Penelope Wong, Executive Chef of Glenmoor Country Club, encourages female chefs to stop trying to fit in and instead stand out.
There’s a saying: “Women make good cooks, but men make better chefs.” Well, I just so happen to be a woman and a chef. So as part of that emerging classification, I feel a responsibility to prove that you don’t actually need a set of balls to make it in this industry. However, as the Executive Chef of Glenmoor Country Club (Cherry Hills Village, Colo.), who oversees a staff consisting of 90% men and only 10% women, I can easily say that I metaphorically have bigger balls than my entire team put together. And the best part about that is the fact that the men on my team would genuinely agree with that statement without hesitation.
In a recent conversation with a peer of mine, he remarked that he prefers hiring women as he sees them as more focused and driven “because they have something to prove.” What shocked me about this was the fact that it was the second time I’d heard it in less than a year. While catching up with another friend of mine, he said he believes women work smarter, aren’t lazy, and are “more focused, like they have something to prove.”
Do we have something to prove?
Much to my dissatisfaction, what these two Chefs say is true. The world of culinary is male-dominated and the hierarchy of the upper echelon or renowned chefs form a very exclusive “boys club.”
There’s a theory that this industry is this way because women have difficulty balancing home and work once they decide to start a family. Synonymous with the life of a Chef are long, unusual hours, working every major holiday, and grueling and laborious work in not very ideal conditions. Also synonymous with this industry is low-paying hourly compensation. (And the infamous salary gap of men verse women has no exception in our industry.) Simultaneously, women Chefs are also trying to raise a family, find time to attend parent-teacher conferences, nurse their babies, help with boy scout meetings, get to hockey practice, help with homework, read bedtime stories and schedule play dates. This doesn’t even factor in other priorities associated with maintaining a household like cleaning, cooking and grocery shopping to name a few.
When I started as a Chef, I never thought what I was doing was notable or admirable. I just did what I had to do. At the time, I was a single mother with a one year old son. I became pregnant shortly after I turned twenty-one and had my son 10 days after I turned twenty-two. Stepping into the first professional kitchen of my career, my only intent was to bring home the bacon. My confidence was rooted in the fact that I had grown up cooking alongside my mother, father, grandmother, grandfather and aunts, both at home as well as in our family owned restaurants strewn across our city. I come from a family of cooks and great eaters, so I knew if I worked hard and was focused I would succeed.
Soon after I started, I discovered I was the only woman on a team of all men who were long-tenured employees. It was not exactly ideal. I look back now and wonder how I endured my first few years here. There was a level of comradery between the cooks, dishwashers, Chef and Sous Chef that I had no part of. And I was made very aware that I had no part of it. It was a difficult situation, especially since my only prior relevant experience was working in my family’s restaurants where mutual respect was the standard. I wasn’t familiar with the techniques behind the menu items or the flow of operations that these seasoned cooks had already mastered. But I trudged along. I was hell-bent on learning every aspect of that operation, if only to make it better and prove that I belonged.
In my first couple of months, I remember three separate occasions where I hid in the bathroom and actually cried, asking myself what the hell I was doing. Why should I allow anyone—any man—to speak to me or degrade me in such a manner? I convinced myself that this is simply how Chefs and cooks are. It was on me to learn to deal with it. I decided I would fight back by being better at their jobs than any of them.
Since I have a natural tendency to multi-task and remain extremely organized, it didn’t take me long to learn the operation. Within six months I mastered every station on the line and I was promoted to Garde Manger, then Pastry Chef, then Banquet Chef. Eighteen months later I was promoted to Sous Chef.
(Talk about having something to prove: I found my way onto the Chef’s shit list a few times by going rogue on some of his standardized recipes. He discovered my revisions when he started getting compliments on menu items that had been in place for years.)
The next Chef who took over when my first chef retired took the concept of ‘the yelling chef’ to a whole new level. This Chef really embraced the belief of instilling fear to gain respect. He wasn’t very popular among the team. He, however, was the Chef who promoted me to Sous Chef. Just before he came on board I essentially had enough of a handle on the operation that I was asked to step in as interim Chef. I offered a sensible and much needed balance to the work environment from a management perspective. Chef was the bad cop, I was the good cop. Being a woman offered a whole new set of strengths as my innate propensity to nurture offered enough understanding, temperament, and patience to help promote growth and learning in the kitchen.
Surprisingly, I remained the only woman on the team even after I became responsible for hiring and recruiting. The fact was the labor pool was filled with male applicants. It was probably one of the few times in my life where I asked myself, “Where are all the hot women?” (Metaphorically speaking, of course. I would hire any woman regardless of her level of physical attraction as long as she was a badass in the kitchen.)
It wasn’t until about five years later when I was interviewing and recruiting for a new line up of staff to reopen from a complete clubhouse renovation that I started receiving applications from women. I hired two of them on the spot. Both were culinary graduates and both exemplified the attitude and drive I was looking for. Since then, I’ve had a total of twelve women on my team—one of whom is now my Sous Chef.
I’ve noticed an increased number of female applicants over the last few years. And I’m pleased when I hear from these applicants that they’ve done their research on Glenmoor CC and are eager to get on board under a female Chef.
Despite the gender of my team members, I remain headstrong in my tendencies to promote a nurturing work environment resulting in growth and learning. As a manager, I believe it is the delicate balance between nurturing and “having a set of balls” that leads to respect.
It isn’t always easy, and there are tales to be told of some of the horrific experiences I’ve endured in this industry (some of which are very recent). But for any women having a difficult time coming up in this industry and/or trying to fit in, I have some words of advice: Stop trying to fit in. Stand out. You might be accused of having something to prove, but so what, you might just prove them wrong.