Cultural Stories

International Women's Day: Demonstrating the Demonstration

By Joann Jen
Growing up, the sound of sizzling oil in a wok inspired and motivated me: thinly cut, bite-sized vegetables and meat cooking in extreme heat, dancing between each turn of the wooden spatula until seared. The addition of soy sauce or vinegar just heightened the hissing and my anticipation. These sounds and smells of stir fry meant dinner would soon be ready and the hours I spent diligently on homework needed to come to an end. I would not miss the first minutes of stir fry on the plate when the brightness of the vegetables and the succulence of the meat come together in the perfect bite.
My story is that of many other children of immigrants in the United States. We are taught to always respect our elders, put our heads down, work hard, and go beyond what is expected. As a result, I strove to be the model student in my formative years turned model employee in my adulthood. I believed in the notion that if you demonstrated tenacity and proved yourself, good things would inevitably happen—that you could earn it, whatever "it" was (respect, success, acceptance).

What I uncovered about the modern workplace is that my cultural norms do not always translate and are often compounded with gender and racial stereotypes. As an Asian woman, breaking the glass ceiling—or even the bamboo ceiling—through only grit and perseverance was more difficult than I was taught to believe.

For decades, women have demonstrated their expertise in the restaurant and food industry. Women make up half of the students at the Culinary Institute of America and of the workforce in America. Despite this, women are not as readily hired or promoted into the role of head chef—the positions that receive the most accolades and awards. Today, just twenty percent of head chefs are women. In fact, it's more difficult to become a female Executive Chef than it is to become a female CEO. For many, it's often the lack of self-promotion on top of a need to prove themselves by "going beyond what is expected" professionally that causes women to hold themselves back.
“If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair." — Shirley Chisholm
Restaurateur Barbara Lynch discussed her self-promotion awakening in her interview with Time Magazine regarding their controversial all male chef cover titled "The Gods of Food" in 2013. She said, "I used to think the fame part was a pain in the ass. I thought it took too much and it was too phony. Now I will grasp the fame and the public image because I think I can inspire people." She adds, "It's not about me anymore. It's about the next generation. We need more women in this business."

But even the picture I painted for you in my introduction originated from a forgotten female Chinese chef, Buwei Yang Chao, credited for teaching Americans how to stir fry. A physician by trade, Chao immigrated to America in 1921, and was relentless in her pursuit of authentic Chinese cooking. She wrote a cookbook entitled, "How to Cook and Eat in Chinese," and in it, didn't compromise her standards and did not try to pander to the American palette. However, in spite of her place in American food history, Chao remains forgotten.

The breath of a wok, so prevalent in my childhood, now takes on much more meaning as I consider the work and legacy of chef Buwei Yang Chao. Previously a reminder to pursue excellence through demonstrating hard work, now it is a call to action–a demonstration. As CMO of inKind, the hissing sound and vibrant food now remind me to rise up and lead, to take up that burden, and to help grow the next generation of women in the restaurant and food service industry through storytelling, mentorship, and positive demonstration.

Today, in honor of International Women's Day, join me and inKind as we celebrate the important women—both past and present, both known and unknown—who have made an outsized impact in the restaurant industry.

Let's rediscover, let's demonstrate, let's make noise, and let's sizzle to honor the female chefs who have paved the way for us all.
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