4 Women Chefs Reflect on the Challenges and Passion Needed For Their Jobs
Most of the cooking in a majority of households (in the not so distant past) was done by women. So why are there still so few professional female chefs? I spoke with four women who chose cooking as a career and now work as professional chefs in Northeast Wisconsin. They range in ages and work experiences from the 1980s to contemporary culinary graduates. Their answers provide some insight and advice for women considering becoming a professional chef.
Lorie Zilles, a young female chef at Plae Bistro in Green Bay, said she was shocked when she first arrived at culinary school in Minneapolis. In her class of 30 only five were girls.
“Before I moved, I was living in a small town, and in my immediate family, the women did all the cooking. So when I went to school I was quite surprised at how many men were there,” Zilles said. “In a small town it was mostly women doing any of the cooking.”
When she graduated eight years ago the statistics changed. The class had dwindled to 15 boys; all fi ve of the girls stayed with it.
“I became close with the girls in my class and we thought it was funny that only the guys dropped out of school,” she said.
That may be because it is a totally different world between cooking at home and in a restaurant.
“At home you are relaxed; in a restaurant, it’s almost a total opposite,” she said. “It’s fast-paced and hectic. You have to perform at your fastest pace at all times and you are multitasking in every aspect. To succeed you have to want it; you have to love it and want to be there. If you don’t have that, you’ll never survive.”
Helping people enjoy food was a common ingredient also driving Terri Milligan of Sister Bay, to become a culinary instructor more than 25 years ago. Back in 1989 when cooking channels became popular, Milligan branched out from catering high-end dinner parties to teach cooking skills. She already trained with a well-respected French/Belgian chef Madame Liane Kuony’s Postillion Great House in Milwaukee.
Milligan pushed her way through barriers even in a large metropolitan area like Milwaukee. “I was the lone woman in the kitchens. There weren’t really even many line cooks that were women,” she said. “It was more of a man’s world. It evolved like any profession, but still in major restaurants you find more men.”
In 1993, Milligan and her husband moved from the Milwaukee area and opened their own restaurant, The Inn at Kristofers in Sister Bay.
“When we opened that first year, the male sales reps for food vendors would walk right by me to talk to my husband, Chris,” she said. “I know at that point I was the only female head chef of a restaurant in Door County. The reps all thought I was the hostess.”
Her husband would redirect them back her way so she could place her supply order. The Milligans sold the fine dining restaurant in 2012 and she continues to conduct classes. But she has seen an evolution of women cooking professionally.
“Now, we have not only more women in kitchens,” she said, “but there are more new female chefs trained through culinary schools. It’s easy to get the talent these days.”
“It was always a male-dominated profession,” said Susan Guthrie, a chef, who with her husband, owns the Bluefront Cafe in Sturgeon Bay. “It’s very demanding physically and I think the time constraints of having a family and raising kids would not allow for nights and weekends and all that’s involved. That’s gradually changed but it’s still difficult for women who have to juggle a family and restaurant career.”
Guthrie’s odyssey with cooking began in the 1980s after graduating from a small liberal arts college in Iowa. She took time off to travel and visit friends, landing in New Orleans with a waitressing job at the Royal Sonesta Hotel.
“I was always more interested in what was going on in the kitchen — it was a passion of mine,” she said. “The chef was surprised. Usually people don’t go from the front of the house to the back.”
Those early years working in a kitchen at an upscale hotel was a good place to learn, she said. When a new restaurant rebuilt a replica of the Eiffel Tower on St. Charles Avenue, she took on learning from a French chef. There she decided to take the job seriously, spending a year at a culinary school in a city with the real Eiffel Tower. Only one class was in English.
In France at that time, she said, women were starting to take an interest. But there were few. “There weren’t any women in the French kitchens I went into,” Guthrie said. “I was skeptically received. It was a very male-dominated world.”
How did she handle pushing through it?
“I was oblivious to it and got what I could out of it,” she said.
She stayed long enough to learn the appreciation the French have for food — instead of the fast-paced American style.
“Food is a pleasure in life, not just something to sustain you,” she said.
Her passion for food also took her to Thailand and England and back to the States working as a chef at the Ritz in Chicago. Her travels account for an eclectic menu she and her chef husband, Patrick Barbercheck, created when they opened their own restaurant in Door County. Guthrie said it is easier now that more women are going to culinary school and are in businesses of their own. But, she said, it takes a little courage.
“You had to power through until they saw your work was serious and you put out a quality product,” she said.
A generation younger and closer to home, Kari Mueller, the pastry chef at SAP in Appleton, found it a bit easier to enter the profession. Mueller started culinary school right after high school at Fox Valley Technical Institute. She was one of three girls in a class of about 17.
“I never felt I was beneath anyone,” she said. “Everyone was respectful.”
She considers herself lucky with at least three advantages: her mother (Ann Schoening) is a gourmet cook and taught her all the right stuff; she worked at a country club that paid for her training so she could afford to work and learn through the three-year program; and the last 10 years she has been working with a family who has female chefs and owners.
“My boss, Larry DeFranza, has been a real inspiration,” she said. “He gives me a lot of room to be creative and do whatever I want and make it possible.”
