Women In The Food Biz

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - August 01, 2007
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Next time you go out for dinner, take a look around the restaurant or the kitchen, and make a note of how many women are working.

I sat down with a sampling of some of the hardest-working women in our food and beverage industry: Ivy Nagayama, general manager at d.k’s Steak House; Alex Kirley, director of sales and marketing for Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Romano’s Macaroni Grill; Diva Schroeder general manager at Roy’s Waikiki; Vicky Tanabe, district manager for Haagen Dazs, Dreyers and Nestle; Cheryle Gomez, general manager of Hiroshi’s; and Jackie Lau, executive corporate chef for Roy’s Restaurants, Hawaii. We talked about the their love of the industry - and the toll it can take.

As the only chef in the group, Lau had some interesting insights into being a woman in a male-dominated industry. She became an executive chef at Roy’s when she was just 23.

“At the time, I was warned not to tell anyone my age,” she recalls. “The combination of being a woman and my age would definitely have been a couple of strikes against me.”

Lau has been asked to leave the kitchen by a famous chef who didn’t believe she could possibly be experienced enough, she’s been frequently ignored, and she’s had to work longer and harder than most of her male colleagues.

Schroeder agrees that the hours are long and that holidays are something that don’t exist for restaurant families. “It’s a way of life,” she says of her 26 years in the industry.

For Gomez, holidays are something that have become flexible. “Thanksgiving is always on a Saturday at my house,” she says, cheerfully. “My family adjusted, because this is the career I chose.”

And family decisions take on a new dimension. Having children, taking long maternity breaks and juggling late nights and early school runs make for physically demanding routines.

Nagayama knows this as well as anyone. “Part of the reason I got married later in my career is that I saw the toll that this industry takes on women as mothers,” she says.

With mostly male colleagues, who often have less demands on their family time, women agree that to be competitive and to get to top positions sacrifice is something you have to accept.

For Kirley, mother of a 2-year-old, her prominent position is something that brings its own pressures. “I must be crazy,” she admits, “but I didn’t take any maternity leave when Matthew was born ... now that I think about it, I wouldn’t recommend it, but I just didn’t want to lose momentum and let anything go.”

Tanabe agrees. “I still wake up at 3 a.m. and fire off e-mails or take care of things that I might have left undone,” she says.

And how about respect? “Well, recently one of the chefs called me ‘auntie,’” says Lau, “and I was shocked. I don’t remember hearing anyone call Roy ‘uncle.’”

All agree that TV reality shows and the Food Network have played a part in glamorizing the

industry. “TV is not real,” says Lau. “My average day is 17 hours. Holidays are out. Weekends are out. No one’s going home for Christmas.”

Here’s the advice that everyone agreed upon. Set a goal and don’t give up.

“As a woman, you have a lot to offer a restaurant team,” says Nagayama. “You’re as good as all those guys - and probably better!”

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