Christine Ruch, executive chef and owner of Fresh Thymes Eatery in Boulder, knows one restaurant well. She enrolled in college working in reception positions, then eventually joined the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.
She described the culture of the restaurant industry in the 1980s and 1990s as “very toxic”, recalling the prevalence of drug use, alcoholism and shouting. “I was shunned from kitchens just because I’m a woman,” Ruch said in a phone interview.
With so few female chefs to serve as role models at the time, “I never really saw that in me,” she said, adding that “a lot of female chefs are trained by men because it’s is your only choice”.
Despite the obstacles, Ruch and some of his peers persevered despite low pay, long hours, sexist co-workers and more to slowly change the culture of the restaurant industry. Denver’s culinary scene has witnessed this evolution, with women leading some of the metro area’s most prestigious kitchens. Caroline Glover of Annette in Aurora and Dana Rodriguez of Work & Class in Denver were recently nominated as finalists for the James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards in the Mountain Region category.
After having children, Ruch continued to give concerts as a personal and private chef, in addition to teaching cooking classes. Then, she experienced “a big change in the trajectory of things”: a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease affecting the central nervous system, and celiac disease, an immune reaction to the consumption of gluten.
Ruch graduated from the culinary school at Bauman College and began teaching there, gradually taking over its culinary department. In August 2013, she opened Fresh Thymes, offering a 100% gluten-free menu with vegan, vegetarian, paleo and keto options.
Among the obstacles she faced, Ruch highlighted that she “not being taken seriously because you are a woman,” adding that she experienced the same attitudes for not having a formal culinary degree and not run a gastronomic establishment. “Suddenly you’re kind of completely thrown out of the industry.”
Yet her restaurant offered the opportunity to apply her learnings in political science and women’s studies by hiring a diverse workforce, supporting small businesses, and building relationships within the local food economy. .
Was she going to start all over again? “I will never stop doing it,” Ruch said.
Culinary history celebrates a host of famous male chefs: think Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck. Although Julia Child and Rachael Ray blazed a trail for women cooking on TV, options for female portrayal have been limited until recent years for those aspiring to work professionally in kitchens.
The US restaurant industry made $799 billion in sales last year and employed 14.5 million workers, according to the National Restaurant Association. The group also found in a 2019 survey that 61% of adult women said they had worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives.
However, about 77% of chefs and cooks identify as male, with 58% of cooks also being male, according to Data USA, a platform using public US government data launched by Deloitte, Datawheel and Professor César Hidalgo. at MIT. Media Lab. Meanwhile, about 69% of servers are women, and food service managers are nearly balanced between male and female representation.
“However, aggressive sexist behavior continues to be a feature of the male-dominated background,” reports US Foods, one of America’s leading foodservice distributors.
As chefs and chefs, men earned a median weekly income of $777, while women earned just $655, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year. Male bartenders brought in $709, but their female counterparts earned $627. Waiters also found similar gender inequalities with their salaries, with waiters at $605 and waitresses at $524.
“I always knew that men made more than me,” said Kelsie Berens, pastry chef and general manager of Denver’s Fox Run Cafe.
She was struck by the reality of the pay disparity when, after working four years as a pastry chef at a Denver restaurant, she asked the new line cook about his starting salary, which was “more than I had never won”.
Chocolate chip cookies first sparked Berens’ career, as she spent her free time perfecting them after work and school. From there, she attended cooking school, then worked in bakeries and gourmet restaurants as a pastry chef.
“It’s really hard being in the kitchens with all the men,” Berens said in a phone interview. “As a woman, you absolutely have to prove yourself.”
She pointed to “a lot of toxicity” in an industry made up of 12-plus-hour days, bosses with monstrous egos and unappreciative bosses.
“I heard this guy say, ‘Why do they let women into the kitchens?’ said Berens. “And I’m just sitting here like, ‘I’m circling around you.’ ”
Stacia Hazlett, chef and owner of food truck and restaurant business Farmer in the Hive, knows what it’s like to work in a male-dominated field. She built a 25-year career in the oil and gas industry, but eventually burned out.
“You don’t get more ‘good old boy’ than that,” Hazlett said in a phone interview, but added that companies’ human resources departments keep employees in line. However, in the food truck industry, “these men will tell you whatever they think.”
“It’s a boys’ club, and they won’t let you in,” Hazlett said.
She went to culinary school and, after deciding restaurants weren’t for her, opened the food truck. “It took off,” she said, and then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Business is picking up, but “it’s not easy,” Hazlett added. However, “I still love her.”
She admires Jennifer Jasinski, a chef who runs several Denver restaurants, including Rioja, Bistro Vendôme and Stoic & Genuine.
Natascha Hess, chef and owner of Ginger Pig in Denver, also found a female role model in Carrie Baird, a Top Chef alumnus and James Beard Foundation Award nominee. “She took me under her wing and mentored me,” Hess said in a phone interview.
“Because I worked for a female chef who had already kind of broken down so many barriers and worked her way to the top, I think I was a bit isolated,” she said. added.
Hess was called professionally into the kitchen after initially pursuing a career as a lawyer specializing in bankruptcy, divorce and criminal law. Dissatisfied with her work, she enters sharecropping and cooking with fresh produce becomes her “meditation”.
In college, she spent time living in China, falling in love with local cuisine and Asian street food. When she launched her own food truck in July 2016, these were the dishes she focused on recreating.
When Boulder opened its first food hall, its business occupied the Asian food stand. Hess began his search for restaurant space in Denver when COVID-19 hit in early 2020, and the Ginger Pig found a home in October.
Hess’ kitchen employs more women than men, with a sous chef working alongside her, she said. Alternatively, more men work in front of his restaurant’s house.
A former female hockey player turned chef, Hess said sex doesn’t often cross her mind.
“Anyone who is a good problem solver can be a good leader,” Hess said. “Very little has to do with your gender. It’s more your work ethic and your determination.