In the late 20th century women began to make serious inroads into restaurant kitchens, sometimes taking the top spot as chef. An account of women’s progress is given in Ann Cooper’s “A Woman’s Place Is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Chefs” published in 1998.
But not a lot is known about women’s status in professional kitchens in earlier eras. In an appendix, Cooper lists a “sampling” of women chefs from the past. Though it is not intended to be complete, it includes only 11 women before the 1970s, beginning with Julie Freyes at Antoine’s in New Orleans in the 1840s. Four of the women worked with their husbands or took over after his or another family member’s death, a not-unusual route for many women in the past.
I wanted to see if I could find out more about women chefs in this country before the changes since the 1970s. Were there many women chefs in the past, I wondered, and what kinds of hotel or restaurant kitchens did they work in?
One problem crops up right away: what exactly is the meaning of chef, particularly in the U.S.? Does it refer to a formally trained person who handles procurement, hires staff and supervises them, and can take over any position in the kitchen in a pinch? Or does it simply mean head cook, with someone else with more executive power handling everything else?
What I have learned is that in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries women were actively involved with food production outside the domestic sphere. They were caterers, they taught cooking, and they worked in restaurant and hotel kitchens. Quite a few were not native born and had acquired their skills abroad.
A few notable women of the 19th century are profiled as chefs in The Culinarians (David S. Shields, 2017). Sarah Windust, a trained cook from England, worked with her husband in 1820s New York, running the kitchen of a coffee house that catered to actors and writers. Eliza Seymour Lee was trained by her mother, a freed slave who had been taught by Charleston’s top pastry chef of the 1790s. Eliza and her husband ran a dining room for boarders. When he died she continued in business as a restaurateur and caterer until the Civil War, specializing in pastries. Lucretia Bourquin also catered, supplying the Whig Party’s 4th of July dinner held in the woods outside Philadelphia in 1838. For those with “fastidious taste” her Philadelphia Eating House offered up such favorites as French soups, Beef a la Mode, Canvas Back Ducks, Terrapins, Snipe, and Partridges.
The confusion over who and what was a chef is illustrated in the career of Nellie Murray, a Black cook and caterer in New Orleans in the 19th century. At times she evidently worked as a cook in white households, but she also became known as the caterer to New Orleans society. She catered all sorts of events, parties, and fundraising dinners, providing dishes preferred by the upper class such as trout with oyster sauce. Almost certainly she supervised helpers for some of her clients’ events. This was certainly the case when she was invited to run a Creole kitchen at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. She did not have a restaurant nor work in one but she would seem to otherwise have exhibited the characteristics of a chef.
Despite the handful of women named above who are known to have had notable careers, the U.S. Censuses of the 19th century failed to record women in the role of chef. Often leaving out women’s occupations and uncertain of the meaning of occupational titles, the census does not present a reliable source on this subject. But it’s worth noticing that from 1900 through the 1940 the census shows a steady increase of women chefs from approximately 85 to nearly 2,400.
What accounted for the increase of women chefs in the first half of the 20th century? The short answer is war and decreased immigration. American-born men were not terribly interested in working in restaurant kitchens, but there were numbers of women available who had studied home economics, including dietetics. Many of them went into institutional kitchens, but from there some took jobs in restaurants. [Advertisement, Reno NV, 1905]
Two news items of the early century undoubtedly inspired American women to aim for chef positions. One was the widespread story of Rosa Lewis, “chief culinary artist” of London’s Cavendish Hotel, paid the then-enormous annual salary of $15,000. And, in 1907 the newly opened elite woman’s club in New York, The Colony, hired Sophia Nailer as chef. Like so many women cooks she had previously worked for wealthy families.
But despite the few women at the top, it seems that most women who held chef positions in hotels were hired mainly because they added homely dishes to the menu for guests, particularly residential guests, who were tired of typically routinized hotel menus. This seemed to account for the hiring of Anna Tackmeyer [pictured, 1919] as chef at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania in 1919 to run the “home cooking department,” which operated separately from the main kitchen. In the 1920s some restaurants, cafeterias especially, proudly advertised they featured home cooking with only women in the kitchen. White men often refused to take orders from women, so it was common that restaurant kitchens with women chefs would be entirely staffed with women.
More typically, though, women chefs in the early century would work in the kitchens of small hotels in remote locations, such as in Baxter Springs KS with a population under 2,000. Others worked in urban tea rooms which were often women-owned and where the majority of patrons were women. [Advertisement, 1924, Springfield IL]
It was an established belief that women could not handle meat. Yet, a want ad in the trade journal Hotel World in 1921 defied this conviction. A woman chef sought “full charge” in a high-class place, claiming she could handle it all: “Meat, pastry, carving.”
The shortage of men in WWII opened up possibilities for women chefs. The American Hotel Association reported in 1943 that 330 hotels nationwide had women chefs. Working in Miami, one woman hired to replace a male military recruit retained his title as “second chef and broiler man.” She reflected the heady feeling this could give a woman, boasting in a letter to the editor that lifting heavy pots and crates was something she didn’t give a second thought to. [cartoon illustration, 1946]
Sociologist William Foote Whyte observed in 1948 that the French chef had lost control of kitchens and that “many of our modern American kitchens with women cooks and food production managers have completely lost the old distinctions of rank.” Of course this could be seen as the classic situation of women not getting into what had been male-dominated ranks until the positions had lost status. According to a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association in 1952, the traditional “hat wearing, and artistic male chef” was being replaced by trained women dietitians who had a more modern outlook on how to run a kitchen.
Despite these advances, though, men still controlled most commercial kitchens through the 1960s and beyond, even into the 1970s when the Culinary Institute of America, which had admitted very few women since its creation in 1946 to train returning GIs, began to welcome women students. It would be slow going for women chefs for many years thereafter, but progress would continue.
After the pandemic, who knows what situation women chefs – or restaurants in general — will face?
© Jan Whitaker, 2021