Soraya Kilgore
Soraya Kilgore
Courtesy of Soraya Kilgore

Women Look for a Place at SOBEWFF 2018

Four hundred ninety-five chefs and culinary personalities will participate in the 2018 installment of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Only 75 of them are women.

It's difficult to tell, even for the female chefs involved in the festival's dozens of events, whether that number is a solid benchmark.

Across the restaurant industry, 18.7 percent of chefs and executive chefs were female in 2012, the most recent year U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics were available. That's only slightly better than the 14.9 percent of female chefs participating at this year's festival.

"Right now, it's going to be like that. I think it's going to get better, but 75 is a great place to start," says Soraya Kilgore, owner of the Design District's newly opened dessert spot MadLab Creamery. "To be honest, there are not enough women chefs in the industry."

And therein lies the rub. For generations, professional kitchens have been the artificial dominion of men. They seemingly did everything in their power to hinder women, whether they were simply turned away from professional cooking schools — as the late, great Julia Child found in Paris — or ground down by the brutality of kitchen life and its culture.

Kilgore, who will appear at the festival's Best of the Best and present a Japanese cheesecake — "It's as if angel food cake and traditional cheesecake had a baby," she says — spent the early years of her career on the savory side of the kitchen. She ascended to pastry chef while working at the Epic Hotel in Chicago. In Miami Beach, she worked at BLT Steak in the Betsy Hotel and at the Setai. More recently, she rounded out the sweet side of the menu at Alter and at Brava in the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

What can be done to increase the profile of female chefs, and draw more women into kitchens and promote environments to keep them there, is to create a better support system, one that requires the participation of men too.

"More events, more focus on women in wine, women sommeliers, and women in the kitchen," she says. "But it's definitely nuanced, and I don't think women are always kept out intentionally, but women do have to fight a little bit more to be known in the industry."

As far as the makeup of the festival and how to bring women, and chefs in general, into the fold is an imprecise art and science.

Michelle Bernstein
Michelle Bernstein
Courtesy of Brustman Carrino PR

When the inaugural edition of the festival was held more than 20 years ago, a female chef event including Michelle Bernstein, Cindy Hutson, Hedy Goldsmith, and others was one of its marquee happenings.

"As soon as all this news started breaking, we sat down and did exactly the same thing — we started counting," says festival founder and director Lee Brian Schrager, who notes he was happy with the number of women participating in this year's festival.

Yet even the bacchanal's recruiting strategy reveals the challenges facing the industry when it comes to gender equality.

"We don't look at black or white or male or female. We look to bring the best talent we can get," Schrager says.

And no doubt many of Miami's most recognizable female chefs will participate this year. From veterans such as Bernstein, Hutson, and Goldsmith (who decamped to Los Angeles but remains an honorary Miamian) to newer talents like Janine Booth, Suzy Batlle of Azúcar Ice Cream, Victoria Chediak of Poke 305, Naomi Harris, Paula DaSilva, and Adrienne Grenier.

But how to get those numbers up remains a difficult task.

"It's surprising," Ortanique on the Mile and Zest chef/owner Hutson says. "If you would've asked me to guess, I would've gone more to 150."

After a moment of meditation, however, Hutson, who will cook at the festival's Swine, Wine & Spirits, reflects on a career in kitchens — 13 restaurants opened since 1994 — and is less startled by the numbers.

"I don't sugarcoat it — it's a tough atmosphere," she says. "My language is pretty foul in the kitchen. My mother would be shocked if she heard how I speak."

That being said, Hutson notes she's seen many times, even in her own kitchens, how that harshness can be ratcheted up against a new female line cook.

"When I hired females, there were guys who would bust the women's asses and try so hard to make them fail," she recalls. "I said, 'If you're going to pull that shit when I'm the one hiring and you don't have enough respect for me to give this person a chance, then you've got to go.'"

That's the kind of change that needs to take place across the board before the public starts seeing a better representation of female chefs. Who knows how many great talents were pushed to the point of quitting by misogyny, chauvinism, and unwarranted vitriol.

Eileen AndradeEXPAND
Eileen Andrade
Courtesy of Brustman Carrino PR

Eileen Andrade, the 29-year-old wunderkind who has helped bolster West Miami-Dade's culinary credential through spots such as Finka Table & Tap and her newly opened Amelia's 1931, learned at a young age what it takes to helm kitchens.

"When I was 18 and running one of my parents' restaurants, I was managing 40- or 50-year-olds, and it could get a little awkward at times," she says. "For young female chefs, you do have to work a little bit harder to show people you're not playing around."

And it's in finding the best ways to do that work that female chefs say they can take on the bigger industry for which they've deserved for some time.

"We have a lot of ladies who are doing such a beautiful job, and we have our own locker-room discussions," Andrade says.

Yet these talks focus on what's really important: Who's doing what, who's opening what, staffing, and the nitty-gritty of running a restaurant such as keeping all the numbers in check. The stuff that matters most.

Fontainebleau Miami Beach presents Wine Spectator's Best of the Best, sponsored by Bank of America. 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday, February 23, at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $350 via sobewff.org/bob.

Goya Foods' Swine, Wine & Spirits, presented by the National Pork Board, hosted by Giorgio Rapicavoli, featuring Chefs Found in Miami. 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday, February 25, at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Tickets cost $105 via sobewff.org/latin.

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