The Women’s Culinary Network – A Kinder, Gentler Approach to the Kitchen

chefThere’s an old saying that goes “If women ruled the world, there would be no war.” Now I don’t actually believe this for a second, and despite my dislike of Bush and Cheney, I honestly believe they are the “softening factor” that is keeping Condoleeza Rice from turning the Middle East and North Korea into a literal dead zone. And we can all come up with examples of really scary women who really shouldn’t be running anything coughAnnCoultercough because their world view is just the teensiest bit warped.

But in general, women are likely to be more nurturing and empathetic than aggressive. In the realm of the restaurant industry, particularly the more mainstream businesses, being a woman in a kitchen can be pretty tough. There’s generally a lot of cursing, a lot of testosterone, and in some places, cheese throwing. And that’s when service is at its busiest. Downtime can quickly devolve to an adolescent level, which can be even worse.

A partial solution to the concerns that women in the food industry might have is the Women’s Culinary Network. Created in 1990 by four female chefs who found themselves working together in a small kitchen, the Network aims to create a place where female culinary professionals can get together to share experiences and define a supportive work environment.

I recently spoke with Nettie Cronish, one of the Network’s founding members and a respected chef and cookbook author in her own right. She explained that she and the other founding members of the group felt that women had different concerns in the kitchen than men. The overall experience was not the same, as women often struggled with physical challenges like lifting massive heavy pots. Cronish also pointed out that women work better in an atmosphere of empathy and kindness, which is rare in a male-dominated kitchen.

Cronish’s own start in the industry is an amusing one. In the early 80s she was teaching a cooking course through the Skills Exchange when a reporter from the Globe and Mail writing about alternative food visited her class. In those days the Globe listed a phone number in each article, and when they mistakenly listed her as running a catering company, her phone started ringing off the hook with people interested in hiring her.

Cronish opened that catering company and worked out of an industrial space where she started a vegetarian frozen dinner company. In ’87 Cronish had her first child and gave up her catering business to start teaching. She continues to cook, write and develop recipes for a variety of publications while acting as the Chair of the Network to which she is quite devoted.

She stresses the inclusiveness of the group, pointing out that membership is open to any woman who works with food, from chefs and cooking students to food writers, cookbook authors, dieticians, and entrepreneurs. The group welcomes people from all walks of life and from across Canada, although the majority of members are in the Toronto region. The registry reads like a who’s who of food in Canada, including such names as Elizabeth Baird, Rose Reisman, Lucy Waverman, Arvinda Chauhan and Dufflet Rosenberg, to name but a few.

The point of the group is less political and more social, with regular meetings to allow for networking, mentoring and business promotion. Potluck dinners are extremely popular. A cookbook produced in 2003 saw contributions from many members and was a huge hit. A website and regular newsletter keeps members up to date on events and activities. The yearly $70 membership is extremely reasonable and goes toward maintaining the website, producing newsletters, and scholarships for female culinary arts students.

Cronish stresses the empathetic and inclusive aspect of the meetings, pointing out that new members or guests are assigned to a goodwill ambassador who will spend some time introducing them around and generally making them feel comfortable. As expected, men are not allowed at the meetings, although occasional events such as the “woman of the year” meeting do permit men as guests.

The Women’s Culinary Network allows female culinary professionals to share experiences and expertise as well as their love of food. In a world where the climb to the top in a traditional kitchen still means fighting a huge gender gap, having other women to talk, commiserate and network with can be a definite career and moral boost.