In mid-March, Francesca Hong joined a tiny, elite group in Madison.
At 23, she became the executive chef at 43 North, one of the only women in the city to hold such a top position and the only female to oversee an upscale kitchen downtown.
43 North, 108 King St., is a contemporary American bistro and part of the Restaurant Muramoto/Sushi Muramoto restaurant group. Hong has been a member of the kitchen team since the eatery opened in October 2010.
"You do have to fight to prove yourself a little bit more," Hong said. "Even though I hate looking at it that way. I hate to think it's harder for us, but I think in the end it's true."
Women bring something different to the business — a tendency to see their restaurant as an extension of themselves and their community, a strong belief in connections to local farmers, and a focus on caring for people. They can mentor young women coming into a male-dominated field, and they're more likely to foster collaboration rather than a traditional kitchen hierarchy.
Despite a 50 percent increase in the number of female-owned restaurants in the decade between 1997 and 2007, as reported by the National Restaurant Association, women who run kitchens are still a stark minority, not even tracked by the trade association.
"When you find out why (women are) not being hired as executive chefs, please let me know," said Paul Short, who runs the culinary arts program at Madison College (MATC).
About half of the graduates from MATC's two-year culinary program are women, Short said, with "great skills." They go into wine distribution and catering, become personal chefs, deli managers and cheesemakers.
"Why they're not running top places, I'm not sure," he said. "The talent I see is incredible."
A main reason may be that families and a restaurant schedule don't mix well.
While women are increasingly the primary or co-earner for their families, they're also still the primary caregivers for children — in 2011, the census reported that nearly one in four married women with children younger than 15 stay at home with them.
"Restaurant work is so incredibly demanding," Hong said. "I've already made some sacrifices ... I want to balance career and family, and I think in the restaurant world it's getting more and more difficult to do that."
And the accolades tend to go to men. One of the highest culinary awards for chefs is given by the James Beard Foundation. Of 51 finalists this year, only seven are female.
The woman in the toque
Currently, Madison has just a handful of female executive chefs. For two years, Cory Richardson has been executive chef at Bishops Bay Country Club. Susan Hendrix co-owns and runs the kitchen at Sunprint Cafe, a breakfast and lunch place on the Capitol Square.
Melissa Strahota, a graduate of MATC's culinary program, has been executive chef at The Fountain on State Street for three months.
The staff is small and money is tight, so she's also a "line cook, a prep cook, a menu planner … I do ordering, I put everything away."
"A lot of the women I have seen don't get a foothold in kitchens because they don't feel confident enough," Strahota said. "It's hard for restaurant owners to take it seriously ... it's accepted that men are the chefs."
More common are women who work in pastry, like Elizabeth Dahl at Nostrano and Megan Belle at Harvest. Baking and dessert-making, fields more precise than working a line, are dominated by women.
"When I went into this I didn't think about how unbalanced it would be," said Belle, whose husband, Ian Stowell, is also a chef at Harvest. "It was how I got my foot in the door, and I ended up liking what I was doing."
Tami Lax opened Harvest in 2000 after spending five and a half years (several as chef de cuisine) working for Odessa Piper at L'Etoile. There, Lax developed relationships with the restaurant's purveyors, spending her day off harvesting with local farmers.
"It was work going to those farms and picking apples for 12 hours," she said. "But you get done with the day and you're like, this was awesome, the fresh air and birds and the smell of apples staining into your hands.
"That connection you make — for me, there's not a better high."
Women in the restaurant business are widely held to be less likely than their male counterparts to have their name on the door, and more interested in creating a symbiotic relationship between the front and the back of the house.
"I never know what's gender and what's personality," said Nancy Christy, who owned Wilson Street Grill with Andrea Craig in downtown Madison for 14 years (1987-2001). "We had a desire to create an environment where we were mentoring our staff as well as leading and managing them.
"We had these beliefs about how you can create community, diversity in the work force."