DeFranza, an Italian family, runs Carmella’s Bistro and also SAP in Appleton. When Mueller worked at Carmella’s prior to SAP, she saw the entrance of more female chefs. Out of seven line chefs, five were women.
Even so, Mueller cautioned, it requires a certain mindset.
“You have to be mentally strong,” she said. “Every woman I work with has a strong personality. It’s a stressful environment and you do get let down sometimes. If something doesn’t come out right you may have to do it over until you get it right. There’s a lot of pressure to be done at a certain time. It’s an intense environment.”
Both male and female chefs are working side-by- side so there are no ‘passes’ for anyone. How does she cope?
“If you have to cry, you just hide — walk in the cooler,” she laughs.
In the past, Mueller and other chefs noted, women didn’t want to be away from their families to work 55-60 hours a week, not unusual for a chef. Plus, it’s very competitive and cooking for people other than your family can be difficult.
“You can’t let it bother you–whether you think someone else may or may not like it,” she said. “You can’t please everybody.”
So what advice do these seasoned chefs have today?
“Any woman or man who wants to go into the field should start with a restaurant they think is great,” Milligan said. “And don’t go in thinking you’re going to become a line chef right away.” Restaurateur Guthrie also advised to first get as much experience as possible.
“On the job is the best way,” she said. “You really have to have a passion to make the long hours and labor worthwhile.”
Zilles said women entering the field should not be discouraged.
“Don’t think you can’t do it, but you also have to want it,” she said. “It can be very stressful. If you can’t handle the stress, you’ll never succeed.”
Mueller also advised women not to give up. “Don’t let anybody put you down. Don’t be intimidated. Believe in yourself,” she urged. “If you have the passion, you can do anything.”
“You have to be mentally strong … Every
woman I work with has a strong personality.”
— Kari Mueller
Bio: Kari Mueller
From Appleton, Mueller began her culinary training right out of high school working at a local country club while completing the three-year culinary apprenticeship program at Fox Valley Technical School. After school, she moved to Sarasota, Florida, and worked at a seafood restaurant and then a vegetarian restaurant in Chicago. She returned home to the Fox Valley and has worked with Larry DeFranza of Carmella’s in Appleton for the last 10 years. (DeFranza branched out from his popular Italian bistro, opening SAP in Appleton). Mueller is an executive chef and does some cooking, but now does all the baking at SAP.
Bio: Terri Milligan
From Hammond, Indiana, Milligan’s early career was in communications. After graduation from college in Milwaukee, she opened her own consulting firm specializing in nonprofits. At the same time, she decided she wanted a creative outlet with food and started catering dinner parties and began teaching culinary classes at the Boelter Companies showroom in Milwaukee. Her culinary training was at the Postillion Great House in Milwaukee with Madame Liane Kuony.
In 1993 she and her husband moved to Door County, opening a fine dining restaurant, The Inn at Kristophers, in Sister Bay. Milligan was the executive chef of their restaurant which garnered high acclaim locally and nationally and was featured in several magazines and the Food Network. She also conducted cooking classes in the second story of the restaurant and continued presenting culinary classes in the Milwaukee area. After almost 20 years as a restaurateur, the thriving restaurant was sold in 2012. Milligan continued conducting culinary classes throughout the Midwest and demonstrates cooking at various events in Door County, the Fox Valley and the Milwaukee Public Market. As Chef Terri Milligan, LLC, she works as a product spokesperson and is also a feature food writer for several publications including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Edible Door.
Bio: Lorie Zilles
From Antigo, Zilles developed a passion for food watching her mother make everything from scratch. As a young child she would stand on a chair and make scrambled eggs for her sisters. She told her high school guidance counselor she knew she wanted to become a chef and work in that profession the rest of her life. She studied at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute of Minneapolis, graduating eight years ago. Zilles stayed in Minneapolis working as a chef at a five-star restaurant and also worked as a sous chef at a golf course/banquet facility. Added to that mix, she married and has two children. She is an executive chef at Plae Bistro in Green Bay.
Bio: Susan Guthrie
From Peoria, Illinois, Guthrie graduated from a small liberal arts college in Iowa with a degree in religious studies. After school she traveled, ending up in New Orleans, waitressing at first but always more interested in what was going on in the kitchen. She cut her teeth in the kitchen of the Royal Sonesta Hotel for six years then began cooking with the French chef who opened Le Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel on St. Charles Avenue. She decided to go to culinary school for a program in France and lived in Paris for a year, attending Ferrandi, a French technical school. While there, she completed an internship at Le Bristol Paris, a five-star luxury hotel. Besides New Orleans and Paris she has traveled and worked in kitchens of France, England, Thailand and Chicago. While working as a chef at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago, she met her husband, Patrick Barbercheck, who is also a chef.
After vacationing in Door County, the couple decided northeast Wisconsin would be a good place to raise a family and saw a niche in the market for something more than a usual supper club. They opened The Bluefront Cafe in Sturgeon Bay in 2002 where Susan continues to work as coowner and chef of this very successful restaurant.