More female culinary students than male a first for Culinary Institute of America

For the second time in its 71-year history, the Culinary Institute of America, with four campuses in the U.S., including one in Napa Valley, has more female than male students by just over 51 percent.

Another culinary program in Santa Rosa also noted more female students than males. In both cases, the shift could be due to the influence baking programs have on gender balances.

Cynthia Keller, CIA associate dean for culinary arts, chef and former restaurant owner, told Northeast Public Radio last year the rise in female students can be attributed to the addition of a baking and pastry program and the Bachelor of Arts program.

At the St. Helena campus, 80 percent to 90 percent of students in the bakery and pastry program are female. That's compared to the culinary program, which is about 60 percent male, according to Jennifer Purcell, director of education for the CIA at Greystone. Purcell also has an extensive background in the field including executive chef as Kaffeehaus Restaurant, in New York; La Luna Ristorante, Bethesda, Maryland; and Hyatt Regency Hotels & Resorts, Reston, Virginia.

Why do female students gravitate more towards the bakery and pastry program?

“I'm really not sure other than perhaps they started baking at an early age. I do find the ‘ilk' of student quite different between baking and pastry versus that of culinary,” Purcell said. “The environment and food medium are very different from a bake/chocolate shop and that of a professional kitchen. Baking and pastry is primarily predetermined and prepared in advance with the work itself quite exacting, requiring strict recipe adherence and science, versus culinary where it can be a bit more open, though still entails science but not traditionally at the levels of bakery and pastry.”

Also, “the culinary space is often more dynamic, loud and stressful in say a restaurant where “a la minute” (cooked to order) dishes are prepared. Bakeshops tend to be more Zen like to me,” she said.

While the culinary side of the programs are still male dominated, “I don't think there's anywhere where women are not involved. There are lots of women in charcuterie and artisan butchery programs,” Keller said.

At the culinary arts program at Santa Rosa Junior College in Sonoma County, “on average I would say for our culinary program the ratio is something like 60 percent male, and in baking and pastry program it is more like 60 percent female,” said Shelly Kaldunski chef, instructor, and baking and pastry coordinator in the Culinary Arts Department.

Chef Jim Cason, department chair, agrees.

“While I was in the industry I can confidently say it was a male-dominated profession. Since I started teaching full time in 2007 … (w)e seem to run a very even split (between males and females) overall, but it seems to be more females in baking and pastry and more males in culinary, but not by much and it's not like that every semester. In one of my recent Café classes (the one that runs the restaurant), it was an unusually small class and was 100 percent female. They were a spectacular team.”

Data from career services at the CIA also show the baking and pastry students are more entrepreneurial, as opposed to graduating to work on a team at a restaurant. Instead, they open bake shops and bakery cafes, making wedding cakes or specialty chocolates.

“I've had conversations with (female students) about their chosen path, and they really like the art of making something beautiful to be eaten. I think they also like the environment that surrounds this as well,” Purcell said. “And they have tendency to gravitate to science, are studious, and independent which lends into the entrepreneurial aspirations.”

Founded by two women in 1946, the New Haven Restaurant Institute (later the CIA) had one woman enrolled in the first class. From 1966-1970 the school restricted registration to allow men only, due to lack of enrollment by women. By 1983 the tide changed, and 20 percent of the student body was female.

“Historically, men trained as chefs in Europe and fought their way up through the ranks. That shifted in the U.S. as we modeled the idea of going to a culinary school to learn the craft and go out into the business,” Keller said. “That really leveled the playing field with more opportunity.”

With a few exceptions, however, females have historically been largely absent from top positions in the culinary industry.

Roll models in the industry include early pioneers like Julia Child, and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. Today they include celebrity chef Cat Cora, Melissa Kelly, executive chef and proprietor of Primo, a restaurant located in mid-coast Maine, and a 2013 James Beard Foundation Award winner, and Barbara Lynch, in Boston, who has created multiple restaurants.

Women make up an enormous amount of the labor force in the industry, but as you rise up to the executive level their numbers decrease dramatically, Purcell said.

“Their presence is much more known in hotels and resorts and contracting (with large institutions like Sodexo),” she said. At the executive level, that's where they are gaining traction.

I think they are increasing in number, it's just not what you see in the media. That's the sad part. They are gaining ground in a whole huge range we don't ever see.”

Historically speaking, in the male-dominated industry, “there was a lot of bravado and you had to be as rough and tough and gnarly as the guys to keep up with them, lifting huge cases of potatoes and stock pots,” Keller said.

That mentality is still permeates the industry.

“I have a strong feeling it's still happening. We do a lot of work including diversity training, retraining those who come in thinking it's part of the culture,” Purcell said. “That's one of the reasons women choose contract work with large food service institutions like Sodexo, where there is no tolerance for any kind of harassment. There is also more chance to have a balanced work/home life than in a hotel or restaurant position.”

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at or call 707-521-4259.

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