Sacramento's top female chefs dish on why a woman's place is in the kitchen

Forget Betty Crocker—local women chefs talk food, the ’pink ghetto' and breaking into the good ol' boys club

Chefs Rachel Kelley (left) of Revolution Wines and Carina Lampkin of Blackbird Kitchen & Beer Gallery plan to launch a Sacramento pop-up dining series showcasing “badass NorCal bitches.”

Chefs Rachel Kelley (left) of Revolution Wines and Carina Lampkin of Blackbird Kitchen & Beer Gallery plan to launch a Sacramento pop-up dining series showcasing “badass NorCal bitches.”

photo by taras garcia

On her right arm, Rachel Kelley wears a tattoo of a tank.

The executive chef at Revolution Wines leads a team of six young men, and sometimes, she likes to embarrass them.

“Whenever that happens, I kiss my bicep,” she says, laughing. “So I just figured it’d look a lot tougher if I had a tank on it.”

She also has guns on her hips, a sushi master on her back and a pastry pinup chef on her side. She stretches her T-shirt around to reveal glimpses as she struts up and down the winery’s aisles of casks in ripped, checker-print jeans.

Kelley certainly knows her way around a kitchen, but there is one missing element in her résumé: She’s never worked for a female chef.

She’s one of a handful of female head chefs in Sacramento. Nationwide, most men and women agree that restaurant kitchens are still male-dominated.

“The physical demands of the kitchen are not so insurmountable that women can’t do it,” says Rick Mahan, chef and owner of The Waterboy. “But we’re talking about an industry that has been for a very long time, and will probably continue to be for a very long time, a boys club.”

Just look to the James Beard Foundation Awards, a.k.a. the Oscars of food. The 2014 awards are announced in May, but 265 semifinalists were recently revealed, and about 17 percent are women or partnerships between men and women. Consistently since 2008, between two and four awards out of 13 categories have gone to female chefs.

Many of Sacramento’s most well-known chefs are, indeed, men. Adam Pechal of Tuli Bistro Group was featured on the reality TV competition The Taste, Michael Thiemann of Mother once worked for celebrity chef Tyler Florence. Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s B&L is cooking at the prestigious James Beard House this week.

So, are women not getting attention, or are there just not very many of them? Census data suggests the latter—in Sacramento County, more than 90 percent of chefs are men.

Think back to Sacramento Bacon Fest in January. The grand finale was a throwdown among 13 premier local chefs. Kelley was the lone woman, and the only chef with female cooks in tow. And she finished on top with Best Dish.

“I didn’t really come in with a plan. I just brought ingredients I like to work with,” she says.

Those ingredients created a comforting, balanced plate of wine-braised bacon, Brussels sprouts, king trumpet mushrooms and thinly sliced apples, all over melted Brie on brioche.

“When I put it on the plate, I thought, ’Yeah,’” she shrugs and nods a few times. “’That’s what I do.’”

Kelley may talk about her accomplishments casually, but achieving chef status is no small feat—especially when going against a pervasively masculine kitchen environment, a stereotype that women belong in pastry and common pressures to start a family.

“I just work twice as hard as everyone else,” she says.

Kitchen culture

When Kelley was working her way through restaurants, she faced a frustrating pattern. Despite a résumé full of grill and saute experience, she got placed at salads every time she applied to a new restaurant.

“I would try not to get my feelings hurt by that kind of stuff,” she says. “A lot of women have to fight for what they want in their jobs.”

There is a silver lining: “I can make salads in my sleep now.”

Not only has Kelley never worked for a female chef, but she’s rarely worked alongside female cooks. It adds up with the most recent census data—the Equal Employment Opportunity Tabulation for 2006-2010—which shows that 58 percent of cooks in the country, and 60.9 percent in Sacramento County, are men.

The numbers are far more striking when it comes to chefs. Nationally, more than 80 percent are men, and locally, that number jumps to 91.8 percent. That means Kelley is one of about 100 female head cooks in Sacramento County.

And at 30, she might seem young for an executive chef, but Kelley has been through plenty of restaurants. She’s tackled bread-making at The Bread Store, steak at Harris’ steakhouse in San Francisco, sushi at the now-shuttered Dragonfly downtown, and pastry at Ella Dining Room & Bar. She took on the steakhouse job while attending the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco full time—she’s still paying off loans.

