Navigating “Bro Culture” in the Professional Kitchen

How Women on the Line Work Their Way Up the Ranks

  • Head chef Kat Lov works at the Forum Sports Bar. Like many women, she’s had to face ignorant, sexist male behaviour at work. Photo Brian Lapuz @brianlapuz

Kat Lov recalls an incident early in her career when she was working in a predominantly male kitchen.

Coming home after a grueling day at work, she continued to practice her kitchen skills until she went to bed. Still devoted, she returned to work the next morning—only to be confronted by the cringey, sexist remark of her colleague.

“So your hollandaise sauce split because you’re on your period?” he asked her snidely.

Lov admits, this was an extremely blatant example of the ignorant sexism that she’s experienced working in kitchens. Now head chef at the Forum Sports Bar, she still remembers that despite significant contributions to the many kitchens she worked in, she was constantly reminded that her gender influenced the recognition her work received.

The sad truth of it is that women have always been excluded from professional kitchens. Void of femininity and any association with “women’s work,” professional kitchens are generally considered high-stakes, economically driven, and male-dominant environments.

Whether you study at a culinary institution or on the job, if you’re a woman, you’re still going to be a minority in most kitchens. The issue of gender disparity doesn’t end there, either. Time Magazine raised significant controversy in 2013 when it published an article titled “The 12 Gods of Food,” which was noticeably absent of a single female chef. Barriers within the industry include skewed gender-based perceptions of women’s skills and capabilities, plus a never-ending struggle for work-life balance. Perhaps more significantly these days, is the challenge of navigating a working environment that one chef says is fuelled by “bro culture.”

Leigh Roper, head chef of Montreal’s successful grill and market restaurant Foxy, explains that because bro behaviour is often labeled as a “playful mentality,” it often avoids being blatantly called-out as sexism.

“I never felt that any of the guys I worked with doubted my ability as a chef, but there was a comradery between them that I just couldn’t participate in because I’m a woman,” Roper explained.

Despite moments of isolation working the line, Roper had the opportunity to develop her skills and confidence working with other women throughout her career.

As Lov testifies though, not everyone shares that experience.

Traditional within kitchen culture, when a chef is promoted, they’re typically given a black jacket. In one restaurant Lov worked at, she got the promotion, but was denied the jacket.

Leigh Roper is the head chef of Foxy, in Griffintown. In her experience, garnering the respect for your work from colleagues doesn’t translate to being respected as a woman. Photo Lily Bennett @5ft25

“They basically told me to my face that I would be the person in charge, but they were giving the black jacket to a guy. He would have to answer to me, but it was just for aesthetics. It was very backhanded, and I just handed in my two weeks’ notice.”

Resistance against unfair treatment has lead to many women starting their own businesses. To set a precedent for behavior in her kitchen at Foxy, Roper emphasizes the importance of laying down a certain standard of conduct from the get-go.

“Busy kitchen service is extremely, extremely stressful,” she says. “There is a way of dealing that still allows you to act like a human being though. Foxy is like that. We respect one and other. It’s not just a bunch of animals running around throwing hot pans at each other.”

Lov’s patience and endurance have paid off, too—and now she’s running the show. The importance of her staff is not lost on her, though.

“It’s not a person that sustains a kitchen, it’s an entire crew. Everybody. From your dishwasher to your chef. Everybody in between sustains that kitchen. You miss one part and the whole machine falls apart.”

The resilience of these chefs, and many others, is what enables them to change the way things are done. Like the infamous chef Julia Child, who fearlessly endured the doubts cast her way, women’s presence in kitchens today is due to the fact that they refused to leave.

Gratitude is owed to the countless women who worked as prep cooks, dishwashers and line chefs, whose names may never grace the cover of a cookbook, but whose refusal to be edged out of the field has been just as important.

Every cook broke into the industry in a different way. For Laura Blondeau, she started in cafés and pizza joints. Blondeau never attended culinary school, but by working her way up through the ranks she is a now the kitchen manager at Montreal’s popular breakfast establishment, Fabergé.

Subverting the normative assumption, Blondeau presides over a kitchen staff comprised mostly of men—men who call her “Mr. Laura.”

Having found a way of breaking down the link between camaraderie and male chauvinism, Blondeau explains, “Sure, there is a lot of teasing that takes place in the kitchen, and yes—sex might come up, but sexual harassment? Definitely not.” She thinks her thick skin, hard work, and honesty are what has gotten her to the top. Blondeau knows she can hold her own in the kitchen, but says it’s also important to be able to ask for help when you need it.

She recalls an episode earlier in her career when she was tasked with making cheesecakes during a busy night. She had never made one and no one was around to show her the ropes. A chef from a neighbouring restaurant ran over during his service and asked to borrow a piece of equipment. When she frankly admitted that she was trying to make a cheesecake and had no idea what she was doing, he surprised her by forgetting about his own emergency and took a few minutes to show her the recipe, which allowed her to impress her team, get the job done, and acquire a new skill.

This little act of solidarity might indicate that male chefs are becoming less territorial, and also speaks to an emerging narrative where more and more male chefs are recognising that their first kitchen training came from their mothers and grandmothers. Roper states that an appreciation of female wisdom, when it comes to preparing delicious food, is an increasingly important part of discourse. That being said, you still need to be tough to survive in the industry.

“I’ve sometimes been treated like garbage in kitchens,” says Roper, “but everyone gets treated like garbage in kitchens. As women, we’ve shown that we can deal with the shit that gets thrown at us in the same way men do.”

Female presence is growing within this landscape. As a new precedent is established, it seems that every kitchen has to work to develop its own set of rules. Whether this leads to changing what it means to be one of the “bros” or challenging the entire dynamic, women are breaking the barries in this male dominated scene.

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