The United States' economy hinges on food service and restaurants, otherwise known as the food industry. Having driven economic growth since the Great Depression, the restaurant industry is the nation’s second largest private employment sector.
We tend to imagine the restaurant industry as one that is driven by men. Yet a kitchen’s vulgar environment, relentless hours, and physically taxing work are not as limiting as they may seem.
What’s special about the restaurant industry is its accessibility to people of all demographics. Women in particular have played an important role in shaping the success of the industry.
One-third of women got their first job working in a restaurant, and nearly 60% of women have worked in a restaurant at some point in their careers. The number of female-owned restaurants increased by 40% between 2007 and 2012, and, today, half of all US restaurants are either owned or co-owned by women.
Whether they're making the restaurant industry their life's work, or simply using it to enter the workforce, it’s clear that women are integral to the success of the restaurant industry and the nation’s economy.
In honor of the pro-women tenors this election has necessitated, I’m celebrating the ways in which women are mastering the food scene. Here are just six contemporary women who are helping to reshape the face of the previously male-dominated industry.
At age 23, Comerford moved from the Philippines to the US and landed her first job at the Sheraton Hotel near O’Hare International Airport. She later moved to Washington, DC and worked as a chef at two restaurants.
After working as a rotating chef in Vienna for six months, in 1995, Comerford was recruited by White House executive chef Walter Scheib to work under the Clinton administration.
In 2005, Scheib resigned, and Comerford became the first female White House executive chef. She has maintained this position under both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Michelle Obama once stated, “[Comerford] is also the mom of a young daughter, and I appreciate our shared perspective on the importance of healthy eating and healthy families.”
In 2005, Cora became the first female to earn the title of Food Network’s Iron Chef. Today, she is still the only female contestant to have won that honor. The Iron Chef has dedicated her life to both food and philanthropy.
She is the founder of Chefs for Humanity, an organization that unites chefs across the world to promote nutrition education and provide hunger relief. Furthermore, Cora is also executive chef for Bon Appétit magazine and a spokesperson for both UNICEF and InSinkErator.
After graduating from art school in 1989 with a degree in film, Falkner embarked on a different career when she took a job as chef at Café Claude in 1990. The artist-turned-chef has since broken down boundaries between savory cuisine and pastry.
Falkner has owned various restaurants in San Francisco and New York, taught professional pastry classes in Japan, and appeared on various cooking shows. Her coolest achievement? Winning first place in the Freestyle category of the 2012 World Pizza Competition in Naples, Italy.
Nadia G seeks to celebrate the swings of everyday life—tight budgets, breakups, family problems—through her pure and simple recipes. Nadia began her culinary career hosting an online web series Bitchin’ Kitchen.
She wrote the heroic best seller The Bitchin’ Kitchen Cookbook: Rock Your Kitchen and Let the Boys Clean Up the Mess. The Bitchin’ Kitchen brand was nominated Brand of the Year in 2009 and has earned awards for her web series. You can now catch Nadia tearin’ it up in the kitchen with her sky-high stilettos on her Cooking Channel series.
Listen to a performance of Nadia G’s band, The Menstruators, here.
In 2008, Izard became the first female to win Top Chef on Bravo TV. She is the only Top Chef winner to have also won the title of Fan Favorite. Izard is now the owner and executive chef of three Chicago restaurants: Girl & the Goat, Little Goat, and Duck Duck Goat.
Girl & the Goat was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for best new restaurant in 2011, and in 2013, Izard won the Beard Award for Best Chef Great Lakes. She was also named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs in 2010
Simply put, Alice Waters is an American culinary legend. In 1992, Waters became the first woman to be named Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation. She's the owner of Chez Panisse, a restaurant hailed for pioneering California cuisine and championing the use of organic ingredients.
As one of the most prominent supporters of the organic food movement, Waters has had a profound influence on public policy—she's the reason why the White House now has an organic garden. Her organization, the Chez Panisse Foundation, is charged with using food and nutrition to transform public education.
This Isn't the End
The list by no means ends here. Today, women lead some of the country’s largest restaurant companies, such as Bloomin’ Brands (parent company of Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, and others), Buffalo Wild Wings, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, DineEquity (parent company of Applebee’s and IHOP), Panda Express, and Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen.
And let's not forget all of the historic mavericks that came before these women: Julia Child, Betty Crocker, Christina Campbell, and Edna Lewis, to name a few.
Food has historically been a means by which women assert themselves. Women are wielding change through food and paving the way for others to enter the industry. The success stories of females in the restaurant industry remind me that food has the power to unite us all under a common cause. In today’s case, that cause is women’s rights, or, more accurately, human rights.