Barbara Lynch and Kristen Kish, deliciously titled “A Woman’s Place Is Running the Kitchen.” It traces the intertwined careers of these two women, one of whom (Lynch) owns seven feted restaurants, a catering company, a multimillion-dollar hospitality business, and many cooking awards; the other of whom (Kish) was crowned Top Chef in 2012 and recently left the Italian-French glamor hub Menton, where she oversaw the kitchen, to start her own restaurant. The piece is great, training the media telescope on female culinary superstars in a constellation that skews male. It is a morsel of an answer to that Time “Gods of Food” cover story that completely ignored female chefs, about which my colleague L.V. Anderson wrote, “Journalists and their subjects are symbiotic. Journalists offer a platform for those they choose to cover, and they can boost the careers of those who grace their pages.” So, on one level, the New York Times piece is about equalizing the playing field for chefs who don’t fit the hypermacho image people still project into professional kitchens.

It is also a story about mentorship. First the bad: Todd English, who employed Lynch at Olives until she defected to a competitor, allegedly stormed around the kitchen hurling objects at his quavering underlings. When Lynch quit, she says he threw a Coke bottle at her head. She also says he baptized her in spaghetti alle vongole veraci because she’d lost an earring in the sauce. But then there's the good: The piece’s backbone is the supportive relationship between Lynch and Kish, who came under the older woman’s tutelage when she was a line cook at Stir in Boston. Kish “attended Le Cordon Blue, in Chicago, but found no mentors there,” writes the Times’ Marnie Hanel. She rambled through kitchens “where she was often the only woman” before landing at Lynch’s center of operations. Lynch, shy about her own camera presence, still wanted to raise the profile of that rare creature: the female chef. “It’s about the next generation. We need more women in this business,” she told Hanel. So she urged the telegenic Kish, a former model, and her colleague Stephanie Cmar to try their luck on Top Chef. (The two friends have matching spoon tattoos, and Kish says they bonded over “boob sweat.”)

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It’s worth noting that when Kish, newly anointed in Top Chef celebrity and ready to strike out on her own, told Lynch she was leaving Stir, Lynch “didn’t throw a Coke bottle at her.” She brought her girlfriend, her girlfriend’s son, and a surprise guest (Kish’s girlfriend) to the restaurant and gave Kish a chance to shine on her final shift.

Surrounding this central dyad are glancing mentions of other positive mentorships: When Lynch spent time in Tuscany after leaving Olives, for example, she soaked up the mastery of “neighboring nonna Mita Antolini,” who “showed her how to make traditional dishes. … Together, they roasted chestnuts, soaked them in vin santo and topped them with prosciutto and ate it all for lunch.”

Something about the paradigm of cooking tips and friendship passed down from woman to woman feels very old-fashioned—a “feminine arts refreshed and sustained” type deal. Except that, as Hanel notes (and is not the first to do so), the professional kitchen is far from a domestic sanctuary. Contemporary chef-doms remain “one of the last bastions of bad behavior,” Hanel quotes one restaurateur as saying, which may be why “women don’t thrive in them.” (A recent Bloomberg report revealed that only 6.3 percent of 160 prestigious head chef positions across the country are held by women. There are more female CEOs than female head chefs.) In the hell of flying utensils, tyranny, and socially sanctioned egomania that is the modern kitchen, lady cuisiniers need role models who are both talented and tough. You can see that toughness traveling down the genealogy from Lynch (“If you ask most people, they’re scared of her”) to Kish (who at one point whirls away from the dish she’s plating to ream out a subordinate: “Lose the [expletive] attitude, I swear to God”). Theirs is a command that respects the staff—later in the article, Kish praises the same guy—and values results over self-glorification. I can picture either of these women demanding appetizers executed to near-perfection, but I can’t see them assaulting their workers with pasta.

Still, inspiring the next generation incurs a cost. One secondary sadness in this piece—besides the primary sadnesses of kitchen sexism and lack of opportunity—is that both women felt drawn away from what they loved by the imperative to make that space habitable for other women. Which underscores not just the importance of mentors and role models but also the importance of having supports beyond mentors and role models to finally achieve gender parity among the vegetable parers.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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