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Women in The Restaurant Industry — Past And Present

Authored by: Jessica Gonzalez, Digital Marketing Manager

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It’s Women’s History Month!  

While we’re happy to celebrate talented chefs, restaurateurs, and restaurant employees all year long, this month has been a great time to take a step back and recognize the incredible strides women have made to push the boundaries and build a more diverse, equitable restaurant industry. 

History lessons usually start with some major accomplishment or astounding discovery made by the men of yester-year, but in honor of Women’s History Month, let’s flip that paradigm on its head and focus squarely on women’s contribution to the restaurant industry. 

A Brief History Lesson of Women in Restaurants 

It’s crazy to think about from a modern perspective, but there was a time in the United States when women were rarely seen dining out, much less owning and operating restaurants. Such activities were generally viewed as improper and unladylike, and for many years, public dining rooms were segregated by gender to preserve and protect female diners’ reputations. Who knew dining was so risqué? 

As Jan Whitaker writes in the Boston Hospital Review, the women working at food establishments at the time were often relegated to the kitchen, far from the public eye, with men dominating management and front-of-house positions.  

Even as women began to run their own restaurants (mostly cafeterias and tea rooms) in the late 19th century, the ratio of male-to-female diners remained disproportionate, since the men of the time considered such establishments to be too “dainty” and “feminine.” 

Things didn’t start to change until the mid-20th century, when the idea of “getting mom out of the kitchen” started to take hold and more women got involved in their communities during the first and second World Wars.  

Still, it would be many more decades until seeing a woman run a restaurant or a kitchen that she didn’t inherit from her husband would become aspirational, rather than a disreputable career path. 

Today, women are absolutely a force to be reckoned with in the restaurant world, both as diners and as professionals. But there’s no denying that we still have a long way to go. 

According to Zippia, women make up 43.7% of all restaurant owners in the US, but only 25.8% of all chefs. Furthermore, female restaurant owners and chefs earn 93-94₵ for every $1 earned by men, and that gap widens when you compare the earnings of Black women in the industry compared to their White, Asian, and Hispanic counterparts. And of course, there’s still the ever-present stereotype of the kitchen being a “boys club” — although thankfully, even that has finally started to change. 

So, in the spirit of looking ahead to the future while honoring the past, we’d like to spotlight some women who have made waves over the decades to change the industry for the better.  

10 Women in the Restaurant Industry Who Made History 

1. Grace Smith 

Grace Smith opened Smith’s Cafeteria in 1916 in Toledo, Ohio. The restaurant was said to have served more than 1,100 people on its first day, and it remained in operation until after Grace’s death. When she passed away in 1955, she had six restaurants around the Toledo area that her family continued to operate.  

But she didn’t stop at operating restaurants. In 1940, the National Restaurant Association elected Grace Smith as its first female president. This was no small feat, considering that the association was 90% male at the time. 

2. Leah Chase 

Known as the Queen of Creole cuisine, Leah Chase got her start in restaurants working with her husband and his family at the family’s sandwich shop in New Orleans. She went on to develop the sandwich shop into Dooky Chase’s, one of the first African American fine dining restaurants in the country.  

The spot has a long history in the city and was still in operation at the time of her death in 2019. The restaurant has been frequented by politicians and celebrities since it opened, and served as the first art gallery for Black artists in New Orleans. 

3. Edna Lewis 

In 1949, John Nicholson opened Cafe Nicholson in partnership with his close friend Edna Lewis. She had made quite an impression with her blend of southern and French cuisine, which she served at her dinner parties. A few years later, Edna would go on to open her own restaurant and write a book on down-home southern cooking. 

Edna published several cookbooks over the next few years, and although it was very profitable, she closed her restaurant to pursue writing. In 1988, at the age of 72, Edna returned to the kitchen as the chef at Gage & Tollner. She eventually retired to Georgia in the mid-90s, and was honored with the James Beard Living Legend Award in 1999. 

4. Alice Waters 

In the 1970s, Alice opened a restaurant in Berkeley, California with a goal that was unusual at the time — she aimed to serve dishes made with locally grown ingredients that she sourced through the relationships she built with local growers and suppliers. Her market-style restaurant had a menu that changed with the availability of the ingredients she used. 

