In Westchester, Bonnie Saran is one of the few female chefs you may have actually heard of. With five locations in Mount Kisco and Pleasantville, her “Little” restaurant group is extremely popular, with fans including everyone from local chefs to Martha Stewart, the Clintons, and big-name movie stars. Currently employing more than 100 people, and with new locations in the works, Saran’s emerging empire would be an impressive feat for any chef-owner, but it’s even more impactful because Saran is a woman working in a man’s field.
It’s no secret that we’re in a watershed moment for women across all industries — and restaurants have always been notorious boys’ clubs. With stories breaking about sexual misconduct by big-name chefs, like Mario Batali and John Besh, the industry is under fire, but it’s not just workplace harassment that makes the restaurant industry a tough place to be female.
Women run proportionately fewer kitchens, receive fewer awards, get less press coverage, and have a harder time finding investors than their male counterparts. Women ran only three of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2018. And in the US, only 20 of the 166 Michelin-starred restaurants (roughly 12 percent) have female chefs, according to the New York Times. It’s all the more ironic when you consider that, historically, cooking has always been the realm of women.
Saran isn’t alone in Westchester. In Harrison, Ashley Lurie owns Sauce Box (formerly Tannery) with her wife, Awilda Pimentel. The restaurant is cavernous — 7,000 square feet, with 150 seats, plus a party room with space for 200 — and Lurie oversees all of it, from the small-plates gastropub menu to the 55-foot bar. At just 30 years old, she is an award-winning bartender with more than 10 years’ restaurant-industry experience. (She opened Peaches in Norwalk, in 2015, but sold her partnership to buy Sauce Box.)
“Most of my vendors are men. My landlord is male. His attorney is a guy,” says Lurie. “In the beginning, there were people bringing in all these guy investors. [We were] being diminished, made to feel like we need something else to help us.”
At The Mill in Hastings-on-Hudson, Executive Chef Jody Hunter runs a tiny kitchen (just herself, “a cook, a part-time guy, and a dishwasher”) doing as many as 150 covers on busy weekend nights. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute, Hunter has spent more than 20 years working in professional kitchens, having worked as chef de cuisine at NYC’s Savoy and under Michael Anthony at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Just one town over, Sajin Renae Perino recently became the chef de cuisine at The Cookery after heading up research and development for the restaurant. “I have always been the only woman in every kitchen I’ve worked in,” says Perino, who’s quick to note that she’s only had positive experiences at The Cookery. “I remember when I was younger, I was hired as the first female cook at a catering company. The boss told the chef they need to hire a woman for diversity. I would say that was probably my only experience where I noticed the difference. It didn’t end well. I was let go for reasons that were blatantly because I was a woman and he didn’t want me there.”
The experience shook Perino. “I was told I would never make it in this industry, that I should stop cooking, that I didn’t know what I was doing. I believed them because I was young,” she recalls. She didn’t cook again for more than a year.
“When this whole #MeToo thing happened, I remembered talking to other female chef friends and thinking, Remember that time? That was kind of what this is all about,” says Hunter, who had a similar experience of being forced out of a kitchen because she was a woman. “Did we think about it at the time? Yes, of course. But that was 15 years ago, and everyone thought that’s just how it is.”
Both Perino and Hunter rebounded from bad experiences by working for other female chefs. “It’s so critical for women to empower other women in roles of management,” says Perino. “You can’t be a pushover, and unfortunately there are a lot of preconceived notions about women in the kitchen. ‘We’re not strong enough; we’re weak; we can’t last all day.’”
At her restaurants, Saran has a strict policy of nondiscrimination. “Anyone I hire, whether it’s a woman or a man, I tell them nobody is allowed to speak to you disrespectfully. I don’t care if it’s a general manager or a person who’s worked for me for eight years,” she says, adding that many of her restaurants are ultimately run by women because she finds they’re more mature at a young age. Being respectful is also key for Lurie — and not just when it comes to gender. “We’re a lesbian-owned bar,” she says. “One of my chefs is gay. My busboy is gay. We’re building our little gay army over here.”
But is there any hope for substantive change in the industry? In 2016, the Culinary Institute of America enrolled more women than men for the first time in its 72-year history. “I would like to think that real change will come because there are so many more women out there,” says Hunter, adding that younger generations are less likely to take gender discrimination lying down. “It’s not going to happen this year or next year,” says Perino. “It will probably be years from now, but every story that comes out is just another step toward there being no question about whether a woman is capable or not. We need to do this for our daughters and our nieces but for boys, too. They need to grow up in a world where they see that we’re all equal.”
In the meantime, “there’s so much female talent out there,” says Lurie. “There are talented men, but there are very talented women, too. I don’t think we need to be pussyfooted along by the male population.”