We’re talking with: Elizabeth Falkner. Occupations: Culinary instigator, celebrity chef, artist, author, president of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs. Lives in: Brooklyn, NY
Epoch Taste: You’re the president of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (WCR), which connects women together in the culinary arts. It has been in existence for more than 20 years. How would you say the challenges for women in the food industry have evolved?
Elizabeth Falkner: Certainly [WCR] has evolved because the founders had a different set of hurdles and discrimination that is not as widely spread today. Our labor laws have changed so much over time, what people used to get away with in old school kitchens. People could just say, “Oh, you’re just a woman. You’re not going to have a job here.” You can’t say that anymore. You might still get some effects of that but we’ve certainly passed that hurdle. It does exist in all industries, not just the food industry.
I would say, still one of our biggest hurdles is the financial piece of it, to be able to walk in as a female and get the backing you need from whoever that is, whether it is a bank or an investor. It’s not like women can’t get backing but you’ve got to be as aggressive as anybody and smart and do your homework to get there. It’s our bigger message: of course women can do it. It may not come as easy to you but it’s possible.
Epoch Taste: What has been your own experience with financing?
Elizabeth Falkner: I feel I was very lucky in San Francisco [where she lived for 25 years]. I had a good support system of private investors.
The real estate part of the equation, which is definitely part of that financial side of it, has been for me one of the toughest hurdles as a business owner. And the more famous or celebrity that you get the more people end up using that to get higher rent [from you]. The fame and the fortune doesn’t always equate in this industry.
Epoch Taste: A theme that emerged out of one of panels was about overcoming fear. It was a very frank discussion and one that you don’t hear about in public from men.
Elizabeth Falkner: The expectations growing up male or female are just different. It’s not like males don’t have that fear. You are taught as a little boy that you have to be fearless, you’re like a gladiator, you’re going to be a football player, you can handle anything. That might not be true on the inside but you have to appear that way.
That is part of the equation though. Sometimes as a female you get told you’re going to meet Prince Charming, someone is going to take care of you. Well, that’s not really always true—and it probably is a bad way to think about going ahead in life. “Someone’s going to take care of me” or “surely someone will discover me.” That’s definitely part of women’s psychology in a lot of different ways.
It’s OK to feel afraid and have stage fright and to feel like it’s risky, and that’s normal to know it’s part of the way to grow and learn and progress is to actually kind of face that fear.
When you get to the point of “Well, that wasn’t that hard, you go through that a few times, you can look back on times like, “Why was I so scared of that?” Facing it is the hardest part of it.
The thing about cooking, you’re so afraid about doing something wrong, so you do it wrong and you’re like, “Well I can fix it,” or you see someone fix it, you’re like, “It’s not the end of the world so I don’t need to beat myself up too much about it.”
People are always hard on themselves. But once you’ve gone through that drill so many times you actually become a master at fixing and resolving and dealing and facing that fear.
I remember what it twas like to be a young cook. I am quite fearless at cooking competitions now but that’s because I have been doing it for so long. But at the beginning I just wanted to do it the way someone expected me to do it—not my way, not “how great am I” yet. It’s listening to that discipline and tradition and eventually growing from there.
Epoch Taste: It’s the first time the conference has featured international chefs talking about their journeys. How does the United States compare to the rest of the world?
Elizabeth Falkner: There was a chef from Panama, a chef from Denmark, a chef from Greece, and a chef from Istanbul, and they were saying it is already so much better in the United States compared to Europe (our kitchen systems come from Europe when you think about it).
There are some very progressive areas in Europe and to say Europe as a whole is kind of obnoxious, it’s like saying the United States in general. There are some parts of France or Spain where there are really killer female chefs but when you think about it a lot of them don’t get the attention either like the male chefs do. So I think there’s still a lot of similarities but they feel in general there are many more prominent female chefs in the United States. Maybe that’s because the media is talking about here more than in Europe.
Let’s not forget women always had a very strong position in culinary or gastronomy.
It might have been [chef] Diane Kochilas talking how restaurants in Europe, in Greece are trying to model the food that the mothers have always been responsible for making.
