Paris is the birthplace of haute cuisine—but also of a culinary culture that has largely kept women out of the spotlight. Until now.
5 women wearing aprons and chefs coats
Credit: Contra Agency / Jill Officer

The culinary importance of Paris is legendary. But beneath the veneer of its Michelin-starred establishments is an industry that has long been exclusively male. We talk to some of the fierce women chefs at the forefront of this progress in Paris.

The traditional kitchen hierarchy, called the brigade system, was created by the 19th-century French chef ­Auguste Escoffier, inspired by his military experience. The culture it engendered—ranging from tough to toxic—has remained virtually unchanged for more than 100 years and has been exported worldwide, influencing restaurants as much as (if not more than) French food has. It's easy to see why women trying to rise in the culinary world have faced challenges, but that's changing as global attitudes toward women evolve.

Meet the Chefs

(Left to right)

Daniela Lavadenz owns and manages Le Saint Sébastien, a contemporary restaurant that's steadily gaining acclaim.

Amandine Pastourel is head sommelier at Chef Anne-Sophie Pic's Michelin-starred La Dame de Pic.

Fanny Herpin helmed Alain Ducasse's Allard bistro at 26 and is now sous-chef at 3-Michelin-starred restaurant Epicure at Le Bristol.

Anna Trattles and Alice Quillet are co-owners of and head chef and baker at 10 Belles bakery and café.

EW: What was it like coming up in this industry?

Herpin: I was truly the only girl in the kitchen. And when I was first hired, I'd hear jokes, or people talking behind my back.

Pastourel: Early on, I actually got denied a sommelier job. The owners wanted the only woman on the floor to be the hostess. They technically don't have the right to do that, of course. I was feeling good about my chances, but then during the interview, they said, 'Nope, not possible.'

Trattles: I started in London working under two male chefs, and there were definitely many more females in restaurant kitchens there than in France. It took quite a while for it to catch up here.

Quillet: Everything happens later in France.

Did it feel like a boys' club?

Pastourel: Yes. It helped that I was a bit of a tomboy growing up, but it was difficult being the young little thing in a kitchen filled with men. I felt apprehensive and had a fear over how things might go—am I going to come across men who think it's unacceptable for women to be in kitchens? Still, I always had the mentality that women can do whatever men can. If I had to carry crates, I carried crates. And I think that earned me respect.

Lavadenz: I felt like I had to do three times more work to prove myself. Every day I would go in three hours earlier than everyone else.

Herpin: Even if the work is not more difficult, it can feel different. At one big-name restaurant, during these hour-long, deep-cleans of the kitchen, I wasn't allowed to join the men. It was so bizarre. One day I picked up the brush and they were like, 'Oh, no, that's not your job.' I was a girl, so I couldn't scrub the stovetop. Instead I was told to organize the fridge.

Is the kitchen still gendered like that now?

Quillet: There's still an attitude that women are expected to behave like men, and if they want to get ahead, they just have to be one of the guys.

Lavadenz: I've heard of women ripping speakers out of the wall, knocking things over in the kitchen just to be heard. I've never had to do that. I've always talked like this, like I'm calmly talking right now, and it works.

Quillet: Delivery guys will come into the kitchen and go, 'All good, girls?' and then they look at the one man and say, 'How's it going, Chef?'

Pastourel: Yeah, I've had male clients who did not want to be served by me. When I was working in one cellar, a man came in wanting advice. I asked if I could help, and the first thing he said to me was, 'But you're a woman.'

How have you challenged this mentality?

Pastourel: I don't fight with people who are set in their ways. It's a waste of energy. If a man doesn't want my advice, I'll find a man to help him. And maybe he'll just get worse advice.

Trattles: I point out that just because there's a man in the kitchen doesn't mean that he's the boss. You should come to me—I'm the one who placed the order and I'm the boss.

Quillet: We had a male intern who made a joke about how girly pastry was and we were like, 'You're saying girly in a negative way.' He was surprised because he'd never been told that he couldn't say stuff like that. He realized that 10 Belles wasn't the kind of place where you could get away with those kinds of comments.

So what are the changes you've seen for female Parisian chefs?

Herpin: Before, most French women were cooking as housewives. But the position of women in society in general is evolving. Today, women have careers and families. Plus, they see that there are more and more women chefs. They see that Anne-Sophie Pic, for example, is Michelin-starred and they say, 'It's possible.'

Pastourel: And Pascaline Le­peltier won Best Sommelier in France last year. We're fortunate to now have great women showing what we can do—and shutting some people up, as well. These women are inspiring. I never imagined myself as the chef sommelière at a Michelin-starred restaurant at 28, but I'm very happy, because it means that all the work I've done has paid off, and even when I reach my goals, there's still more to achieve.

Trattles: And statistics show that half of the students at culinary schools in France are now female. So that's definitely a change.

Herpin: I also think that the ­belittling that still happens in the industry is accentuated by the environment. We work long hours and we still have that army structure: "Yes, Chef," and all that. But there's more awareness of this and conditions are improving.

How are you pushing this ­progress forward?

Herpin: When I was chef at ­Allard, I tried to really be available and listen to the young women, without getting overly personal. I know that when I see someone who's having a hard time, I try to help.

Pastourel: I'll always help a woman who wants to come work or get an internship. I'm not going to go find her and drag her up, but I'll always lend a hand.

Quillet: It's important for women to be outspoken about bad behavior, because the more that happens, the more things are going to change.

Lavadenz: Of course there are a lot of women at all restaurant levels who are speaking up—who want to be heard. I think you've met quite a few of us—and that's what's making the difference.

Read more about chefs making a difference, check out our 2019 EatingWell American Food Heroes.

Oui, Chef | EatingWell September 2019