The Image of ‘The (Male) Chef’ - A Response by Emma Underwood

The Staff Canteen

Emma Underwood is the General Manager of Where the Light Gets In, based in Stockport, and previously worked at Burnt Truffle in Heswall, part of Gary Usher’s growing empire. Below are her thoughts on the image of today's (male) chefs.

This weekend The Staff Canteen published a provocative post on their Facebook page intended as a jibe about the stereotypical Chef.

It included such statements as ‘If you enter the Chefs office with your own ideas, you leave with his’, and ‘If you criticise the Chef you criticise the Almighty’. While intended to be tongue in cheek it is sadly far too representative of many attitudes within the restaurant industry. The sole use of the male pronoun is indicative of the common perception of head chefs being male, which is regularly exacerbated by the portrayal of the restaurant industry in media.

There is a general tendency in media to obsess over male chefs. They are rock and roll stars. They are tyrants but they are creative geniuses. They are despotic but it doesn’t matter because they are ‘sexy’. This image is one-sided, poorly representative, and frankly damaging.

The fetishisation of male chefs serves to only create unreal expectations for many entering the career, and alienates females from desiring to work in a professional kitchen. Transforming chefs into these poster boys may boost TV ratings and sell books and magazines, but it hinders recruitment and attraction for a huge sector of society. Although this is only one reason in a myriad of obstacles for women working in kitchens, it is a very significant factor and one that long needs addressing.emma underwood

I have been very fortunate in my career, the majority of males I have worked with, including a couple of the aforementioned ‘poster boys’, have served to encourage and support me. But I am atypical. Working in restaurants is hard, and it is almost impossible without positive mentorship. How can we create these mentors when the accepted, apparently humorous image of chefs is of a dictatorial male?

Gender balance within restaurants is important to success, just look at Septime. At Where The Light Gets In our management team is three females and one male, and our restaurant team as a whole is equally composed of both men and women in all sections. We all work by making decisions together, problems are solved by calm, rational discussion, and our working environment is exceptional. It’s not difficult to achieve such harmony, but the industry needs the media to start supporting us in more constructive ways.

Of course I’m not suggesting that women are without blame for discord within restaurants, and I’ve heard all the stories of female head chefs being just as tyrannic as their male counterparts. But what is undeniable is that the constant excusing of bad behaviour through the media’s fetishisation of male chefs is serving as a huge hinderance to our progression. We deserve better.

We are facing two huge problems in our industry: a chef shortage and a lack of women in kitchens. Surely one can be a solution to the other?

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Blog by Emma Underwood, General Manager, Where the Light Gets In

Emma Underwood blog image
Emma Underwood

Emma Underwood is the general manager of Where the Light Gets In, based in Stockport, having previously worked at Burnt Truffle in Heswall, part of Gary Usher’s ever-expanding restaurant empire.

Emma started working with Gary in 2012 when she joined the Sticky Walnut team as a waitress before moving to the sister restaurant, Burnt Truffle as the restaurant manager.

Emma is also a co-founder of the TMRW Project along with Anna Sulan which was set up in 2015 as part of their Chefs of Tomorrow dinners.

The project acts as a platform for people starting out early in their career to help them grow, learn and connect with each other.

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Editor 27th October 2017

The Image of ‘The (Male) Chef’ - A Response by Emma Underwood