CHICAGO — For the first time in its 20-year history, the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs association will host its annual conference in Chicago March 9-11, bringing hundreds of newsmaking chefs and entrepreneurs to the Intercontinental Chicago Hotel for workshops, networking and an Iron Chef-style cook-off.
Local food stars like restaurateurs Deann and Rick Bayless, "Last Chance Kitchen" winner Beverly Kim and Food Network star Gale Gand will all present at the industry event, and featured chefs include rising stars like Little Goat's Stephanie Izard, Hot Chocolate maven Mindy Segal and Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter Fried Chicken.
In a wide-ranging interview with DNAinfo Chicago, Gand and Cikowski discussed changes in the restaurant business, the need for an all-women chef's alliance and why Chicago's a good fit to host an international gathering of dining professionals.
Q: There's been a lot of talk about female chefs after Time named 13 "Gods of Food" and none of them were women. Editor Howard Chua-Eoan said male chefs stick together and help each other out, and women need a similar network to advance in the industry. Do you feel that gender divide? Do women need networks like this conference?
Christine Cikowski: Can I answer this brutally honestly? Maybe it's because I have male co-chefs and we really, truly are equal partners, or because I kind of came up with a bunch of male chefs but also a few female chefs, but I just haven't really seen a gender disparity. What I have noticed more now is that there is a chef community in Chicago — as opposed to a female chef community, or a male chef community.
Maybe I'm just blind to it, but the support I've found for what I do is not gender-centric, which I think is really amazing, and I think that's what we're working toward. I just feel like we're all chefs and it doesn't matter if we're a man or a woman. When that [Time] article came out, I was really shocked by it — that Alice Waters isn't on the list because she's a woman? I just don't get that at all. It's great to see the women in this community come together, but I've never seen a problem with it. But maybe that's because I'm young and foolish.
Gale Gand: Can I ask, how old are you?
CC: I'm 36.
GG: That's good, the fact that you say you haven't felt it. I'm 57, and in almost every kitchen I've worked in, I was the only girl. I get asked that question a lot: Is it any better? Is it any different than it was when I was starting out? If you're in your mid-30s and you're saying you don't feel it, that makes me feel good.
This is a new attitude, what you're saying, which is that we're all just chefs. But I'm imagining that you never got turned away from a kitchen because you're a girl. I've had that happen. I had that happen to me in France; my roommate Mary had that happen in New York. She and my male roommate both had interviews for a position, and [the chef] took one look at Mary and said, "I already have a woman, I don't need another." That was in the mid-'80s.
I know when I was partners with Rick Tramonto doing restaurants, I was never paid as much as him. Even at companies like Lettuce Entertain You, Rick was always paid substantially more than I was. And I'm OK with that.
CC: I really haven't felt it, my internship in France aside. Maybe there was something subtler going on, but I never had a chef saying, "You're a girl, so I'm not going to hire you."
In that sense it's probably getting better. I've experienced a lot of support from male chefs and women. I really do feel we're moving toward the attitude that we're all chefs, because we love cooking and we love serving people, and taking the gender bias out of it. Maybe I'm just a hippie though.
GG: I'm so glad to hear that! I really am.
Did those experiences shape how you run your businesses?
GG: There is a sort of toughness I find I've developed in the kitchen to sort of fit in with the guys. I've altered how I walk, how much I ask for help to reach s--- because I'm short, how much I swear. There's sort of a toughness that I put on so the guys aren't like "Oh, we're going to have to be carrying stuff for her."
CC: Sunday Dinner Club has predominantly been a female kitchen. [Cikowski's business partner] Josh [Kulp] is very progressive — I'd call him a feminist, actually. He's very supportive of women and equality. So our kitchen has always been very democratic: We hire the best people for the job. Our kitchen was probably 90, maybe 80 percent female and still is.
GG: On my hotline there's one female and three guys: Overall it's maybe 20 percent women. There's not that many that apply, is the tricky bit. But when they do, you grab them up. Pastry is always loaded with women, of course.
Do you think staff demographics have any impact on kitchen dynamics?
GG: When I worked in New York for Jonathan Waxman, we had an all-female kitchen, which was a really interesting experience. So this was like 1985 or 1986. I don't think it was on purpose, but the chef de cuisine was female and it was all women.
What I found is that everybody sort of helped everybody. Someone else who was done early would help you. It was one of the most caring kitchens, where people were like "Are you OK? What do you need? I really learned the helping, team spirit in that kitchen.
Q: Why create an association specifically for female chefs? Do you think that reinforces gender disparities in the industry?
GG: I think we're trying to mentor each other and connect people so that when they do need someone to talk to, or to listen, they've got phone numbers to call and resources.
[Other female chefs] know our pain. It's like being a short person and calling someone tall for sympathy because you can't reach something — they're not gonna get it.
