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Chef roasts food industry over systematic sexism in new doc

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Amanda Cohen in a still from The Heat: A Kitchen (R)Evolution

When Ottawa-born chef Amanda Cohen wrote a blistering article for Esquire last autumn, she says she knew it would get a reaction.

It was published a month after journalists first reported about the sexual abuse allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Within that month, Cohen wrote that she kept receiving emails and messages from food journalists asking for a statement about her experience working in the restaurant industry.

Her sarcastic, razor-sharp retort: “Women may not have value as chefs, but as victims we’re finally interesting!” Cohen’s article then concluded with a list of more than 60 prominent female chefs in New York, and their associated restaurants.

As she argued, due to female chefs’ smaller public profiles, they receive more limited access to investors. Simply put, in her words, “Women are second-class citizens in the restaurant world.”

“This is a huge problem that was created over many years,” Cohen says about the systemic sexism that permeates the restaurant industry. “There’s a whole sort of ecosystem that exists, and we have to go back to the beginning and change it, and work our way through it.”

Knowing this, it is not surprising that Cohen is one of the many outspoken culinary creatives featured in The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution. The documentary, directed by Canadian master Maya Gallus, focuses on several prominent female chefs as they challenge the assumptions of a hyper-masculine kitchen culture.

Maya Gallus

The film will screen at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema beginning on May 11. It also landed the coveted spot as the opening night film at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival earlier this spring.

As Cohen and other acclaimed chefs – including New York’s Anita Lo and Toronto’s Suzanne Barr – espouse in the film, too much media attention has gone to championing chefs who are also straight, white men.

“At most culinary institutions, (enrolment) is 50 per cent women or more,” Cohen tells The CJN. “Getting into culinary school,… that’s not an issue; it’s ‘How do we keep the women in the industry?’ You look 10 years after at a graduating class from almost any culinary institution and women aren’t working (as chefs).”

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Elaborating on this disparity, Cohen explains that the lack of women in leadership roles sends a message to budding female chefs that it will be immensely difficult to rise in the ranks.

Some of the chefs interviewed in the film recount the “frat-boy culture” they have experienced in the kitchen during their careers. (Just think of the vulgar, nasty Gordon Ramsay type, who attracts public fascination and repulsion.) Comparably, the feminine leadership on display in the film is less volatile and, arguably, more effective.

Today, Cohen is the highly regarded, award-winning chef at Dirt Candy, located in New York’s Lower East Side. Reservations at the vegetarian restaurant can be hard to obtain.

Even with her critical success and big-city credibility, though, Cohen says she didn’t even realize she was one of the main subjects in The Heat at first. It wasn’t until Gallus and her crew kept coming back to film at Dirt Candy that Cohen realized her role in the film was as more than a mere talking head.

While the documentary has a potent point to make during this #MeToo moment, Cohen says that there are compassionate ways that any manager can improve conditions for women working in kitchens.

A major discussion happening in the food industry, she adds, is around employee rights. Too often, she says, cooks devote long, strenuous hours and are paid too little.

“We’re more proud of our cuts and burns (in the kitchen) than we are the ability to give somebody an actual sustainable life outside the restaurant,” she says.

Cohen says she is cognizant of these difficult conditions and is trying to make things better at her institution. She recommends restaurants raise prices to ensure staff are compensated fairly.

“Most restaurants keep their prices for food very low and then they try to make it up in tipping, which is a big problem,” she explains. “We have to start educating customers that going out to eat is not a right. It’s a privilege. If you want it and you want this service, it’s actually going to cost more.”