If we were to ask you to think of a celebrity chef, who comes to mind first? Odds are, a male personality came to mind much quicker than a female. Why is that? The fact of the matter is, the culinary industry is a male-dominated field—79.8% of all head chefs in the U.S. are male.
A Woman’s Place in the Kitchen
Much like any other workplace culture, kitchen culture is often defined and enforced by leadership. Unfortunately, the majority of professional kitchens happen to be testosterone-charged environments where aggressive behavior is condoned and even rewarded. In speaking with chefs during our Audacious interview series, the general consensus was that female chefs often feel pressured to play into these behaviors or resolve to “stay in their lane” within the kitchen to “keep up” and be considered for promotions. But then there are the women that refuse to accept this behavior as the status quo. We spoke to one such female chef who refused to perpetuate this toxic kitchen culture.
Chef Bonnie Morales is the head chef and co-owner of Kachka, considered by many to be one of the best Russian restaurants in the country. Morales describes her experience working in professional kitchens as a female in the industry and shares some of her proudest accomplishments over the years.
Q&A With Bonnie Morales
Q: What prompted you to leave a career in product design to enroll in culinary school?
A: Out of school, I had gotten what should have been my dream job, but I was actually quite miserable and hated it. I was working in Union Square in NYC, and the farmer’s market there was a real source of solace for me. I started spending more and more time cooking with ingredients from the market at home and eventually just decided to make the jump and enroll in culinary school. Ultimately, Industrial Design, the field I was in, involved a lot of creating and working with your hands in concept, but it just wasn’t that in practice. I think that’s why I was drawn to cooking. It’s so tactile, with a lot of room for creative problem-solving.
Q: Tell us about your first culinary job out of school. How was that first experience?
A: I did work for my parent’s restaurant occasionally in high school, but that was a totally different environment. My first "real" kitchen job was while I was in culinary school on an externship. It was incredibly challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally but I do think it was an invaluable and formative experience. I knew that it would be very hard and was totally prepared as I could have been going into it, but it was still insane.
Q: As a young female chef early in your career, did you feel less empowered than your male counterparts? Did you ever feel discouraged from continuing on at any point in your career?
A: Yes, and Yes. It has always been a male-dominated field. When I was a line cook, women on the savory side of the kitchen were more of a novelty than actually taken seriously. In order to fit in, I overcompensated by becoming even more crass and even more sexist than my male counterparts. I had to be better, faster and complain less than anyone else.
Q: Do you feel that the culinary industry is dominated by males?
A: It is definitely changing, but not quite as much as I would expect by now. I’d say the media has a big part to play in this. Men are allowed to be intellectual, technique-driven, or edgy, bad-boy chefs. For the most part, women chefs that have been awarded any sort of acclaim tend to be labeled as nurturing or comforting in their cooking.
Q: What made you decide to open your restaurant, Kachka?
A: We opened Kachka because we felt that there were not any establishments in the U.S. that shared the food I grew up eating in a positive light. We wanted to change the narrative and help put the cuisine on the map.
Q: What have been some of your biggest challenges working in this industry?
A: Kachka is a concept that is outside of the status quo, and we have a hell of a time getting the media world and everyday consumers to give our cuisine a chance. The first restaurant review we had was a 3-star review (quite excellent), and the headline for the article was “Restaurant’s Russian fare is scary good.” Because the reviewer couldn’t believe that this cuisine could actually be good—such a slap in the face. And we continue to get this sort of backhanded compliment nine years in.
Q: What would you consider one of the proudest moments in your career that helped others see your abilities?
A: Numerous accolades, publishing a cookbook. I think the one most proud moment was making the NYT food section cover article in 2018. I used to religiously read the Wednesday food section, and to be on the front cover was a really special moment.
Q: What advice would you give someone who feels like an underdog in a competitive industry?
A: There is nothing magical here. Hard work and perseverance are 99% of the equation. The people who want it more tend to get it.
A Brighter Future for Female Chefs
Despite being subjected to this type of toxic work environment, female chefs have prevailed time and time again, with many graduating from these kitchens to run their own. The rise of female chefs in the U.S. has been progressively slow and steady. Still, the gap between male to female-led Michelin-starred restaurants is significant, with only 6.04% of Michelin-starred restaurants led by women. When it comes to gender equality in the culinary industry, there’s still a long way to go. Female culinary leaders like Morales are setting an example by showing others that you can lead with humanity in the kitchen and create award-winning, nationally recognized food. In our opinion, the future is looking bright for women in culinary.
To learn more about Chef Bonnie Morales and her restaurant Kachka, visit kachkapdx.com.