The Hudson Valley has a thriving food industry that’s driven mostly by farm to table and vegan establishments that happen to be owned by women – like Agnes Devereux. But Devereux doesn’t call herself a chef.
“Chef means leader in the kitchen and obviously I do lead my kitchen, [but] it’s really kind of [a] strict, ego-driven male idea to be at the head of the kitchen, which is not the way I really function,” Devereux explained. “I try to be more like a teacher and collaborator with the people that I work with.”
Literally translated from French, chef means “chief” and is part of a brigade-style kitchen system that is the core of culinary culture. This same culture is notoriously dominated by toxic masculinity and Devereux has opted out of its limitations.
“So yeah, I’m a cook. And a businesswoman and a mother and a wife and all of those things.” Agnes Devereux
She further explained that, when people say “chef” they usually imagine someone who doesn’t leave the kitchen.
And they’re probably picturing a man. A 2014 Bloomberg study found that only about seven percent of US restaurants employ women as head chefs.
When Kaela Cochran, a student in her first year of study at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), told a person she cares about deeply she would be attending culinary school, he made sure she knew the score.
Kaela Cochran and several of her dishes
“[This person I care about] has a business down south,” she said. “I remember telling him [and] he’s like, you know most chefs, and like the best chefs in the world, are male. You know that right?”
This didn’t stop her from moving to New York from Florida at 29 and enrolling as a freshman in cooking school. It took her a long time to do this.
“It was like the most selfish decision I ever made because it was for no one else but me,” she said. “As women, I feel like we’re often not allowed to make decisions for ourselves… We feel like in our gender roles we’re supposed to accommodate others,” Cochran explained. “It’s so ingrained in me to be like ‘No. Think about everything else before you think about yourself. Your happiness is secondary.’”
She also isn’t ready to call herself a chef. “I feel like I won’t be a chef until I finish school and I’ve actually done something worth talking about,” she said. “That means I’ve done something. Right now, I’m just cooking.”
Echoing Devereux’s sentiment, her identity doesn’t exist only in the kitchen. She is much more than that. “I’m not limited to just being behind the stove,” she said. “There are so many more avenues to me that – that food is to me so… I know that food will always be a part of my life. I don’t know one-hundred percent if I will be a “chef” in the traditional sense of the word.”
Cornish hen with a champagne and Dijon mustard sauce
Chicken and shrimp burgers with a cilantro mint mayo and cold noodle salad
Red Thai curry with scallops
Blood orange roasted chicken
Some of her male classmates – 14 of 17 students in her fundamentals class last semester were male – have made comments about her grades or the quality of her food, suggesting favoritism because she’s female. She says, however, that the instructors haven’t treated her any differently.
As an institution, Cochran explains, the CIA is very conscious about diversity and inclusivity. The student body there is over 50 percent female according to a 2018 article by National Public Radio (NPR).
“There are men in the world that think women can’t do things as well as they can. Legitimately, they believe that as a universal truth, that across the board, men can do things better than women,” Cochran said. “And I kind of encountered that in my class and I was just – I thought nothing of it [at the time].”
In hindsight, she’s frustrated. “What freaky world are you living in that you are a better chef than me, that you are a better, or have better technique, that you care about food more than I do?” she said, “Your plates are dirty.”
Mostly, Cochran is frustrated that whatever she does is going to be affected by her status as a woman.
“I am competent as a human in my abilities, my cooking abilities and in my intelligence,” she said.
“I hate the idea that any sort of good thing or goal that I achieve will be shadowed by the fact that I’m a woman…Why does that matter?”
Do successful women make it easier for her to imagine her own success?
“I don’t think it necessarily makes it easier,” she said. “However, it does make me say, ‘Well, it’s possible.’ It’s possible. It can happen. If her, why not me? So, I think… female, male. Anybody. Just anybody coming from the CIA and actually making it is inspiring to me.”
“Food,” she said, “is genderless.”
Corrections: A previous version of this article identified the [person I care about]’s relationship to the interviewee. It has since been altered to maintain that person’s anonymity at the interviewee’s request.