Treasure Valley female chefs aim to bring balance to a male-heavy industry

The National Restaurant Association has stated, on average, that around 20 percent of chefs and head cooks working in professional kitchens today are women.

In Europe, especially in France, that number is most likely lower because the prominence of male chefs there is embedded like beurre blanc on a menu.

But America is the land of opportunity, right?

It’s at least a place where cultural gender barriers don’t appear to be such a consideration in a stressful industry where men typically run the show.

“Women seem to be better at multitasking than men, so it does seem odd that there aren’t more women in the industry,” says Kelly Steely, chef instructor and program chairwoman at College of Western Idaho Culinary Arts.

In general, about 70 percent of incoming students at CWI Culinary Arts are women, and the numbers tend to be similar for graduation rates.

So where do all these aspiring female chefs go?

Over the years, Steely has directed a steady stream of culinary students — both men and women — who come in search of a new career, and she’s noticed a few trends.

“We have at least one female student a year who consistently goes through the program, and does well, but has no intentions of working in the restaurant or food industry,” Steely says.

“We don’t get men like that. Guys want restaurant jobs.”

This may help to explain why most chefs in high-profile positions in the Boise area are men.

“A lot of women coming through the program want to become nutritionists, dieticians and even food stylists,” Steely says.

“We have one graduate who went on to become a really successful food stylist (for magazines, cookbooks and videos) in San Francisco.”

Steely says many female culinary students become pastry chefs, an area of the industry where women typically excel.

Sarah Mallard, a local pastry chef who graduated from CWI Culinary Arts in 2012, chose the baking-and-buttercream path for her new career.

This single mother with two children was working in retail sales in the Denver area before moving back to her native Idaho in 2009. She took a job — to make ends meet — in the bakery at Paul’s Market, and it wasn’t long before she realized her passion for baking.

“I was encouraged to go to culinary school, so I decided to dive in head first,” Mallard explains.

“I’m also more productive in the morning (when most pastry-chef work is done).”

Mallard, who’s in the process of starting a business called Sweet Chef, works hard to strike a balance between raising kids and managing a career known for having long hours.

“Being a chef is a demanding job. It’s a hard industry to be in. It takes a lot of hard work to make your way to the top. This is especially true for women with children.”

Steely, who has three adult children, is all too familiar with the dynamic of raising kids and balancing a time-consuming career.

“Many women with children don’t want to work nights and weekends, and those are the hours required for restaurant chefs,” Steely says.

“Pastry chef jobs tend to be a better fit for them.”

Mallard’s schedule recently got a whole lot busier when she was named as the new president of Idaho Chefs de Cuisine, the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation.

Idaho Chefs de Cuisine is an organization that promotes local chefs and their endeavors. But its membership numbers are indicative of an industry where men outnumber women. There are currently around 80 members, 11 of which are women.

Mallard expects to have her business up and running by the end of the year. Sweet Chef will focus on custom baking (wedding cakes and other sweet treats) and pastry chef consulting for restaurants looking to develop recipes.

Other female pastry chefs have had great success in the Boise area.

Aimee Wyatt, a classically trained pastry chef who spent time in Paris, turns out beautiful cakes and pastries at Amaru Confections in Boise’s Bench Depot neighborhood.

Many of her confections are gluten-free, which keeps her busy because of the increasing demand for gluten-free products.

Anyone who’s been to Janjou Patisserie in Boise’s North End can attest to the talent of Moshit Mizrachi-Gabbitas, an Israeli pastry chef who’s known for her delectable French-inspired puff pastry, chocolate éclairs and flaky tarts.

But while it’s easy to find women around these parts who have chosen to go down the pastry path, naming female chefs who run restaurants is a different story.

Anna Tapia, chef and co-owner of Kindness in the recently renovated Owyhee in Downtown Boise, didn’t start out as a line chef, otherwise known as a chef de cuisine.

Tapia’s culinary journey began with catering. She and her husband, Michael, owned a catering business on Broadway Avenue before they started doing catering and banquets at the Owyhee.

In the past, Tapia has helped local culinary maven Rory Farrow with catering and cooking classes, and she was also a former catering manager at Life’s Kitchen, the local kitchen-training program for youths ages 16 to 20.

But Tapia didn’t set out to become a restaurateur.

“I never thought I would own a restaurant. But we decided to go big with Kindness,” Tapia explains.

“I’ve learned a lot — kind of trial by fire — in the last year about running a restaurant.”

So far so good. Her cuisine at Kindness is nuanced and ingredient-driven. The seasonal menus bounce around the map, yet they are decidedly rooted in the Northwest.

As is the case in most professional kitchens in America, Tapia’s kitchen has more men than women.

“Even my pastry chef is a man,” Tapia says.

Regardless of all the testosterone in the kitchen, she’s quick to point out that the vibe remains mellow.

“There’s a reason we’re called Kindness. There’s no yelling in the kitchen,” she says.

Chef John Berryhill has seen his share of cooks over the years at his popular Downtown Boise restaurants Berryhill & Co. and Bacon.

“We always have a woman or two cooking on the hot line,” he says.

Having an equilibrium of male and female energy in the kitchen can be a harmonious thing.

“Women offer a great balance for the team, that’s for sure,” Berryhill says.

Like Berryhill, Tapia strives to strike a congenial balance with her kitchen staff, many of whom went to culinary schools around the country.

“I’m the only one in my kitchen who didn’t go to culinary school, but I’m still particular and want things done a certain way,” Tapia says.

Having a culinary school in Boise has been paramount to the success of the local restaurant industry over the years. But next year, CWI Culinary Arts will have to move from the campus of Boise State University, and there’s no word yet on what will become of the program —whether it will be relocated to the soon-to-be-built Boise CWI campus or elsewhere.

That’s a real concern for Steely, who is worried that aspiring local chefs may have to move to places like Seattle and Denver for culinary school.

“I think it’s a huge issue for our industry,” she says.

“The pay in Boise is not that high for these kinds of jobs, and some people may leave town for good if the jobs don’t pay well.”

Steely, who will likely soon be looking for a new job because of the uncertainty at the culinary school, also believes that some potential student chefs might choose other careers if there’s no local culinary school, or if it takes a few years for CWI to find a new location for its culinary program.

“Now you will have to move from here to get a culinary education, and you have to be able to do that, which can be a hard thing if you have a family to think about,” Steely says.

Mallard has similar concerns for the industry, and for the advancement of Idaho Chefs de Cuisine, which relies on student members to move the organization forward.

“It’s disappointing that the school is closing. It’s a tragic thing,” she says.

“A big part of what we do (at Idaho Chefs de Cuisine) is try to get students involved.”

During a time when the local dining scene is seeing growth after the country’s economic downturn, it’s imperative that the area have a culinary school to keep everything running smoothly.

“Boise’s culinary industry is booming. We’ll see a big wave of restaurants coming, and with it will come more jobs,” Mallard says.

“This is good for men and women, but we need a culinary school here so we don’t lose our workforce.”

James Patrick Kelly, restaurant critic at the Idaho Statesman, is the author of the travel guidebooks “Moon Idaho” and “Spotlight Boise.” He also teaches journalism at Boise State University.