Landing at Revolution about a year-and-a-half ago made it all worth it, she says. Her kitchen is tiny, with two ovens and induction burners, but the place feels like home. And she still manages to churn out elegant plates all day to pair with Revolution’s wines: bruschetta with chevre, pickled beets and tarragon; mussels with crispy bacon, red onion, chili flakes and white wine; and the ever popular “French BLT,” house-cured bacon, apple, Brie and caramelized onions on baguette. On Friday nights, the tasting room swarms with regulars eager for Revolution’s $15 wine-and-entree special—syrah paired with seared duck breast over potato puree, Brussels sprouts and satsuma reduction was a recent offering.

“I fell in love,” she says. “It’s a family here. Everyone looks out for each other.”

Talking about other kitchens takes her out of her blissed-out cheese-and-wine zone. Most restaurants kitchens are a little rough. She says she recalls seeing sexual harassment in the past, though she never experienced it personally.

“I’ve always easily fit in as one of the guys,” she says, absentmindedly stroking a skull necklace her mom made. “It wasn’t hard for me to adapt to the dirty jokes and the arm punches.”

Kitchens can be lewd, grimy places—though Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co.’s Brian Mizner says it’s not just because of their male-dominated nature.

“There are jokes and brashness you wouldn’t hear in a normal workplace, but the girls are no better than the guys,” Mizner says.

Hours are long—many chefs cite working at least 12 hours a day—and pay is rarely substantial. According to the most recent census data, 51 percent of chefs in Sacramento County earn less than $25,000 per year, and 35.4 percent earn between $25,000 and $50,000. Combined with the constant pressure, some say being a chef is, understandably, less than desirable for a lot of women.

“When service is happening, you’re in charge of 25 employees, 100 plates and 100 experiences,” says Carina Lampkin, chef and owner of Blackbird Kitchen & Beer Gallery. “Everything depends on how good that executive chef is at managing stress.”

Lampkin worked her way through several San Francisco establishments—most notably as sous chef at Bar Crudo under Selvera Enterprises, but also at other kitchens belonging to The Absinthe Group and The Slanted Door Group. She recounts working the grill station at Range, once a Michelin-starred restaurant, and calls it a nightmare.

“I got a little man trip in there,” she says. “The boys beat up on you and make sure you can rumble with them. But you just have to be a tough-ass bitch to work in the kitchen.”

Lampkin laughs. With her hair half-buzzed, half-spiked straight in the air, she certainly looks tough.

“Maybe most women just don’t feel like fighting.”

Pink ghetto and chef flight

At Ella Dining Room & Bar, Kelley started out at the pantry station—salads, cold dishes, dessert plating. From there, she was recruited to be the restaurant’s assistant pastry chef—even though she had no prior experience or real ambition for it—and when the chef above her left a month later, the position fell to Kelley. She became what she affectionately calls “a pastry girl.”

Kelley doesn’t think she was approached to join Ella’s pastry staff simply because she’s a woman. But she acknowledged that all of the pastry-assistant applicants she interviewed happened to be women, and if there were any other women in kitchens she’s worked at in the past, they typically tended to the pastry corner.

Ella’s current pastry chef, Jane Anderson, says she was drawn to the science and creativity of desserts as well as the high stakes—it’s a last chance to wow people. And she certainly does. Her vanilla bean pavlova—meringue with a crisp shell and a light, lush center—is an ideal way to end a rich meal, elegantly plated with seasonal fruit. But Anderson’s work is playful, too. Her pot de crème tastes like childhood—buttery, spiced cookie dough with milk crumbs and gooey, toasted marshmallows. And she manages to turn the humble doughnut into a light, comforting, whimsical treat year-round.

“I think pastry requires a certain finesse that a lot of women naturally do have,” she says. “I hear a lot of men say, ’I don’t have the patience for what you do.’”

Anderson sweated the line for about five years—Thunder Valley Casino Resort, Paragary’s Bar & Oven, Mason’s—before finding her way to the “pink ghetto” of the kitchen.

“I needed a break from the [chaos] of the line,” she says. “It takes a certain breed of person to work in kitchens. You really need tough skin, which isn’t easy for some women. … I worked my ass off to earn the respect of the guys around me. In past jobs, I’ve had guys tell me they didn’t want to learn from me because I was a girl.”

She stops, laughs and sighs. “They didn’t last long.”

