Where Are All The Female Chefs: the old mentality of a woman's place in the kitchen can be confusing when measured against a reality where only 19 percent of chefs are female. In this series, we profile a selection of female chefs from around the world and ask them how we can elevate the place of females within the restaurant industry and address the inequalities that exist.
Tara Khattar is a Lebanese-born private chef and consultant based in New York. She went to the prestigious culinary school, Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France and has trained under renowned Michelin star chefs Jacques Chibois and Joel Robuchon. She also has a Master's degree in Food Studies from New York University.
In part two of our interview series Where Are All The Female Chefs, Khattar discusses her experiences as a young female chef trying to break into the international culinary scene.
When and how did you decide the culinary world was your calling and how supportive were your family and friends of this decision?
I firmly decided that I wanted to be in the culinary world when I was 15 years old. I wanted to make people happy and I found that food was a good vehicle for that; bringing joy to people is what makes me happy. At first, my family wasn’t really supportive of my choice and it was really hard to convince them to let me attend culinary school. However, once I started getting recognition in my field they started becoming more and more supportive. Today I can finally say that my family is proud of me and the milestones of my career so far.
What do you think helped you to stand out among both your male and female colleagues and advance through the professional rankings to reach where you are today? Can you share some of the challenges you faced and how you overcame them?
I think what made me stand out was my ability to dream and look farther than the present time. I always was the type of person who wasn’t afraid to reach further than what people thought possible, I have a clear vision of where I want to go and will do anything to make that a reality.
I’ve faced many challenges along the way, I am a pretty “girly” woman who likes to look nice and dress well which often makes me not get respected by others in the industry. I always felt like I had to work so much harder to prove that I was worthy of a position.
What are the main barriers faced by female chefs looking to get into the industry?
I think women have to work much harder to earn the respect of men and their colleagues in the industry. In addition, women are expected to get married, have kids and take care of their families which makes it hard for them to get into such a time-consuming and demanding industry.
I think that women also have a reputation for being too fragile and emotional. More often than not their strength, ability to adapt to any situation and their finesse is overlooked. All of these qualities are huge assets for a chef to have.
Do you believe your work is acknowledged and that your success and growth are valued and celebrated in the same way as the opposite gender?
I think women are definitely under-represented in the professional world. I also feel that now, more than ever, with the feminist movement around the world and in many industries, when a woman is recognised for her work, the overall response is usually “she got it because she’s a woman” or “they gave it to her to show that they support women and are progressive” whereas [women should] receive the recognition or award because their work deserved it regardless of gender.
However, in some cases, I feel it is more celebrated because it is viewed as breaking the glass ceiling and achieving levels of success never achieved by any woman [before]. In some ways, you are more celebrated because you are the first and you lead the way for those who will come after you.
Tell us about your experience as a Middle Eastern woman in culinary school and training in a Michelin star kitchen.
My experience was a pretty difficult one but [still] one of the best experiences of my life. It changed me in ways I cannot describe, to my core and I think it made me a better person. It was difficult because don't think I was prepared for what I was getting myself into and I didn’t want to quit so I kept pushing myself harder to be able to cope and deliver what I needed to.
You have competed on the French version of the popular TV series Top Chef. What is your opinion on how male chefs are portrayed in pop culture/media versus female chefs? Are there aspects that you believe require change? If so, what are they?
I think the media tends to be very judgemental and portray women in a very harsh way and differently than it would a man. If a woman is taking charge and leading her team she is seen as bossy and a “bitch”—excuse my language. If a woman shows that she is angry or disputes a decision she is seen as emotional. I think any emotion or behaviour of a man is just accepted and explained whereas women are always judged and ridiculed for basically acting the same as men.
Are you optimistic about the future of the professional cooking industry as far as inclusivity and equality are concerned? Why/why not?
I am very optimistic about the future in terms of gender equality and inclusivity. I think the cooking industry tends to be a bit slower than others to change but I believe in this global movement that is happening and I believe that women are standing up for themselves and finally getting the respect and recognition they deserve. In addition, there is a general change in gender roles and the expectations of partners in a relationship and in family duties at home which now allows married women who have a family to pursue their careers to the fullest since men are more open to staying home and caring for their kids.
The numbers at a glance