Does Dessert Have a Gender?

Some say no, yet most pastry chefs are women. Here’s why.

Melissa Walnock of Restaurant Nicholas.
Photo by Eric Levin.

Peek into the kitchens of the state’s top restaurants and, more than likely, a man is at the helm. Yet chances are, come dessert, that kumquat-cranberry tart with ginger ice cream will have been created by female hands. We asked leading pastry chefs in restaurants across the state—women and men alike—why more females than males choose the sweet side.

As usual, the Garden State reflects national trends. Over the last decade, seven of nine James Beard Award winners in pastry have been women. (The tenth winner was a husband-and-wife team.) While enrollment in classic culinary training at leading schools such as the French Culinary Institute is almost evenly divided (currently 55 percent male, 45 percent female), at the Culinary Institute of America, 86 percent of those enrolled in the B.A. program in pastry are women.

“I love the exactness of pastry, the precision and science of it,” says Melissa Walnock of Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank. “If something goes wrong, I can backtrack and figure it out. And I have always been drawn to the artistic element of pastry. A regular chef—not to demean what they do—they take a piece of raw meat and cook it. I’m making a whole new creation from scratch.

“Perhaps,” she speculates, “females have more patience, enjoy working on intricate things, and are more organized.” Guys take a more hands-on approach—for example, her ex-husband, a chef who enjoys “taking a monstrous animal like a 300-pound pig and breaking it down. It brings out their manliness, I guess.”

Jessica Knik of Ninety Acres at Natirar uses the “T” word to explain why men are drawn to what is called “the hot side.” “In pastry, there’s less testosterone,” she says. “I’m not exactly sure why that is, but in my class at I.C.E. [Institute of Culinary Education], there was one man out of twenty of us. I think it’s a traditional thing.”

Denise Cinque, who oversees pastry for Due Terre in Bernardsville and Due Mari in New Brunswick, worked for a long time on the hot side but was drawn to pastry about five years ago, perhaps because of her admitted sweet tooth. “I don’t really know why baking is considered women’s work,” she says. “Men—not that they get made fun of—but even if people don’t want to admit it, there’s still a stigma attached.”

Cinque mentions another reason pastry works for her: as the mother of two young children, she appreciates the regular, earlier hours (often in a cooler kitchen) that pastry affords. Her typical workday runs from 6 am to 3 or 4 pm. Cinque’s partner, Bill Dorrler, is executive chef for both Due restaurants. “He has the mornings with the babies and I have evenings,” she says. In fact, four of the five pastry chefs interviewed cite family and children as major considerations.

Michael Duarte wears two hats—front-end manager and pastry chef—at CulinAriane in Montclair, the restaurant he co-owns with his wife, Ariane, the executive chef. “I don’t really consider myself a pastry chef,” he says. “I am the one who makes the desserts. I know how to make them and I like to make them, so I make them.” No ego issues here, he maintains. “Heck, I’ll even wash the dishes!” Although his degree from the C.I.A. is in culinary arts, his flexibility may stem, in part, from his upbringing in Chicago, where his mother owned a restaurant. “I was the executive chef and my mom did the desserts. My affinity for pastry comes from her,” he says. (Just about all of these pastry chefs name a mother, grandmother, or female pastry chef as their main influence.)

Joseph Gabriel of the Pluckemin Inn, who also has worked both sides of the kitchen, started at age 16 dipping chocolate at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in New York. “After my experience in savory at culinary school, I realized I love the structure of pastry, how it is detail oriented,” he relates. “It’s not about cooking a la minute, it’s about preparation and technique.” He insists that gender is not an issue in top-tier kitchens: “Gender doesn’t matter in the kitchen. Putting your soul into your work is what matters.”

Melissa Walnock, who, before signing on at Nicholas worked at such renowned restaurants as the French Laundry, Jean Georges, Tabla, and Union Square Café, agrees in part. “At those restaurants,” says the 30-year-old mother of a young child, “even the pastry departments were all men. I had to pay my dues. I had to prove my stamina and work twice as hard to get where I have.”

Which is why her boss, Nicholas Harary, swears, “If you ask anyone in my kitchen who is the toughest guy there, they’ll say it’s Melissa.”

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