While Anderson abandoned the line—and potentially a shot at executive-chef status—for Sacramento pastry stardom, she doesn’t represent the masses. Many of Sacramento’s culinary students don’t land in local restaurants at all.

At the nation’s oldest, most elite culinary college, The Culinary Institute of America, the number of female students is higher than ever before—they now make up about 47 percent of the student body. Meanwhile, the local outpost of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts enrolls a class that’s typically 40 to 45 percent female, and The Art Institute of California in Sacramento has maintained a class that’s roughly 65 percent female since its culinary program started five years ago.

Jane Anderson abandoned the line for Sacramento pastry-chef stardom at Ella Dining Room & Bar.

Photo by taras garcia

Kathie Griley, culinary director at the Art Institute of California–Sacramento, points to the increasing popularity of cooking shows as a source of inspiration for women.

“The Food Network has blown up our industry a bit,” she says. “It highlights successful women chefs, and it gives young women confidence to enter a traditionally male-dominated world.”

But many of the female graduates who do decide to pursue their chef dreams leave Sacramento, according to Griley. They go to San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City—cities that are, perhaps, more forward-thinking. Plus, she adds, the influx of female students doesn’t necessarily translate to an influx of female cooks, regardless of location.

“A lot of culinary students come in and start networking and realize there are other jobs in food service apart from being a chef,” Griley says. “It’s a personal choice of investment.”

Some discover food styling, food photography or food writing, for example. Meanwhile, some women who do work as restaurant cooks find a way out after a few years. Mizner says he knows women who have gone on to organizational aspects or catering.

“Females manage their time more wisely than men, while we don’t even think about it,” he says, citing his own 16-hour days, sometimes six days a week. “Females are more creative. I think they find a more thoughtful way to go about the food business.”

Mizner counts three women among his kitchen staff of 15—one is his daytime sous chef and “a total badass.” And he’s worked under a female chef, Ame Harrington, at L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen. Harrington has since moved on to catering.

Sylvanna Mislang also worked on the line at L Wine Lounge under Harrington as well as Blackbird Kitchen & Bar under Lampkin. She says she learned loads from both women, but she’s done with restaurants.

“I don’t feel the need to be in a kitchen environment anymore with all that hustle and bustle,” she says. “What I’m doing now is my own speed.”

Currently, she works a 5 a.m. produce shift at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op—a position she’s enjoyed for nine years—and puts on vegan pop-up dinners twice a month under the moniker The Roaming Spoon. She’s no longer a chef—she calls herself a “culinaire”—but says she hasn’t missed the headache of restaurants. Now, she’s able to focus all her creative energy on one dinner a couple times a month, elevating vegan food—no animal products of any kind, even honey—into modern, interesting four-course meals. Think kiwi tartare with capers, radish, endive and dots of smoked aioli; or an icy carrot and ginger granita.

Her relationships with local farmers allow her to harvest right before meals. Then she brings a campfire stove to different locations around town and serves 12 diners. And in such an intimate setting, she says she actually feels connected to her diners.

“Sometimes I’ll get applauded when I bring out a dish. And I’m like, ’Oh my God, you’re all so amazing,’” she says.

Family matters

It’s no coincidence that Kelley and Lampkin don’t have children. A high-stress job with long hours is difficult enough without adding kids to the mix, and they say they have no plans to ever start families.

Wendi Mentink, executive chef at Bidwell Street Bistro for 13 years, says she’s never had a serious enough relationship to even think about having kids, which in her view, is a relief.

“I am grateful I didn’t have to face that decision,” she says. “I’ve been a career girl. I never got the family, but I got the career.”

As most families still operate traditionally, many women usually feel in charge of the child care. This is inevitable, Mahan says, so many female cooks opt for a more balanced life.

“You look at high-profile female chefs in California, and they rarely had children. If they did, it was later in their careers,” he says, citing Suzanne Goin of Lucques and A.O.C. in Los Angeles, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustards Grill in Yountville. “If you’re going to run a restaurant, make a name for yourself and stay relevant, you need to make choices.”

Griley is another example. She worked in restaurants for years, but says she ultimately left for a job with more normal hours when she had a son.

“He was with day care more than he was with me,” she says. “The industry puts stress on personal relationships, and biologically, we’re at a disadvantage. It’s a sacrifice.”