I was working an event in California, and I went up to talk to the head chef of the kitchen. The head chef needed to know how many trays I needed for my dish, and he went right past me, up to my sous chef, who's a guy, to ask him. And my sous chef was like, "ask Gale. She's in charge."
There's sort of an automatic assumption there: They go to the guy, not a girl. If I talk to a guy about that, he's not going to understand.
Q: What other challenges do you think female chefs face that your male counterparts might not think about?
GG: I've sort of become the poster child for how to be a chef and have a restaurant, and also have a relationship and kids. That's sort of the trifecta that a lot of people seem to have trouble mastering — including myself, you know? I'm on my third marriage.
But part of that is finding the right person who can handle how much you give to the restaurant business because you're not totally available to them.
A lot of young women in school, or just starting out after school, will call me and ask how they can approach this industry in a way that will allow them to be married and have kids, and how did I do it, and all that stuff. That's something that men really aren't always burdened with as much as women are. We have that in our culture.
CC: This is a unique and personal question for me because I'm not married, and I don't have children, but my business partner is married and they want to have a family. I can't even imagine having to do that.
I'm single, and I've been single for a while, and that has been a pretty challenging thing. It's a hard thing to talk about, because it's such a personal thing, but I definitely have felt the effects of being a female business owner in my 30s and remaining single for a long time. I haven't put much effort into dating, so it's kind of on me.
GG: Well, it's hard to. You work nights. It's really hard to balance. I didn't have my first child till I was 40, and that was just out of panic. Like "oh s---, I'm nearing 40." It was really out of like an emotional panic, like, "Oh s---, I forgot to have kids! Lets do this thing!"
I remember talking about it with [ex-husband] Rick [Tramanto], and he kept saying "As soon as we get this restaurant open, we'll do it."
CC: Oh my gosh, yes, I totally think that way.
GG: I remember hearing him saying that five separate times for five separate restaurants. I was like, you know, we're always opening a restaurant. If I wait until we're finished opening restaurants, I'll never have kids. That's one of the harder bits to all of this.
CC: That is a factor that isn't often discussed publicly, honestly. I don't usually discuss it because it's not about my work; it doesn't have anything to do with my restaurant or my food. But it has been challenging. I used to say that, too, you know, once I get my restaurant open, I'm going start dating.
I definitely want some sort of family in my life. It's a choice, just like anything else. You have to choose to do it, to make time for it. Right now, I'm assuming that it's all going to work out, that I'll find somebody. They're going to have to love fried chicken, though.
GG: Who doesn't love fried chicken?
CC: There are people who don't love fried chicken, Gale. I wouldn't trust them.
GG: I wouldn't either.
Q: The conference's agenda includes sessions like butchery classes, social media tutorials and business development seminars. Are these things aspiring chefs and restaurateurs had to think about 10 years ago?
CC: I think there's probably just a more active interest in culinary offerings, and culinary stuff in general, honestly. People are vastly more interested in what and where and how they eat — I mean, Instagram has proven that. It's constant photos of people's food, and where they're eating. It's become a mainstream activity.
GG: I remember 10 years ago doing a couple talks at things like the [Women Chefs and Restaurateurs] conference, and a cheesemaker's organization, and I think I gave a graduation speech at [the Culinary Institute of America], saying "In the past it wasn't really a concern how you presented yourself or spoke, or how you communicated. Everyone needs media training now."
I've had a show on the Food Network for 10 years. To me, being able to get a message across is the pinnacle of my career. It's why I got a show, and cooks who are way better than me didn't. And it's why I have money for my son to go to college and other chefs don't.
Has Chicago's restaurant scene grown and changed that much, or are people just paying closer attention now?
GG: I think there are new skills that we need now that make us better chefs that we didn't need 10 years ago, like social media skills, the ability to teach on stage and do a demo, which allows you to do TV and radio and reach people. And, you know, photography skills, because of Pinterest and those things.
That's what I love about this field: People ask what my 10-year goal is, and I say I would feel like an idiot to set any goals. Twenty years ago, you couldn't say "I want to have a TV show and eight books and have more than one restaurant." That would never have happened 20 years ago. Now it's normal.
Q: Do you feel like the public asks more of chefs these days than they used to? Are the days of keeping your personal life out of your work long gone in this digital foodie age?
CC: Obviously this whole thing with reality cooking shows and celebrity chefs, people want to know about you. You become a celebrity. People want to know about your life, they want to know what you do outside the kitchen. I want my work to be about my work, and what I'm trying to create.
Inevitably, people want to know about who you are, and it's hard balancing that. I've never wanted to be a famous person. but I've definitely wanted to be a great person and to do amazing things. Being public is part of that.
