Originally published in the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival 2018 program.

Photo: courtesy of Lee Anne Wong

In 2017, 54 percent of people working in the food industry were women. But in the kitchen, that number dropped to 20 percent. Four acclaimed female chefs talk about their challenges, inspirations and the role of women on the line.

Lee Anne Wong

Chef/Partner: Koko Head Cafe

Q: As a successful female chef, have you encountered challenges, criticism or stereotypes male chefs have not?

Because of the heat, intensity and general blood-sweat-and-tears work of restaurant kitchen life, it can, of course, breed a very locker-room or even Hell’s Kitchen-kind of environment if not kept in check… In many cases, even measured examples of female leadership can be met with ironic negativity, where strength and decisiveness can be misconstrued as being overbearing and micromanaging.

At the end of the day, women chefs face the same daily challenges men do and it’s time to look at the culinary world without gender labels.

Q: Who is your biggest influence?

Marcus Samuelsson and Nils Noren were my first chefs and gave me an incredible foundation. Later on, I went on to work with Andre Soltner at the French Culinary Institute and he has always been that voice in the back of my head telling me how to approach problems practically. I call it “What Would Andre Do?”

Q: What advice would you give to young girls who want to become chefs?

Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something because you’re a girl. That being said, it is up to you to do your homework… Ask questions, do your own research, practice, practice, practice. Taste everything at least three times. Develop a thick skin and a sense of resilience because you’re going to make mistakes, the value is in what you learn from them. Tomorrow is always another day to improve and not make that mistake ever again.

Photo: Dane Nakama/Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, 2017

Niki Nakayama

Los Angeles, CA
Chef: n/naka

Q: As a successful female chef, have you encountered challenges, criticisms or stereotypes male chefs have not?

I think most people have certain images that naturally come to mind when people say the word ‘chef,’ in particular ‘sushi chef.’ I think the challenge has always been to change that image and to convince them that someone who looks like me can do work of the same caliber.

Q: Do you believe the gender gap in the industry is still a factor?

I think there’s still a way to go before there is truly equal pay for women.

Q: What advice would you give to young girls who want to become chefs?

To remember that in any field, success happens when you have grit.

Photo: courtesy of Nyesha Arrington

Nyesha Arrington

Santa Monica, CA
Executive Chef: Native Restaurant

Q: Has the recent #metoo movement changed the industry? If so, how?

I see more and more women chefs being celebrated. People are thinking more before they say or do things that may misrepresent themselves or the company.

Q: Who is your biggest influence?

My grandmother. Her being from Korea was my first chance at feeling that grassroots labor of love through food that has touched my life forever.

Q: What are you most excited about for the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival?

I used to live in Maui off and on for a few years consulting on a restaurant project. I am very excited to return as a featured chef as I have participated as sous chef for a few friends. I am especially excited to offer my Korean Noodle soup!

Photo: Dane Nakama/Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, 2018

Stephanie Izard

Chicago, IL
Executive Chef: Girl & The Goat

Q: What inspired you to become a chef?

My mom was a really good cook! I’ve always been drawn to cooking because of her. She inspired me for sure!

Q: How has the restaurant world changed since you started?

Even many of the great chefs that I grew up admiring now have more casual offerings. It has become common to have high-quality casual dining options… It is so great that you can get food from chefs you love any day of the week, instead of just on special occasions.

Q: What advice would you give to young girls who want to become chefs?

Just do it! There is no reason to let anything hold you back. Find chefs you are excited about and go work with them!