It can be done though, Kelley emphasizes by pointing to her own boss at Revolution, Gina Genshlea. As an owner, Genshlea endures long hours, often seven days a week. And she has three kids—the youngest is 9 years old.

“The business feels like it’s having six more kids sometimes,” she says. “It’s like double the work, and it can be really stressful.”

That was never the plan, though. Her husband was supposed to take the lead, and she was going to work part time and otherwise remain a stay-at-home mom. But the business needed her, and she started working full time just six months after opening. Genshlea would walk around with a kid in one arm and a box of wine bottles in the other. Luckily, the children liked playing in the cellar, splashing in water-filled barrels in the summertime.

Perhaps, Lampkin says, Sacramento in particular has a dearth of prominent women chefs because it’s such a family-oriented town.

“It’s not at all like San Francisco,” she recalls. “No one even wants to get into a relationship there.”

Lampkin has a unique perspective on family matters in kitchens that has nothing to do with children. Last fall, her family-owned restaurant Blackbird Kitchen & Bar closed abruptly—and notoriously. Her staff was let go immediately in a breezy email, which she says was sent out by another family member under her name.

She opened the new restaurant in late February. Now, she admits that the former restaurant was overly ambitious and improperly managed, and she has new, nonfamilial partners taking the financial reigns.

“Who doesn’t have a little family drama? I think going forward, me and my family are cool now,” she says.

Lampkin pauses to take a bite of bright, citrusy cheesecake that her mother, present for prelaunch moral support, pulled out of the oven earlier. Lampkin comes from a food family—they owned a commercial bakery in New York before transplanting to Auburn—and is thusly loud, colorful and passionate about an excellent dessert.

“Mom!” the 32-year-old yells across the restaurant. “This cheesecake is fucking bomb!”

‘We want people to know we’re here’

For Mahan, Sacramento has fewer female chefs than cities like Seattle, Chicago and New York City because it isn’t as established of a culinary destination.

“We’ve made great strides in the past 10 or 15 years, but we’re still reasonably immature,” he says. “I think you will see more women leading kitchens as our restaurant scene develops.”

Mentink says there’s been significant progress—just 10 years ago, she feels men had a difficult time sharing space with women, who were brushed off to pastry or pantry.

“That’s where the females belonged,” she says.

Mulvaney echoed Mentink’s sentiments. But these days, he says, the idea that there’s a lack of women in kitchens is largely the media’s fault.

“Someone took a snapshot and tried to get what the whole world was like with that one snapshot,” he says.

Granted, Mulvaney worked under multiple female chefs and admits his experience—like every person’s experience—is unique.

“My mentors and guideposts have largely been women,” he says. “But it’s probably not as unusual as [media] portrayals make it out to be.”

Those guideposts are Leslie Revsin, the very first female chef at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City; Madeleine Kamman, iconic French chef, educator and author; and Roxsand Scocos, chef of RoxSand in Phoenix, Ariz. They all put their stamp on Mulvaney, as well as countless other chefs across the country.

And, likewise, a number of women have put their own stamps on Sacramento over the years—Pat Murakami of the once-influential Chinois East-West and now Ambrosia Cafe & Catering; Biba Caggiano of Biba Restaurant; Molly Hawks of Hawks Restaurant in Granite Bay; Teresa Urkofsky, formerly of Paragary’s and currently an instructor at American River College; Mai Pham of Lemon Grass; and Nancy Selland of Selland’s Market-Cafe.

“In the kitchen, we don’t care about issues of gender as much as issues of confidence,” Mulvaney says. “At the end of the day, the person in charge is the chef—gender neutral.”

Still, women notice the dynamics even if they aren’t talking about it on a regular basis. Lampkin even says she and Kelley have been discussing a pop-up series to, in part, raise awareness about the local gender disparity in restaurant kitchens. It won’t enter the planning stages until Lampkin is more settled at her new Blackbird Kitchen, but there is a working title: Renegade Rebel Girls.

“We want to showcase our few lady chefs, our badass NorCal bitches,” Lampkin says. “We want people to know we’re here.”

Many chefs say they’re noticing more young women on the line in Sacramento restaurants—perhaps times are changing—and they have some advice: Don’t take “no” for an answer, work harder than everyone else and learn to shit talk.

In the end, it’s about skill, talent and a committed work ethic, says Mentink.

“If you go into a job and you kick ass, nobody is going to question your gender.”