I've had people approach me and say "Can I put you on a top 10 singles in Chicago list?" And I'm like no, but you can put me on a top 10 chefs of Chicago list. I've always shied away from that because my personal life is my personal life.
GG: For me, I've always been a very public person. I think because I was raised by hippies, I'm missing some of the boundaries that people have in terms of talking about my personal life. I remember when we had Trio, a journalist kept asking about my dogs, and my dogs' names and how old they are, and they wanted, like, a dog biscuit recipe. And I remember thinking, like, "Really? People are really interested in my dog?" Because my dog was on the root beer label.
On my show, part of my persona was about my life and my kids, and people noticed when I had an engagement ring on, and they wanted to know "Who's the guy?" The way I talk when I'm teaching is very personal, and you feel like you know me. I just kind of threw away every boundary, like, everything's fair game, and I just kind of accepted that years ago.
CC: I'm really enjoying listening to you talking about that because it's really inspiring. I think I'm going to get there, I am. And it's not that I share nothing about my personal life. But the thing about the relationship questions is they're very specific to like, "Are you dating?" and "Who are you dating?" It's like, who cares?
GG: Right? It's like, who cares? But the thing is, they do!
I juggle that all the time at demonstrations. People always ask "Do you cook at home?" and "Do you cook for your husband?" Yeah, because what else do I have to offer? Why would you marry me? Certainly not for the quality time, because there isn't much.
CC: It's your charming personality!
GG: It's got to be for the food. Otherwise there's no reason to marry a chef, really, unless you just want to live alone. Because that's what you end up doing when you live with a chef.
CC: I agree.
You both have so many projects going on at once. Do you feel like you need to always be hustling to stay relevant and profitable in this industry?
CC: People are already like "When are you opening your next restaurant?" Or they're like "Only the one?" Could you ever imagine that that's where this was all going? I try to keep up with my emails and phone calls, I get done what I need to get done, but it's so hard. I do what I can.
GG: It's like parenting: You don't have to be perfect, you just have to be good enough. When you're a chef, for me at least, it's been like this collection of things that extend from your love of food. They all bring in a little revenue, and it adds up to a decent living that you can support a family on. My dad's a musician, a jazz trumpet player, and my brother's a blues guitarist. In my family, you're allowed to choose love over money, and then the money just seems to come. Do you feel that way?
CC: Yeah, I do. I will say that. For eight years of running the supper club with Josh, we did not pay ourselves anything. We paid ourselves rent. It was a labor of love, and we all know that concept of putting in your time: We knew it was going to take us awhile to build our business.
Being a sort of underground supper club not open to the public, it was very slow for years, and then we were like, we have to figure out a way to grow our business, because we don't want to be in poverty forever, and we want to expand our reach.
Part of opening our restaurant is we need to be financially stable and adults. We'd like to pay our student loans. It's certainly something to consider. Our industry doesn't typically pay a lot of money unless you have a sort of mass media outreach: TV or print, or 20 restaurants that are all very profitable. So I think we're all moving — for those of us who want to stay in the food industry — we're trying to figure out how to do one things: plural.
That's what our sort of focus has been: We'll just do one thing really well, and actually be able to live well.
Q: So you're both constantly short on time. Why commit so much of it to the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs conference? Why is it important?
CC: I think it's the power of the collective. You bring a bunch of like-minded people together who are artists and creative people, and you know — I mean women, yeah of course women. It's just a bunch of people that are very, very similar put in an inspiring space to create. Nothing but good is going to come out of that.
I think we undervalue the power of the collective in our lives. Just by the very nature of being together, and creating together, and being able to talk about the highs and lows of our work in a creative space is going to trickle down into our work. It's electrifying to be in that sort of creative environment with so many people you respect and admire.
GG: There's a momentum that happens after these conferences. It's like a recharge when A., you find out that you're not alone and B., you've got so much input it kind of throws you 10 steps forward instead of the one step you were going to go tomorrow. I think that's what it does.
We network. We staff. "Do you know any pastry chefs?" "I need a refrigeration guy." Instead of taking eight days to figure out who's a good one, you can get a recommendation from a friend. It's like a retreat, how retreats recharge you and charge you up, that's what this does, and will do for Chicago's restaurant scene this year.
Q: Why is Chicago a good fit for this year's conference?
CC: Chicago is such an incubator for innovation I think, and especially with all the great restaurants that are opening here, and the culinary minds that are migrating here. I think it's really a hotbed of activity for chefs in general. As women become more prevalent in our industry, I think Chicago is very accepting of women in the industry. I think its very appropriate that it's here.
GG: Chicago's got that advantage of being in the middle of the country and accessible by everybody, which is why so many food-related businesses are drawn to Chicago. Hosting the conference here this year is sort of a shout-out to the importance of the culinary scene in Chicago.