On her right arm, Rachel Kelley wears a tattoo of a tank.
The executive chef at Revolution Wines leads a team of six young men, and sometimes, she likes to embarrass them.
“Whenever that happens, I kiss my bicep,” she says, laughing. “So I just figured it’d look a lot tougher if I had a tank on it.”
She also has guns on her hips, a sushi master on her back and a pastry pinup chef on her side. She stretches her T-shirt around to reveal glimpses as she struts up and down the winery’s aisles of casks in ripped, checker-print jeans.
Kelley certainly knows her way around a kitchen, but there is one missing element in her résumé: She’s never worked for a female chef.
She’s one of a handful of female head chefs in Sacramento. Nationwide, most men and women agree that restaurant kitchens are still male-dominated.
“The physical demands of the kitchen are not so insurmountable that women can’t do it,” says Rick Mahan, chef and owner of The Waterboy. “But we’re talking about an industry that has been for a very long time, and will probably continue to be for a very long time, a boys club.”
Just look to the James Beard Foundation Awards, a.k.a. the Oscars of food. The 2014 awards are announced in May, but 265 semifinalists were recently revealed, and about 17 percent are women or partnerships between men and women. Consistently since 2008, between two and four awards out of 13 categories have gone to female chefs.
Many of Sacramento’s most well-known chefs are, indeed, men. Adam Pechal of Tuli Bistro Group was featured on the reality TV competition The Taste, Michael Thiemann of Mother once worked for celebrity chef Tyler Florence. Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s B&L is cooking at the prestigious James Beard House this week.
So, are women not getting attention, or are there just not very many of them? Census data suggests the latter—in Sacramento County, more than 90 percent of chefs are men.
Think back to Sacramento Bacon Fest in January. The grand finale was a throwdown among 13 premier local chefs. Kelley was the lone woman, and the only chef with female cooks in tow. And she finished on top with Best Dish.
“I didn’t really come in with a plan. I just brought ingredients I like to work with,” she says.
Those ingredients created a comforting, balanced plate of wine-braised bacon, Brussels sprouts, king trumpet mushrooms and thinly sliced apples, all over melted Brie on brioche.
“When I put it on the plate, I thought, ’Yeah,’” she shrugs and nods a few times. “’That’s what I do.’”
Kelley may talk about her accomplishments casually, but achieving chef status is no small feat—especially when going against a pervasively masculine kitchen environment, a stereotype that women belong in pastry and common pressures to start a family.
“I just work twice as hard as everyone else,” she says.
This story was a finalist for the 2014 California Newspaper Publishers Association award for best enterprise reporting.