As we celebrate International Women’s Month this March, I wanted to interview four female chefs I admire and get their thoughts on their careers, equality in the food and service profession and more. While they have all become successful chefs running their own businesses, each of them has different origin stories.
For Sunshine Puey, owner of the gourmet shop The Larder and Alexa Alfaro, owner of Meat on the Street, which serves Filipino food in Milwaukee, it was a lifelong love affair.
“I grew up with a love for food, coming from a family who enjoyed cooking, so I feel like it was ingrained in me since childhood,” Sunshine shares.
It was her mom (whose food I still dream of tasting one day) that got her into the business. “She encouraged me to try it. Once I began school, I fell in love with the whole dance of the kitchen.”
Alexa, too, grew up in the kitchen. “Originally I liked making people happy with food. Now it’s evolved into our ethos, culture through cuisine.”
For chef Isa Fabro, a Filipino chef based in Los Angeles, a negative experience turned into finding her career path. “I decided to change careers from working in the film and music industry to cooking after I battled and recovered from a serious illness.”
On the other hand, chef Waya Araos-Wijangco, owner of Gypsy Kyusi and now Gypsy Baguio, got into the industry by accident. After cooking a fabada for a family friend, what followed were three more orders, and according to Waya, it “just kept going from there.” Waya credits her mother and grandmother. “From them I learned frugality, creativity and grit.”
Same destination, different paths
With so many successful female chefs, especially in the Philippines, it’s easy to forget that at this advanced age, equality is still not where we want it to be. A lot of the time, Alexa rues that for some people, “I can’t be the owner, whether that’s due to being a female or a person of color.”
“Unfortunately, in many places around the world, discrimination still exists in all its forms,” says Sunshine.
“Early on, I felt that I was always underestimated,” shares Isa Fabro. She put up her own business, IsaMADE, partly because “This is the best way to ensure full ownership and responsibility.”
Food cooked from a passionate chef is food cooked from a passionate chef. Gender is irrelevant. It’s 2021. Can we move on from saying ‘chef’ vs. ‘female chef’?
Here in Manila, Waya feels it, too. Female chefs (and she reminds me how much she dislikes that term) often get asked, “How do you balance your career and home life?”
She notes how this is a question that is almost never asked of any male chef, and upon further reflection, it is indeed true. None of my male colleagues and I have been asked this question during interviews.
Mars? Venus? They’re both planets
Something I keep hearing from so-called experts is how male and female chefs differ in how they create food, run kitchens or have different tastes. I’ve always been mystified by how people could think this and the ladies share my bafflement.
“I don’t subscribe to the notion that there are certain foods associated with gender,” Sunshine says. “I think society puts pressure on you psychologically to behave a certain way as to what is ‘acceptable’ for a man or woman.”
Waya agrees wholeheartedly, citing the ridiculousness of the perception that men should do savory cuisine and women do pastry. Then, she adds a thought-provoking question: “There are Father’s Day dishes and Mother’s Day dishes, but does it really make sense? Don’t moms want steak, too?”
Alexa follows the thought as well: “Food cooked from a passionate chef is food cooked from a passionate chef. Gender is irrelevant. It’s 2021. Can we move on from saying ‘chef’ vs. ‘female chef’?”
Isa adds a great final note to the subject matter: “Expression and creativity are solely individual and personal.”
The final frontier
As with many workplaces, the professional kitchen needs to undergo positive changes as well. While a lot of food literature and media love to celebrate the crazy, alcohol and drug-riddled kitchen escapades of so-called “rock-star chefs,” the reality is, it is an unhealthy environment that has caused more than a handful of tragic chef stories, stories of unchecked harassment and mental health struggles. It’s time — and it has been for some time now — to effect real change in the workplace.
“I wish for it to be safer for women to work in the kitchen and remove the ‘macho attitudes’ among kitchen workers,” says Waya. “I had to fight to get that kind of culture out, changing the attitudes of my staff.”
By that culture, she means simple changes like calling female chefs “chef” and not “Momshie,” and being more conscious about body shaming and gender sensitivity.
Adds Alexa, “Women would love to stop working in kitchens with creepy cooks, in kitchens where gossip and bullying are so intense.”
Isa reminds us that people need “to work together instead of competing against each other.”
Sunshine agrees, calling for a more embracing and accepting culture through education, kindness and open-mindedness. “All of society will benefit when people are empowered and encouraged in all industries.”
As I transcribed these interviews and began writing this, I found myself truly inspired and in awe. Four successful businesses have been built on their fierce determination and grit. Needless to say, these are dynamic, independent and awesome women and what an honor it is that they shared their thoughts and their journeys with me. They are indeed some of the most amazing chefs I’ve met. Not “female chefs,” mind you; just chefs.