Chef Q&A: Being a Woman in a Man's Kitchen
moderated by ana heretoiu
Jen Chaefsky and Nina Compton check out the selection of produce at The Fresh Market in Coconut Grove.
In an industry still dominated by men, more and more female restaurateurs and chefs are taking the reins, and in Miami, they’re beginning to change the culinary landscape. Here, Jen Chaefsky, general manager and owner of Macchialina, who studied agricultural sciences in school, and Top Chef alum/chef de cuisine at Scarpetta Nina Compton, who trained under renowned chef Daniel Boulud, discuss how they’re redefining Miami’s food scene.
How do you think dining in Miami has changed since you’ve arrived?
Nina Compton: When I first moved here 12 years ago, it seemed like there were fine dining restaurants only in hotels. Then [in 2008], Michelle Bernstein opened her own restaurant [Michy’s] and Michael Schwartz opened up [Restaurant Michael Schwartz]. Now we have more female chefs coming up—it is a very exciting time for Miami.
Jen Chaefsky: When we got here six years ago, we were like, “Where do you eat?” It’s an easy niche to fill; I think that’s why people respond so well to what we’re doing here.
Kitchens can be verbally combative places to work. Does that matter as a woman?
JC: Not to this woman. We can hold our own with the boys. I think that also helps us succeed. It makes it a lot easier to do our jobs when we’re seen as one of them.
NC: You really have to have a thick skin. People can say some offensive things, but you can’t take it personally. You have to roll with the punches. If you’re one of the guys, they know “she’s with us.”
Why do you think there aren’t more women restaurateurs and chefs?
JC: Because you have to give up a lot of stuff. It’s hard to have these hours—you don’t see your family, you don’t go to weddings, you’re always on call. I think that’s hard for a lot of women. People’s choices are changing, though. Maybe husbands stay home with the kids, maybe you’re not going to have kids; there are ways. I don’t know how you would do it and have a family. This is our family.
NC: You have to sacrifice a lot. My husband’s in the business, so we get along very well, but if he worked 9-to-5, it would never work.
Advice for young women in the culinary arts?
NC: I do tell my female cooks, “Don’t show any sign of weakness because the second you do that, they’re going to eat you alive.” You can’t be like, “I’m a woman, so can you pick this up?” You have to show that you can pick up 50 pounds and more.
JC: There’s pressure to prove yourself even more. I’ll be the first one in or the last one to leave, and in between, I’ll do everything. I’m not a princess; I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, and [the men in the kitchen] respond to that. Macchialina, 820 Alton Road, Miami Beach, 305-534-2124; Scarpetta, 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-674-4660
photography by gary james