Chef Instructor Amanda Miller mentors female students on finding their kitchen voice by standing up and standing out.
By Amanda N. Miller, CC, CPC
It is no secret the culinary industry is male dominated. However, at the post-secondary culinary institute level a shift is happening in the pastry arts to become female dominated. In the professional baking and pastry field, the French pastry arts are still very male dominated, but I believe the future is female in American-style pastry arts.
I can safely say in my pastry classes, females make up nearly 100 percent of the class. So why are females in the industry still so marginalized? As a culinary educator it is part of my mission to mentor the female students, whether they are enrolled in pastry arts or culinary arts, and help them find their “kitchen voice.”
I learned at a very young age that as a female I had to learn how to be tough in a male dominated environment. I grew up in a household with three brothers and a father who held me to the same expectations as my brothers. Each of my brothers is over 6-foot tall and I stand 5’2” so one can imagine how I had to learn how to hold my own. In reality, I am the oldest and I like to think I set the standards for toughness in the family and my brothers had to learn how to keep up.
Fast forward to my time in the United States Army, a notoriously male dominated environment, where once again I was held to the same standards as my male counterparts. As a female soldier, I was expected to carry the same 80-pound rucksack for the same distance as my fellow male soldiers. My male battle buddies had to trust that when it came down to it, I would be able to have their backs in the face of adversity.
One thing that was familiar to me when I transitioned to civilian life and into the culinary industry was the work. I had to put in to stand out as a female in a male dominated industry. It goes without saying that not all female students will have the same exposure to male dominated environments as I experienced. In my unique position, I have the opportunity to shape the future culinarians as a strong female mentor. Now that I am a Chef Instructor, I use the experience and lessons I have learned throughout my life to teach female students how to find their voice in a male-dominated kitchen.
To quote my 16-year-old stepdaughter, “Miller you need to assert your dominance.” She is a constant reminder of how influential my role is as an educator of young, impressionable culinarians. Most of the students we mentor through our programs are just out of high school, they are barely old enough to vote, and this is their first experience away from the comfort and safety of home.
In a culinary lab all students are created equal, male or female, but I have to admit I do push the female students a little harder because they are inherently already behind their male counterparts unfortunately for being the opposite gender. I have to push them because I know the future environment they are going into and I want them to gain their kitchen voice before they are sent to the wolves. The following are a few examples of how I shape what my program director likes to call “Mini Miller’s”:
- First, get them involved in events, volunteer opportunities, community involvement, competitions, etc. that will push them outside their comfort zone. Many students, especially females in pastry arts, like to fly under the radar and do just what is expected of them and nothing more.
As we all know networking in this industry is very important and it starts at the ground level in culinary school. Make sure the experience is a positive one or they will never let you talk them into doing anything again. Follow through with them to see what they learned and gained from the experience. Point out how this will help them in their future. Does it sound like I am pointing out the obvious? I am. I say this because sometimes we lose focus and therefore our influence as culinary educators. We must remember how even the smallest of interactions can make all the difference with our students.
- Next, put females in charge and make them lead their male counterparts. It is not automatically the male student’s role to lead just because of his gender. As educators we must be part of the solution toward a more gender equal industry. When females take the reins, it helps them become comfortable interacting and leading their peers. This is where I want them to assert their dominance and start to find their kitchen voice. Typically, I make the quietest female students take the lead first because I know they are the students who will take the longest to mentor into a strong female leader.
- One thing to avoid: do not let your female students use their femininity to pull any punches. The easiest example of how they do this occurs when they ask their male counterparts to dump the 50-pound bag of flour into the flour bin. This is one of my pet peeves because as a female you are giving away your autonomy and living up to your “place in the kitchen” role. Make the females in your kitchen pull their own weight and ask them to do anything you would ask the male students to do.
- Finally, one of my mantra’s is “work hard in silence, let success be your noise.” This quote might seem counter intuitive to helping female students find their kitchen voice, however, the way I want my students to interpret the quote is not to go looking for praise or approval. Instead, always be the hardest worker in the room, stay humble and your male counterparts will take notice.
Amanda N. Miller, CC, CPC, is a culinary arts/baking & pastry arts Instructorat the Culinary Institute of Michigan – Muskegon, which is a Division of Baker College. She is also the winner of the 2020 Postsecondary of the Year award sponsored by CAFÉ and the Sysco Corporation.