Chatting With Patricia Williams: Industry Sexism, Her Biggest Kitchen Mistake, and the Beauty of Spoons
Yesterday, we spoke with Patricia Williams about her latest gig at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club. Today, the veteran chef, who had a previous career as a ballet dancer, shares her views on topics ranging from industry sexism to her biggest kitchen mistake to the simple beauty of spoons.
In the wake of this year's James Beard Awards, there was talk flying around about industry sexism and why so few female chefs win the awards. Do you have any particular views on the subject?
I have quite a few views on it. I don't believe there may be more male chefs out there -- they get more play. A lot of it has to do with many of the women who write about young men, who are the hotties. And many women are not as aggressive in their PR as the young guys with the tattoos all over the place. [A publication] called me the other day to ask if I had any tattoos. I'm like, [incredulously] "No." It's gotten to the point where they have so much ink it's like, When do you have time to cook?
In the food business, actually, there have really gotten to be less women than when I started cooking. Susan Weaver [the executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel], Patricia Yeo, Anita Lo, Debra Ponzek [Montrachet's exec chef] -- there were quite a few high-end chefs and we were very close-knit. We still are, but they've spread out to other cities because it is a bit easier to get investment. Many of the male chefs have big bucks behind them and PR firms. People don't realize that most of these chefs have a particular PR person besides the restaurant's PR, plus a personal assistant. Most of the women run smaller restaurants, so we have to get on the phone, write the recipes, make sure the deliveries are there -- that doesn't allow much time for PR ...
... The way that [female chefs] are looked at is very one-sided. I had a female [restaurant] owner who was in a professional organization of women chefs I belonged to, and [at one of the meetings] she said she would never hire a female chef because they might get pregnant, and they have families. A bunch of us were looking at each other like, "We're over 50, it's not going to happen." There were 20 female chefs looking at her. I just started laughing, and said, "I have to love you, but here we are, women's emancipation happened years ago, we're doing what we do and belong to an organization that supports women, and that's your opinion?" And she said yes.
What did you say to that?
What do you say? You're never going to change those thoughts.
But it's incredible that despite all of the great women chefs out there, a lot of people haven't changed.
There was an article recently that said, "Maybe they can't carry the same weight [as male chefs]." Let me tell you, there's not a sous or a chef that carries any more than a woman in a kitchen. You figure out ways to do it.
You really think there are fewer female chefs than there were 20-odd years ago? It seems that there are a lot more women working in kitchens now.
Not at a high-end level the way there used to be. They couldn't raise as much money -- look at Patricia Yeo, who just left, or Susan Weaver, who left to work more in culinary development. Debra Ponzek has a beautiful take-out store in Connecticut, and Diane Forley [the chef-owner of Verbena] and her husband are running a bakery up in Scarsdale. ... When a man leaves, it's not an exodus for him. But for a woman, it becomes an exodus; people say she just couldn't handle it.