Think about it. It’s true. The Italian restaurants that we all have this romantic notion of—that everybody has their nonna or mom or their grandma working int the kitchen. That’s very true. They are really the ones who are really the disciplinarians, they’re like “Sauce needs to be better, this hasn’t been done right.” They’re the ones who make the pasta, they’re the only ones who have hands and speed for it, while her son might be working the front.
Epoch Taste: Some people say that men and women cook differently. In fact, do women and men cook differently, or is this a vast generalization?
Elizabeth Falkner: It might be a generalized statement because I think there is masculine and feminine cooking today if we can talk about the contemporary restaurant kitchen. It doesn’t have anything to do with somebody’s exterior so much but there are both sensitivities that everybody has the capability of cooking with both sensibilities—masculine and feminine. And that the range of one extreme to the other—if you want to call them extremes—it could be from one end of the spectrum to the other.
It’s interesting because Elizabeth Karmel—she cooks barbecue mostly with men. Mostly men seem to want to barbecue or to have taken on that role. She’s always found it frustrating because she doesn’t have any problems working with all the guys … she speaks that language, she loves to get out there and cook the whole animal and make all the flavors that go with it, but I wouldn’t call her such a masculine cook. She has her own touch.
Then I think of someone like April Bloomfield who seems so tough on the exterior. Here’s a woman who wanted to become a cop who became a chef. You’d think she is absolutely going to be cooking very masculine food but in fact I find her food totally the opposite. It’s so feminine to me. It’s so representative of the places where she’s worked, but also it’s almost, I feel she’s soft-spoken, she just listens to the ingredients.
I certainly find men who cook like that too. I feel Daniel Patterson is a very feminine kind of cook in a lot of ways. And it’s not emasculating him. It’s a very sensitive poetic style. I wouldn’t know if it was a male or female cooking it. And I feel the same way about Dominique Krenn in San Francisco. Female chef, so poetic, tasting menu. I wish, like Anita [Lo], that more women would be able to do fine dining and tasting menus but we’re in an era right now where the economy can’t support so much of that.
Epoch Taste: What do you think of the media’s coverage of women in the food industry
Elizabeth Falkner: I think we need to ask bigger questions with food rather than keeping it so gender[-oriented], of what it’s like to be a woman chef and “there’s not so many women in restaurant kitchens, why is that happening?”
Somebody said cooking is political and we have a responsibility to cook for the planet and for the people. We need to look at that as a bigger issue. Who cares, male or female.
I tried to give an example in this conference of describing exactly how many dynamic women there are in all parts of gastronomy. … Some of them are from small restaurants, some are from much bigger restaurants, some of them have traveled the world, some of them are just doing their own tinkering in their home labs. To see that diversity is what’s so exciting about what female chefs do how entrepreneurial they are and how much influence they have at other places besides restaurant kitchens.
So to constantly throw statistics out about females and ask, “How come you’re not doing so good in this particular category?” It’s not really nice actually.
What are women doing? Go out there and do the homework yourself and you know what? There’s someone doing organic production over here, there’s someone doing farming over here, and that food is going to this and how do they deal with the waste—that’s interesting stuff. That’s the global stuff I’m talking about. That’s what we need to be talking about.
We’ve been lazy as a culture for so long. It’s like we’ve been picking the flowers and not figuring out what we should do with the stems and the roots and pollen that come off it on everything.
If you’re in a poor culture you figure out how to use everything. I’m perplexed living in New York when I see how much garbage goes in bags and out on the street. I wonder how much more of it can be recycled and reused, how much people throw away and just what they eat every night, like they make something and they don’t want to eat half of it and they throw it away.
Dan Barber put [waste] into the limelight with some candles and some beautiful menus. That was on fire. I hope that becomes very trendy.
Ten, 15 years ago, I loved the idea of chefs foraging. I don’t like the concept for everybody because it doesn’t make sense in a place like New York.
But in the city, foraging needs to mean that you’re going to, like Dan [Barber], juice presses or Sullivan Street Bakery and getting all the bread crumbs and getting all the leftover stuff.
If there was a market that was foraged stuff from all the manufacturing, that’d be amazing, and this is what you can do with it. I think that’s the next wave of food making.