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Women Give Taste of Life as Chefs

Group Vents About Pressures of Profession Led by Men

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page C01

The women are showing off their scars at the bar in Oyamel, a new Mexican restaurant in Crystal City. They flash hot oil marks on the backs of their hands like badges of honor and expose frying pan blisters on their arms.

They are a tough lot, even when applying makeup in a limousine. For the moment, the newer girls are quiet. But soon they, too, will toss back margaritas like the veterans and tell tales about being a woman in a man's world: the kitchen.


Ris Lacoste, who has been a professional chef for 23 years, says of her male counterparts: "They may do things faster and better than the women, but they can't do two things at once." (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Po St)

The seven are enjoying a rare break, an orgy of entrees and appetizers at three Virginia restaurants in one evening, with a stretch limo to take them home. The purpose: unadulterated camaraderie and shop-talk therapy.

Leading the pack was Ris Lacoste, one of a handful of prominent female executive chefs in Washington and a local powerbroker of a different sort. Most nights, she runs the show at 1789 in Georgetown, but on this night she was simply jefa. Spanish for boss.

The female boss.

"I grew up with lots of girls in the kitchen. It's rare," said Lacoste, 49, who trained three of the women in the group but eventually lost them to other restaurants.

Their recent outing, the first in many months, also was a belated celebration because Lacoste had recently placed a new girl "on the line." Amanda Freas, 24, finally had been allowed to "plate" hot food, and Lacoste thought she might benefit from some advice.

"You want us to come and show her how we do it?" Tower Oaks Lodge sous-chef Rebecca Jacks, 26, had replied when Lacoste called to get the group together.

Hearing from other women crazy enough to be in the same business strengthens them. They all live in a world where hours are long, varicose veins appear early and profit margins are thin. When they graduate from serving up cold salads and desserts to the grill and saute stations, as Freas has, there are suddenly no written orders. Just the shouts of the executive chef.

The venting began in the relaxed moments after their first smoking break. How hard it is just to get out of the house on a day off when they're exhausted. How customers arrive half an hour before their reservations and expect to be seated. How they all take deep breaths or offer free dessert instead of blaming slow service on a waiter who has called in sick.

The lesson? Learning how to deal with the pressures of the job, especially working side by side with men, the kings of the kitchen.

"I find a lot of the men are weaker, not as good at multi-tasking. It's harder for them to see the big picture, but they can put blinders on and focus on the dish," said Andie Keller, 30, before the plantain fritters and jicama salad appetizers arrived. Formerly executive sous-chef at 2941 in Falls Church -- essentially the No. 2 job in a restaurant -- Keller now manages the front of the house, or the public portion of the restaurant.

In the past decade, women have increasingly landed starring roles in the kitchens of some of the nation's best-known restaurants. In Washington, Lacoste's peers include Nora Pouillon and Ann Cashion.

But government statistics are unequivocal. While women make up more than half of the food-preparation workforce, fewer than one in five is a chef or head cook. The industry's most prestigious awards go mostly to men. Most of the recognized top chefs in the country are men. Most of the students at the L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg are men.


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