Christy recalled interns from culinary school telling stories about kitchens where, when a young cook turned her back, a chef would turn up the heat on her pots. It was a way of "keeping everybody on their toes," Christy said.
"Is that how you want to learn cooking? Is that the environment you want?" she said. "Not me. … when I worked for Madame (Liane) Kuony, I quit when she pulled somebody's hair."
In a 2010 study, "Not One of the Guys: Women Chefs Redefining Gender in the Culinary Industry," authors Deborah A. Harris and Patti Giuffre outlined still-held assumptions about women in professional kitchens.
"Common stereotypes are that women are not good leaders, are too emotional, and that they are not 'cut out' for male-dominated work," the study says.
Respondents to the study — women with varying levels of professional experience — also posited that male chefs "were guided by the need to impress others while women were more driven by a need to please others."
Piper told an interviewer in 1996, after 20 years at L'Etoile, that she tried to cultivate a "clean, beautiful, creativity-affirming workplace."
Now, she thinks the number of women in kitchens naturally "ebbs and flows," and that the gender of the person in charge is less relevant than the personality.
"I could be pretty tough when I wanted to be," Piper said. "Women can be as macho as the best of them and men can be … collaborative or nurturing. It's no longer the case that a certain type of behavior is owned by one gender or the other.
"Some of the most nurturing chefs I've ever worked with were men, who wouldn't bully weakness or vulnerability. They see strong skills that needed to be coaxed out and given a creative, supportive environment."
Others find that women tend to fare better with the shifting challenges at a restaurant. Jennie Capellaro, owner of the vegetarian Green Owl on the near east side, said two of her longtime "key people" are single mothers.
"There's something about knowing how to feed people and provide for people," said Capellaro. "It's hard to explain … a calmer demeanor, being able to roll with things. Because they have to deal with a lot as moms, too, I think."
At Harvest, Lax agreed.
"I always loved working with women in a kitchen," Lax said. "It's definitely a different energy than when you have a full male kitchen. A female kind of brings stability to the 'mine's bigger than yours' syndrome that goes on."
Simply seeing a female in the executive chef position can be encouraging for young women coming into the field. Strahota, who spent time at Angelo's and Rosario's in Monona, the Green Lantern in McFarland, and Sushi Muramoto, has only ever worked under male executive chefs. Hong said the same.
"I worshipped the cooks that were above me," said Hong, who is still the only woman in her kitchen. "It's strange to think of myself heading a kitchen now."
Hong's mentor and employer, chef/owner Shinji Muramoto, says Hong is one of only a few female chefs he's employed. "We've never had many women chefs … you need to be strong, and there are long hours.
"Francesca, she really cares about the details of food. That's a women thing, compared to men. She cares about the small details. I'm really glad to have Francesca as an executive chef. She's very motivated and she cares about detail. So far she's doing great."
Christy says more young women are going into the field and they contact her regularly.
"What I would say is that traditionally there was a hierarchal (structure) in the kitchen, and women — we're talking in stereotypes now — are less inclined to that environment and have branched out to find other vehicles for their craft and their art," she said.
In her 2011 memoir "Blood, Bones and Butter," Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef and owner at Prune in New York, recounted the "ongoing struggle to be female in a professional kitchen."
"My entire work life, I had been working a double shift," Hamilton wrote. "Constantly, vigilantly figuring out and calibrating my place in that kitchen with those guys to make a space for myself that was bearable and viable.
"Should I wear pink clogs or black steel-toe work shoes? Lipstick or Chapstick? … Swear like a line cook or giggle like a girl?"
As memorialized in Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential," the back of the house is notorious for being a macho place where the cooks crack sex jokes while slaving away in 95-degree heat.
Time is tight and the stakes are high — make a customer wait too long for his food, overcook the chicken or under-season the soup, and that diner may never come back.
