Can Private Clubs Realistically Hire a Female Chef?

Selecting an Executive Chef involves more than assessing culinary skills; it also requires confronting the stark gender imbalance in the pool of applicants and the broader implications of diversity within the industry. Panel interviews are complex. The search committees who run them generally represent a cross-section of the membership. Each is vested in selecting their next culinary leader and they must navigate complex issues including gender dynamics within traditionally male-dominated spaces.

The focus on “diversity” prompts a deeper dialogue: Is the interest in diversity genuine or superficial? Many clubs still maintain male-only dining areas, complicating the inclusion of female chefs by restricting roles based on gender. Despite a broader diversification of the food industry, many club kitchens remain led by American white males, indicating a slow demographic shift from the previously European-dominated chef roles. This change points to a journey toward gender balance still fraught with challenges.

Historically, Europeans dominated culinary leadership roles until the late ’60s. Then, in the mid-’70s, the American Culinary Federation transformed cooking from a trade to a profession. The ’80s saw a surge in culinary education, producing technically proficient cooks, many of whom trained in Europe and returned to assume leadership positions. Today, however, despite high female enrollment in culinary schools, the presence of female chefs in leadership roles is disproportionately low.

The data suggests that the pool of qualified women should match today’s leadership opportunities, yet private clubs often obscure talent assessments, focusing instead on finding the right culinary “fit” among members. Questions like “Would a male-dominated kitchen follow female leadership?” highlight sociological barriers more than capability, reflecting a bias that still pervades the industry.

Another barrier for women includes succession planning practices at historically male dominated hotel kitchens, where the corporate chef often appointed known associates, traditionally men, to lead newly emerging hotels. Only as the company’s diversity organically grew did new faces begin to emerge in top culinary positions. Still, women were lacking opportunities in this male dominated movement.

As Marriott focused on diversifying their executive committees, the demands of their clientele evolved accordingly, influenced by families and female business leaders.

So, if culinary institutions are filled with female students, where are they in the industry today? The same schools report that more than half of the graduates leave the field within five years. Combined with limited opportunities in private clubs, this leaves only a small portion of the market available to them. Despite these challenges, the importance of discussing diversity remains.

Chef Penelope Wong exemplifies such leadership. As a dynamic chef (or “shef” as she likes to be called), she shattered stereotypes and ascended in her role at Glenmoor Country Club (Englewood, Colo.), serving as an inspiration to many cooks. (See Why I’m Leaving and What I Hope to Leave Behind.)

Her story raises an important question: Would she have even been considered for an interview if she were competing against male counterparts? Her prior role within the club earned her the trust and respect of the members, but this raises concerns about whether a woman without such an internal track record would be seen as a viable candidate in traditional clubs.

While we may not have definitive answers to these questions, it’s clear that when clubs are hiring an executive chef, assessing culinary talent is only part of the equation. Other factors, often intangible, complicate the hiring process. I often say, “I got every job I interviewed for before interviewing in private clubs,” a reflection I share with many skilled candidates who are ideal on paper for one position but not the next.

The education of candidates is increasingly important, with culinary school success underscoring the value of degrees and certifications. Some clubs worry about over-qualification, but as I reassure them, “any certification or degree demonstrates lifelong learning,” with some clubs offering financial incentives for these achievements.

Numerous factors can complicate the primary goal of enhancing a club’s cuisine. This objective drives us to seek candidates from a variety of industry backgrounds and educational sectors, all in the pursuit of professional advancement, which remains the ultimate goal of each search.

Upon initial review, candidate resumes might appear misaligned with the club’s past direction. These professionals’ careers might seem too innovative for the club’s established dining habits, a topic that should be central in hiring discussions. These emotional deliberations often lead clubs to identify the “safest candidate,” a decision that may overshadow considerations of gender, as committees prioritize maintaining a certain image in the eyes of their members.

During these extensive discussions, it’s commonly stated, “Our Executive Chef is one of the most important decisions for our club.” As a former chef, it’s encouraging to see this role garner such respect today.

In conclusion, while the path for female Executive Chefs is not entirely clear, initiating progressive conversations within hiring committees is essential. Change is slow but invariably leads to progress, potentially paving the way for greater prominence of female chefs in the future.

Club + Resort Chef – April 2024

Lawrence T. McFadden, CMC, ECM is a food and beverage training consultant and search executive with Kopplin Kuebler & Wallace, a consulting firm providing executive search, strategic planning and data analysis services to the private club and hospitality industries.