Women chefs bust open “boys club” in Colorados restaurant, food truck industry

Christine Ruch, executive chef and owner of Fresh Thymes Eatery in Boulder, knows her way around a restaurant. She put herself through college by working front-of-house positions, then eventually joined the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.

She described the restaurant industry’s culture in the 1980s and 1990s as “very toxic,” recalling the prevalence of drug use, alcoholism and yelling. “I’ve been shunned from kitchens just because I’m a female,” Ruch said in a telephone interview.

With so few female chefs to serve as role models at the time, “I never really saw that in me,” she said, adding that “a lot of female chefs are trained by men because that’s your only choice.”

Despite the hurdles, Ruch and some of her peers persevered through low pay, long hours, sexist coworkers and more to slowly change the restaurant industry’s culture. The Denver culinary scene has witnessed this evolution, with women running some of the most prestigious kitchens in the metropolitan area. Both Caroline Glover of Annette in Aurora and Dana Rodriguez of Work & Class in Denver were recently nominated as James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards finalists in the Mountain Region category.

After having children, Ruch went on to take gigs as a personal and private chef, on top of teaching culinary courses. Then, she experienced “a big game changer for the trajectory of things”: being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease impacting the central nervous system, and celiac disease, an immune reaction to eating gluten.

Ruch graduated from Bauman College culinary school, and began teaching there, gradually taking over its culinary department. In August 2013, she opened Fresh Thymes, featuring a 100% gluten-free menu with vegan, vegetarian, paleo and keto options.

Among the obstacles she’s faced, Ruch pointed to “not being taken seriously because you’re a woman,” adding that she experienced the same attitudes for lacking a formal culinary degree and not running a fine-dining establishment. “Suddenly, you’re just sort of completely shunned from the industry.”

Still, her restaurant presented an opportunity to put her learnings around political science and women’s studies into practice by hiring a diverse workforce, supporting small businesses and creating relationships within the local food economy.

Would she do it all again? “I won’t ever stop doing it,” Ruch said.

Culinary history celebrates a multitude of famous male chefs: Think Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck. Although Julia Child and Rachael Ray have paved the way for women by cooking on television, the options for female representation have been limited until recent years for those aspiring to work professionally in kitchens.

The U.S. restaurant industry made $799 billion in sales last year, and employed 14.5 million workers, according to the National Restaurant Association. The group also found in a 2019 survey that 61% of adult women said they’d worked in the restaurant industry at some point during their lives.

However, about 77% of chefs and head cooks identify as men, with 58% of cooks also being male, according to Data USA, a platform using public U.S. government data that was launched by Deloitte, Datawheel and César Hidalgo, professor at the MIT Media Lab. Meanwhile, around 69% of servers are women, and food service managers are almost balanced between male and female representation.

“Aggressive sexist behavior, however, continues to be a hallmark of the male-dominated back of the house,” reports US Foods, a top American foodservice distributor.

As chefs and head cooks, men earned median weekly earnings of $777, while women only made $655, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year. Male bartenders brought in $709, but their female counterparts got $627. Servers also saw similar gender inequities with their wages, with waiters at $605 and waitresses at $524.

“I always knew the men were making more than me,” said Kelsie Berens, pastry chef and general manager of Denver’s Fox Run Cafe.

She was hit with the reality of pay disparities when, after working four years as a pastry chef at one Denver restaurant, she asked the newest line cook about his starting salary, which was “more than I had ever made.”

Chocolate chip cookies first sparked Berens’ career, as she spent her free time perfecting them after work and school. From there, she attended culinary school, then worked in bakeries and fine dining restaurants as a pastry chef.

“It’s definitely tough being in kitchens with all men,” Berens said in a telephone interview. “As a woman, you definitely have to prove yourself more.”

She pointed to “a lot of toxicity” in an industry consisting of 12-plus hour days, chefs with monstrous egos and unappreciative bosses.

“I heard this one guy say, ‘Why do they let women in kitchens?’ ” Berens said. “And I’m just sitting here like, ‘I run circles around you.’ ”

Stacia Hazlett, chef and owner of the Farmer in the Hive food truck and catering company, knows what it’s like to work in a male-dominated field. She built a 25-year career in the oil and gas industry, but eventually got burnt out.

“You don’t get any more ‘good ol’ boy’ than that,” Hazlett said in a telephone interview, but added that corporate human resources departments keep employees in line. However, in the food truck industry, “these men will tell you whatever they think.”

“It is a boys club, and they don’t let you in,” Hazlett said.

She went to culinary school, and, after deciding restaurants weren’t for her, opened the food truck. “It took off,” she said, then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Business is picking back up again, but “it’s not easy,” Hazlett added. However, “I still love it.”

She looks up to Jennifer Jasinski, a chef who runs several Denver restaurants, including Rioja, Bistro Vendôme and Stoic & Genuine.

Natascha Hess, chef and owner of the Ginger Pig in Denver, also found a female role model in Carrie Baird, a Top Chef alumna and James Beard Foundation Award nominee. “She took me under her wing, and mentored me,” Hess said in a telephone interview.

“Because I worked for a woman chef who had already kind of broken down so many barriers, and pushed her way to the top, I think I was insulated a little bit,” she added.

Hess was called to the kitchen professionally after first pursuing a career as an attorney focused on bankruptcy, divorce and criminal law. Unhappy with her job, she went in on a farm share, and cooking with fresh produce became her “meditation.”

In college, she spent time living in China, falling in love with the local cuisine and Asian street food. When she launched her own food truck in July 2016, those were the dishes she focused on recreating.

When Boulder opened its first food hall, her business occupied the Asian food stall. Hess began her search for a Denver restaurant space when COVID-19 hit in early 2020, and the Ginger Pig found a home that October.

Hess’ kitchen employs more women than men, with a female sous chef at her side, she said. Alternatively, more men work in the front of house at her restaurant.

A former women’s hockey player turned chef, Hess said gender doesn’t cross her mind often.

“Anyone who’s a good problem solver can be a good chef,” Hess said. “Very little has to do with your gender. It’s more your work ethic and your determination.”

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