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Food & Drink

On the Line: Finding female chefs in San Antonio

Photo: Photos by Josh Huskin, License: N/A

Photos by Josh Huskin

Brooke Smith runs a tight ship at the Esquire Tavern

Photo: , License: N/A

Jame Arias and Fanny Valdez with their 36-foot-long RV kitchen

This generalization will upset some, but when professional cooks and chefs talk about where their passion for food and cooking comes from, the first answer usually circles back to mom: “Mom was in the kitchen. Mom was a great cook. Mom was a wonderful hostess.”

This isn’t denying any props to house-husbands and dads who love to fire up the stove, but it does highlight a disconnect between sweet recollections of mama making supper and the reality of women working in commercial kitchens. Females working on a hotline tend to drop off as time goes on, just when their careers should be heating up.

When it comes to culinary school, the numbers are almost a balanced 50/50. In 2012, the Culinary Institute of America-Hyde Park had a 54-46 percent breakdown between male and female students. In San Antonio, St. Philip’s College’s culinary program included 60.9 percent female to 39.1 male students. According to chef-instructor Andrew Gutierrez, classes at the Art Institute of San Antonio are usually about 65 to 35 percent males to females.

So what happens to women between entering culinary school, making a name on the line and grabbing a chance at a coveted executive chef position?

Theories run the gamut. Hellish schedules, the physicality of the job and, yes, family planning, come into play.

Chef instructor at the CIA-San Antonio, Elizabeth Johnson-Kossick gave several reasons why so few women don the toque.

“The restaurant industry is not very flexible. It doesn’t lend itself to women being able to juggle family and professional abilities.”

She also points out the amount of work that goes into being in the kitchen, and maintains that some women might not be able to lift the large stock pots and heavy trays commonly found in large batch cookery. Don’t forget the hazing and the isolation of being the token female.

“There’s a healthy amount of discrimination, depending on the kitchen, some prefer more men—still there are kitchens where you find mostly women,” Johnson-Kossick said.


For the most part, finding executive female chefs in San Antonio was an ordeal. There isn’t a huge media presence surrounding local ladies of the kitchen just yet.

It takes some shoe leather, but these women are out there. Mosey your way down to Bohanan’s Prime Steaks and Seafood and you’ll find Heather Nanez, head chef at the downtown institution for more than 10 years.

Nanez first made her way into the food industry in the ’90s when she started bussing tables at the now-closed Fratelli’s as a way to earn some extra cash while at San Antonio College. Even though Nanez was trying to earn a degree in Radio, TV and Film, she became enamored with the “rock stars” running the kitchen.

Nanez worked her way up in a handful of kitchens before landing her latest gig at Bohanan’s, all while never taking a formal cooking class.

Now a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International of San Antonio, an organization that promotes females in all areas of the culinary industry, at 46, Nanez has earned the respect of her peers and workers. But she says it takes thick skin to make it in the kitchen. She credits hers to having three brothers. “I get along with guys really easily,” she said.

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