"It's not a pretty job," said Hendrix at Sunprint. "It's not for a girly girl at all. … There are days when I wake up and think 'What am I doing, I'm insane.' Other days I think this is the best thing we could have ever done."
Muramoto describes the rigors of the job: "For you to be a line cook, you've got to deal with flames and knives. Once you take a look at Francesca's arms, you can tell. She has lots of scars from burning herself and cutting herself.
"That's one thing that keeps them away — women don't want to have the scars on their arms. Most men don't care. They're more proud of it."
Madison's female chefs and restaurateurs don't talk about discrimination when they discuss the career that "chose them." But many have swapped the idea of having a child for having a place where the food and atmosphere is an extension of themselves.
"If you want to own a restaurant and run a kitchen and also have a family, one of them will suffer," said Hendrix, who has two cats but no children. "I don't believe you can do both at the same time … unless you have a great husband who is going to be a house husband to help take care of the kids and raise them and do the things moms do.
"The demands of a restaurant are so varied and so diverse and constant, it's like having a family."
Piper, 63, spent her childbearing years "raising" L'Etoile. When she was chef de cuisine there, Lax felt similarly maternal.
"You get there at 9:30 in the morning, like your child is waking up, and you're there until you tuck it into bed at night," Lax said. "There's no break. There's no calling in sick."
But the pressures of owning and running a restaurant can take a major toll. Biggie Lemke owns the Naked Elm in Blue Mounds with her former partner, Matt Heindl. The two have a daughter, 3-year-old Evelyn, and live in an apartment above the bakery/café.
"If I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn't do it," Lemke, 32, said. "It's been really hard. I would've waited until Evelyn was in school full time."
To turn out pizza, bagels and pastry to meet demand, Lemke has been working a high-intensity schedule. It doesn't always seem worth it.
"As a full-time working mother, there are times when all I want to do is spend time with my baby," Lemke said. "You want to be there when they're throwing up, but you can't call in sick.
"It's really hard for a man to see what it's like," she added. "It's just different."
Evelyn's 3rd birthday fell on a recent Saturday and Lemke had to work all day.
"At some point in the middle of the day, I was like, this is (expletive) stupid," she said. "It's my daughter's 3rd birthday, I'm baking for the rest of the world and I don't have time to bake her cupcakes."
Lemke was quick to add that she loves the work, and she'll likely continue to bake for the rest of her life. But for now, the Naked Elm is caught in a lease dispute with her ex-boyfriend's parents and Lemke is convinced the environment is bad for her daughter.
"I had people tell me this is going to be the hardest thing you ever do in your life," Lemke said. "And I thought, 'OK, that's fine.' Literally I was starry eyed — those things aren't going to happen to me.
"And then they did."
The next big names
Like many formerly male-dominated careers, the culinary field seems to be moving, slowly, toward greater parity between men and women holding primary responsibility in the kitchen.
At 43 North, Hong still has ideals about balancing work and family. Her fiancé, Matt Morris, is a chef at Restaurant Muramoto, and so well understands the demands of their career.
"I would love to see more women in the kitchen, without having to feel like you have to be super badass or have a thick skin to keep up with the machismo that goes on kitchens sometimes," she said.
"I don't think a lot of Madison kitchens are like that. I don't know if some people are apprehensive to start because they fear what they might've seen on TV."
That's not the case for 19-year-old Marissa Bertram. About to graduate with a culinary degree from Madison College, Bertram recently won the Central Region Student Chef of the Year Award at an American Culinary Foundation competition.
"I would like to own my own restaurant, or maybe a few restaurants, someday," said Bertram, who will follow up her degree with a year in restaurant management. She wants to travel to Europe and stage (intern) in high-end kitchens. Thomas Keller, chef/owner of The French Laundry in Napa Valley, is an inspiration.
"It would be hard to have a lot of kids and travel places. But I guess I just — I try not to let things like that stop me," she said. "I guess I'll figure that out when I get there."