In 2019, the chef Stephanie Bonnin prepared for a cooking residency at Deer Mountain Inn, a Catskills resort about two and a half hours north of the city. Reservations had sold out for the Culinary Institute of America graduate’s menu, which was based on the cooking of Colombia, where she grew up. Quickly, Bonnin remembers, she grew frustrated with the way her male cooks behaved. “I hired my kitchen staff, two guys, and they wouldn’t take direction, they would question everything I said,” she recalls. “Because you’re a woman, they don’t respect your judgment as much.”
It has been just over four years since the New York restaurant industry began to seriously examine its culture of hard-partying, ruthless bullying and rampant abuse. Women who run New York City’s kitchens say they still struggle to command the same degree of authority as their male counterparts, but they are also working together and sharing information to stamp out lingering sexism in their kitchens.
For first-time executive chef Jackie Carnesi, creating a safe working environment should be common sense, but she has had to fire kitchen staff who wouldn’t take her seriously. “This shit is so basic and obvious,” she says of her approach. “Just respecting each other and having patience and not expecting people to walk in the door and be the best. Giving people some leniency to work and not fucking yelling at them if they don’t get it right away. You’re always toeing the line between being too soft and not getting what you need out of people, then the other direction is being too tough. It’s a delicate, alienating dance.”
Carnesi is the executive chef of Nura, a Greenpoint restaurant that fits right into its trendy neighborhood. It’s a huge space with unfinished ceilings, stuffed with mid-century-modern furniture and dripping with greenery. Before Nura, Carnesi worked as the interim chef at Otis, a sister restaurant where she also had problems being seen as an authority figure. “If I tried to give directions to certain people — always men — they would kind of, like, roll their eyes,” she recalls. “They’d be like, ‘Hey, how do you do this?’ And I was like, ‘This is how you do it.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, no, I’ll go ask the head chef.’ And then he would give the exact same answer. And I’m like, What the fuck? It’s so frustrating.”
One person who can relate to Carnesi’s disappointment is Sam Short, Nura’s pastry chef, who says she encounters similar problems. “I mean, I’m definitely not aggressive,” she says. “I’m told that I could be intimidating, which I find hilarious.” Her own process for dealing with insubordinate workers is to stand her ground: “If someone’s doing something wrong, you’re not going to convince me otherwise. It’s not really going to be an argument; it’s just gonna be like, ‘No, you’re wrong,’ and then I walk away.” If that sounds harsh on the surface, Short sees it differently. “There’s no reason to have an argument, because there’s a clear right path,” she says. “I find that shutting it down right away is a way to avoid the conflict.”
Short says she often encounters outdated points of view from repair workers (“I’ve had oven techs come in and look at every other person in the kitchen before they ask me what’s going on, even though I’m the person who called”) as well as kitchen staff who don’t realize attitudes in the industry have shifted. “There are still young cooks today who venerate Marco Pierre White and that whole type of vibe,” she says.
Barbara Sibley is the owner and head chef of La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan that has been in business for more than 20 years with four locations. “I came up with a generation with, when you think about the Anthony Bourdain era, tons of drugs in the kitchen, you know, tons of craziness,” she says. “There’s a reason I didn’t want that in my place. You just can’t get as much done, and it’s not something I tolerate.”
Nevertheless, Sibley explains that sexism has hardly disappeared from kitchens. “We still live in a culture where women are expected to be polite and nice,” she says. “I don’t think it’s changed that much. In some ways, it’s a lot muddier.”
Sibley is not the only chef who feels like this hostility is just one more unwelcome relic from the old days. Alissa Wagner opened Dimes in 2013 with Sabrina De Sousa. Before running her own kitchen, Wagner worked at Five Leaves in Greenpoint. The bustling all-day bistro on the north side of McCarren Park is notorious for being constantly slammed and incredibly draining for its employees.
“I was the only female cook there. I definitely felt a vibe, like I wasn’t taken seriously by a lot of them,” Wagner remembers. “I always felt that I had to really prove myself, like I couldn’t let my guard down.” She says it could feel impossible to maintain that image: “You have to put on this façade of being super, super-capable, and you just sort of felt like you couldn’t relax. If you put that persona down for even a minute, people would jump.”
That pressure didn’t necessarily let up when it was time to open Dimes. When seeking out vendors and equipment, Wagner and De Sousa found that people would often dismiss them. “They’d be like, ‘And what do you do? Are you the manager?’” Wagner says. “And when I’d say I was the owner and the chef, I actually had people laugh. It would be a ‘Hey, good luck’ kind of thing.”
Although Dimes is now an institution — the neighborhood is called Dimes Square for a reason — finding funding at the outset was particularly punishing. “We approached a bunch of people, and they looked at our business plan and were just like, ‘Oh, this is never gonna work,’” Wagner says. “We actually weren’t able to get funding from any of the traditional pathways from investors or banks. We ended up getting all the funding from family.”
After opening, Wagner says she had some difficulties with male prep cooks disrespecting her authority, but once she established a solid crew, her main goal was creating an environment where everyone felt their role was important. Turnover in professional kitchens is typically a huge problem, but Wagner’s kitchen had a higher staying rate — the majority of her kitchen staff stays on for five years or more — which she attributes to the creative control she gave the other cooks and the opportunity for them to create dishes on the menu that were 100 percent theirs.
Wagner’s approach may be successful, but it’s not the norm. In 2020, Forbes reported that fewer than 7 percent of restaurants in the U.S. were run by women. In New York, women chefs remain rare. The small numbers, however, add to a sense of community. “A lot of women,” says Short, Nura’s pastry chef, “are open with the information and experience of, like, ‘Hey, I’m trying this thing,’ and you could send a message to them and talk about it.” She says she has found that chefs are now willing to be more forthcoming, which benefits everyone. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I need to guard this secret.’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna tell you how to do this. Here. Try it yourself.’”
Ultimately, being in charge means setting the tone, a duty that isn’t lost on Carnesi. And if it becomes clear that a cook isn’t going to improve his attitude, she says she can always just show him the door: “I’m not giving any energy to people who waste my fucking time or don’t get what we’re doing here.”
This post has been updated to correct the name of the culinary school that Stephanie Bonnin attended.