In addition to her restaurant, she pioneered the farm-to-table movement and has devoted much of her time to educational programs like the Garden Project, which brings fresh vegetables into communities with less access.  

Alice won the James Beard Award in 1992 for being an outstanding chef. In 2004, she won the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, inspiring both women in the restaurant industry and people throughout the locally-grown food movement. 

5. Ruth Fertel 

After earning her chemistry degree at just 19, Ruth married a millionaire and had two sons with him. After 14 years as a housewife, Ruth’s husband left her to raise their children on her own. While looking through the classified ads, she spotted a Chris Steakhouse for-sale ad. Though she knew nothing about the restaurant industry, she bought it and the rest, as they say, is history. 

In 1976, Ruth signed a new ten-year lease with Chris just before her location burned to the ground. Since she was only licensed to use the restaurant name at that location, her new location was called Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse to preserve the loyal customer base she had built.  

Later that year, she licensed her first franchise. She maintained control of the now national franchise chain until 1999. 

6. Nancy Silverton 

The first woman from the United States to win the James Beard Award, Nancy Silverton was also named Pastry Chef of the Year in 1990. Nancy and her husband ran Campanile in Los Angeles, which, according to Los Angeles Magazine, was a restaurant “so revered for its contributions to America’s culinary landscape that it spawned eulogies from food critics when it closed in 2012.”  

When Nancy and her husband divorced, the split caused them to sell the bakery for a nice sum of money and unfortunately, Nancy lost her share in a major investment Ponzi scheme. But she was able to bounce back, opening a high-class pizzeria that was a huge success.  

In 2005, her upscale pizzeria won the award for the best new restaurant. Then, in 2012, she was named the James Beard Outstanding Chef.  

7. Cristeta Comerford 

Cristeta Comerford came to the United States from the Philippines to begin her culinary career at the age of 23, working at multiple hotels and restaurants across the country before being recruited by chef Walter Scheib III to work as an assistant chef at the White House during the Clinton administration. 

In 2005, Cristeta Comerford became the first woman appointed as executive chef in the White House. She is also the first person of Asian origin to hold this position. Cristeta has maintained the title for more than 15 years now and has been responsible for setting presidential tables, official dinners, and banquets for four presidential administrations. 

8. Cat Cora 

The owner of several restaurants, Cat Cora is also a successful author and a celebrated chef with a long list of TV credits under her belt. She comes from two generations of restaurateurs and co-founded Chefs for Humanity, a grassroots coalition dedicated to raising funds and providing resources to nutrition education and hunger-related causes around the world. 

In 2005, she became the first female Iron Chef and appeared on Iron Chef America for 10 seasons. In 2015, she made history again as the first woman inducted into the American Academy of Chefs® Hall of Fame by the American Culinary Federation. 

9. Dominique Crenn 

Another historic first for women in the restaurant industry, Dominique Crenn was the first woman to receive a Michelin star in the United States in 2009 while working as chef de cuisine at Luce in San Francisco. Originally hailing from France, she began her career in the late 1980s and worked at some of the most prominent restaurants in the US before opening her famous Atelier Crenn in 2011. 

In 2012, Dominique was the first woman in the US to receive two Michelin stars with Atelier Crenn, which she was awarded again in 2014. She also received the James Beard Best Chef: West award in 2018. And if that wasn’t enough, she received a third Michelin star in 2018, making history yet again as the first woman in the US to do so.  

10. Michelle Korsmo 

The National Restaurant Association has just announced that the new president and CEO, Michelle Korsmo, will take over in May. Michelle brings with her plenty of leadership experience. She has also held the CEO title at American Land Title Association, the Americans for Prosperity Project, and Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. 

Women in the restaurant industry continue to break down barriers and accomplish new firsts in the industry. We’ve come an incredibly long way from a time when women were not allowed in most restaurants as employees or customers. Now, 20 years into the 21st century, there is nothing in the restaurant industry that women can’t do! 

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