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#GirlsWithKnives Interview: Culinary Creative Kathleen Schaffer

Kathleen Schaffer began her culinary journey at local restaurants in New Hope, Pennsylvania, her historic hometown along the Delaware River. She attended New York University and studied fine arts and art history, but she always worked in restaurants. It eventually became apparent that she was building a career in food over one in the arts, and what has unfolded is innumerable eclectic and prestigious positions in the industry – almost too many to list!

Kathleen has owned a high-end boxed lunch business, been the executive chef at private clubs and Five Diamond Caribbean resorts, and had a few long stints as a private chef to notables like the Goldman Sachs director in Los Angeles. Now, she is the creative and culinary head of SCHAFFER, an LA-based event and catering business that she runs with her husband, an accomplished chef in his own right. In nine years, they have built a venture that boasts 100 employees; a 7,000 square foot facility with commercial kitchen, bakery, offices, and tasting rooms; and a 38 foot tractor trailer that they use for large traveling events. SCHAFFER has helped bring event visions to life for companies like Lamborghini, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Riot Games, Rolex, and many more.

We sat down with Kathleen to chat about gender roles in the food world, being a female leader, the merits of catering, and where she gets her inspiration.

In your time in the culinary realm, have you witnessed progress in terms of gender roles? Is there still work to be done?

The business has changed quite a bit in my almost 30 years of cooking professionally. There is more work to be done in terms of equality, but the biggest change has been development of harassment and discrimination laws, which make the workplace environment more suitable. In the 1980’s, kitchens were seen as much less professional and much more male-dominated. There was a lot of inappropriate sexual language and demeaning, demoralizing attitudes towards women. Women had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to prove themselves. A lot of times, I would ride home on the New York subway after a fourteen-hour day in tears, just feeling completely defeated by my career choice and lack of opportunity.

But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Even now, I have clients who will ask if my boss or the owner is going to be at an event. Generally my response is, “Yes, I am.” I am happy to see the success of women chefs and female-owned businesses. It’s exciting, and I think we’re on the right track. Right now, my staff is about 40% women. Our female pastry chef is brilliant (she worked at Eleven Madison Park), and it’s amazing to have her leading that department. Our executive sous chef is also female.

What’s a challenge of having a leadership role in this male-dominated industry?

I’ve found it challenging to command authority in the kitchen and understand that I don’t need to be liked. When I was running kitchens in my 20’s and 30’s, I really struggled with this. Once I got over it and was able to manage my employees in a calm and fair way, I gained their respect. Many women in the business that I speak with struggle with the same thing.

You’ve transitioned through so many different aspects of the culinary world. Tell us about catering.

The idea of catering has always had a pejorative connotation and has been dismissed as a place where failed chefs land. Within the past fifteen years or so, a new segment has emerged. People are providing high-end, restaurant-quality food for events. Since that time, more people are interested in getting into this side of the business because it’s exciting, amorphous, and a new challenge each day. You might do an event for Lady Gaga one day and then meet Stevie Wonder the next – it’s not the same service night after night. For chefs, the scope of what they learn in terms of cuisine styles and different techniques is much broader than they might get cooking at one restaurant.

Do you ever miss cooking on the line?

I sometimes miss the adrenaline that comes from working on the line. There is a more immediate reward to meeting your goals and a more instantaneous satisfaction when it’s been a successful night, when all the plates come back clean. That being said, doing a 600 person dinner when 600 plates have to go out in 15 minutes, I feel that adrenaline. It’s like a roller coaster.

Tell us about some of the women in food who inspire you.

  • Madeline Lanciani, founder of Duane Park Patisserie in New York. She was one of my mentors in the 80’s, and one of the first women who worked in the Plaza Hotel in the 70’s. She’s a pioneer and still my friend! I catered her daughter’s wedding recently, and it was a dream come true.
  • Nancy Silverton. She’s talented and a real visionary. I think she started all artisan bread baking in this country.
  • Evan Kleiman, host of “Good Food” on KCRW. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of food and food politics, and she is a strong and important voice.

What advice do you have for women trying to build culinary careers?

Pay your dues and put in your time. Work for as many people as you can and really be a student, soaking up as much knowledge and information as you can. In addition to that, don’t be emotional at work. Save it for the subway ride home. Don’t let the stress and the kitchen culture get to you.  Maintain a calm and confident position. Stoicism is a great personality trait to have in the kitchen to a certain extent. Basically, keep it together!


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