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What It’s Like to Own a San Francisco Restaurant as a Woman

Foreign Cinema chef/owner Gayle Pirie on her experience as a female restaurateur

Gayle Pirie
Gayle Pirie
Foreign Cinema/Facebook

Welcome to Hot Takes, the Eater SF series that addresses burning topics on the minds of restaurant industry workers in the Bay Area — from their perspectives.

There has long been talk of male dominance in restaurant kitchens, from that oblivious Time magazine story a few years back to now-thoughtful takes on how the lack of paid maternity leave is a major problem facing the advancement of women in the hospitality industry.

Gayle Pirie, co-owner of Foreign Cinema, has been a female chef in San Francisco for more than 20 years. In her words, here’s how Pirie perceives the state of women in restaurant kitchens in the Bay Area today.

When I started cooking in San Francisco, I didn’t know gender. I was surrounded by strong female restaurant leaders — Alice Waters, Judy Rodgers, Cindy Pawlcyn, Joyce Goldstein, Catherine Pantsios — so I didn’t think about it at the time. All these amazing female chefs were — and are still — in charge of their own democracies trying to make beautiful food in beautiful environments.

There was no gender consciousness except that we were all humans. I don’t think it came in to play, really. You were going to rise to the top if you were a girl or a boy in a kitchen. You were. I never felt oppression by anybody and there were great men chefs around, too, of course, but it was all this lovely machine moving forward.

In recent years it’s become something to talk about: “Where are all the great women chefs?” But they’re around. They’re here. There are a lot of them, and they’re creating business models and they’re running their restaurants and they’re here. Right now we’ve got Suzette Gresham, Tanya Holland, Melissa Perello, Traci des Jardin, Loretta Keller, Nancy Oakes, Jesse Cool, Mo L’Esperance, Emily Lucchetti, Pam Mazzola, Kathy King, and April Bloomfield, just to name a few. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but right now in Northern California there are so many amazing women running their businesses, making sacrifices, making good choices, making little good choices, like offering maternity leave and paying over minimum wage, that serve the community.

I do think women have a higher standard to live up to, especially women who are moms and in the workforce, like me, balancing motherhood and being a ninja warrior at work. It’s exhausting. I’ve never had an issue with clients, guests, managers, or partners because I am a woman. But there are male line cooks who will respond well to women, and male line cooks who will not. As a woman, you can make a dude feel insignificant somehow — but it’s mostly in their minds — and they can become unresponsive. But you just have to persevere.

As a boss, you have to tippy toe around that, and change the way you might say something. Sometimes they just have to go, because if they have an issue with you because you’re a women, then somewhere down the line it’s not going to work anyway. But sometimes you have to back off and switch it around. Never yelling, but just presenting what you need to happen in a different way. It’s a bit of a mind fuck but it is what it is.

Foreign Cinema Foreign Cinema

When I was a line cook, if someone was abusive or non-responsive or being a douche, you just got through the moment, as it was one of many in the night. Somebody could call you a bitch to your face on the line, and it wasn’t an issue; it just was unfortunate and unprofessional. Back then, to deal with it, I had to decide between having a standoff and just walking away. Now, thankfully, there’s zero tolerance for that kind of behavior, but ultimately, the solution for me was and is trusting my instincts.

As a female, you spend decades negating your intuition, second guessing, self-doubt, self-recrimination, poor self-worth on some days. I’m finally at a point where I feel incredibly connected to my intuition, which is the strongest thing that I have. I just want to encourage all women to get to their instincts, to peel away at it, to listen to their core and, most likely, their core is telling them exactly what to do. Sometimes you can’t find it because there’s a lot of noise out there, and it really takes a long time.

I urge all women to pursue their dreams, and if their dream is to own a restaurant in San Francisco, I totally support their vision and their desire. Somehow, I got the privilege to do it, and I feel very lucky and blessed that I feel that, but there were dark days where I was my worst enemy and it didn’t help. My advice is to listen to yourself and learn to follow your intuition. Don’t be so hard on yourself and forgive yourself and love yourself on a daily basis, and your business acumen will be fortified by that self-worth.

Interview conducted and condensed by Stefanie Tuder

Hot Takes is the place where restaurant industry insiders can vent. Do you have something to get off your chest? Email us