This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.
By now it’s no secret that professional kitchens are overflowing with machismo. From the vivid scenes described in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, to the exaggerated antics of chefs on the Food Network, the male-dominated culinary profession is infamous for chauvinism.
Tempers flared last year when Tom Kerridge, a food TV personality on the BBC with two Michelin stars to his name, suggested that women simply weren’t cut out for the pressures of working in a professional kitchen. According to an analysis by Bloomberg, women “occupy just 6.3 percent, or 10 out of 160 head chef positions at 15 prominent U.S. restaurant groups.”
A 2013 interactive feature on Time magazine’s website featured 50 chefs from across the globe, praised them for their innovation and creativity and called them part of the “intellectual chains of restaurants around the world.” Another thing they had in common? Every chef listed was a man.
The daily lived experiences of many women working on the line reveal the kitchen as a realm of gender-based hostility. Female chefs report routine sexual harassment, verbal abuse, sexism and being passed over for promotions.
For some women the answer has simply been to open their own restaurants, quite literally a kitchen of their own. Others leave the industry. However, this reality seems in stark contrast to the professional kitchen at the White House where a woman has “manned” the kitchen for the past 10 years.
Cristeta “Cris” Comerford has spent the past decade making culinary history as executive chef of the White House. She is the first woman, the first person of Asian descent, the first Filipino and the first person of color to be at the helm in the First Kitchen.
Comerford grew up in Manila, studied food technology at the University of the Philippines, and immigrated to the United States when she was 23 years old. She worked as a chef at several major hotel chains before being recruited to work at the White House in 1995.
Interestingly, although perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the duty of the First Lady to appoint the White House executive chef. First Lady Laura Bush named Comerford to the position in 2005. After the Obamas moved into the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama ensured her reappointment.
Chef Comerford’s responsibilities range from taking care of the First Family to designing and executing menus for state dinners, official receptions and social events. The position also allows her entry into an elite gastronomic society called Le Club des Chefs des Chefs. The only requirement for joining? You must be the personal or executive chef of a Head of State.
Discussions about work-life balance and ‘having it all’ loom for many women, and this is certainly true for professional chefs who work six, sometimes seven days a week, for 10-14 hours a day.
For Comerford, who is also a working mom, balance appears to come in part from a supportive partner, also a chef. In an interview with Asia Society, she said “I really owe a lot in my career to my husband, John … When I did get the job, he looked at me and said, ‘Cris, you know this job is going to take a lot from you, but I’m going to make it easy.’ And so he took a step back…”
To be sure, some aspects of Comerford’s experience may be unique to the White House; however, her position of power in the kitchen shouldn’t be unique to the industry.
For their part, the White House continues supporting women in culinary leadership roles. In November Susie Morrison was named the first woman executive pastry chef.
Photo of Cristeta Comerford (second from left) courtesy of the The White House on Flickr