Prohibit a woman from dining at a restaurant without a male escort, and she just might take over the kitchen. Unbelievably, as late as 1969, women were grappling for the right to dine in well-known restaurants during lunchtime where the men were busy making deals. Activist Betty Friedan took care of that when she walked into the Oak Room in New York City’s Plaza Hotel with 15 women. They waited two hours for service that never arrived. However, the Plaza changed its policy within months of the sit-in.
Today, women can dine wherever they please with whomever they choose. And often you’ll find an industrious woman running the show as head chef. While men still dominate the industry with women only making up 25.8 percent of the chef demographic, times are changing. Of course, there’s still work to do because even in 2021, female chefs earn approximately 7 percent less than their male counterparts.
Even with the disparities, Pittsburghers benefit from talented female chefs making their mark on the industry.
Success Inspired from Several Directions
Wild Child’s Executive Chef Jamilka Borges began her journey as a way to grieve when her father passed away. “Cooking made me happy, and taking care of people was a great distraction,” she explained. “I also come from a line of wonderful cooks: my mother and grandma are amazing, so it is a craft that had been with me for a long time.”
Borges believes that Pittsburgh chose her. “I moved to Pittsburgh to follow love, and somehow we managed to break up three weeks later,” she recalled. “He moved back to Puerto Rico, but I had started culinary school, so I decided to stay.”
She responded to an ad on Craigslist for a job at Legume Bistro and fell in love with the restaurant, its people and everything they were doing. “I love, love Pittsburgh: the people, the opera, the museums; it’s a great city with a neighborhood feeling,” she said.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Csilla Thackray initially planned to follow the path to law school but realized that it was not for her.
“I always enjoyed creative expression, even from a young age. I loved playing music, taking photographs and cooking meals for my family and friends,” she said. “After college, I decided to make an abrupt change and take a stab at professional cooking. I was afforded an opportunity and never looked back.”
The former chef de cuisine of Legume and executive chef of The Vandal, Thackray recently accepted the position of executive chef and community coordinator for Churchview Farm, where she plans to continue her popular “At Her Table” dinner series. Another goal in this unique position will be to turn Churchview Farm into a zero-waste enterprise.
California-born Bethany Zozula moved to Fayette County as a child. With her dad working in Pittsburgh, her parents brought the family into the city twice a week to participate in various cultural offerings.
“Right out of high school I was going to art school,” said Zozula. “I was accepted at Carnegie Mellon but was put on the waiting list.”
Her boyfriend at the time was attending culinary school. “I joined the restaurant industry by making salads for $6.25 an hour,” she recalled. “I liked it, and it worked well with the idea that I was going to become an artist.”
Zozula worked her way through the ranks, learning from the Culinary Institute of America-trained chefs she worked with in the kitchen. Today this James Beard-nominated executive chef is at the helm of 40 North at Alphabet City where City Asylum is located.
“City Asylum serves as a sanctuary for writers who cannot write in their own countries,” she explained. “The founder reached out to me about opening a restaurant in the space.”
Zozula enjoys complete menu freedom, and it seems to be a perfect fit. “Besides wanting to be an artist, I also wanted to be a writer,” she said. “This space speaks to my artist and writer soul!”
Working in a Male-dominated Industry
While each of these successful chefs agree that the industry continues to evolve, challenges remain. “We encounter vendors or delivery drivers asking for the ‘real chef’ at times,” said Borges. “We worry about starting a family—will the support be there?”
Pay discrepancies continue as a source of frustration. “When I became a sous chef and started hiring people, I realized that the male line cooks were making much more than the females,” said Zozula. “The bigger thing I realized was that women don’t ask for what they want. Men ask for more, and women don’t think they can.”
Her advice to other women: “If you don’t ask for it, you’re not going to get it.”
Expectations for female chefs often differ from the standards for their male counterparts.
“There is a lot of leniency afforded to male chefs regarding their behavior: aggression, arrogance and ego are rewarded and praised while women are intended to remain fragile, produce quaint food, and be demure about their successes,” said Thackray.
“While I think everyone should be mindful of themselves as a leader regardless of gender, I do believe that female chefs are expected to mind their Ps & Qs quite a bit more than their counterparts,” she added. “Male, female, or wherever you may land—checking your ego at the door and listening and adapting to those around you will always put you at an advantage.”
The bottom line, it seems, is that it shouldn’t be about gender.
“I think the hardest part is always being pointed out as being a ‘woman chef,’” said Zozula. “Being a chef is hard work regardless of your gender. I want to be compared to other chefs, not because of my gender, but because of my abilities.”