International Women’s Day: Celebrating Female Chefs

The Staff Canteen

Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, The Staff Canteen speak to some of the culinary industry’s successful female chefs about how the stigmas of the kitchen are changing, how both genders is the perfect brigade mix and why significant accolades are still singling out women with their ‘Best Female Chef’ awards as opposed to simply ‘Best Chef’.

Picture a ‘chef’ in a busy restaurant kitchen and you might imagine a scene we often see on TV; pans clattering and temperatures rising with a male head chef directing his staff. Of course, this stereotype is already being shattered by successful female chefs like Angela Hartnett, Alice Waters, Clare Smyth and Monica Galetti, who have built incredibly successful and influential careers in the industry.

Yet, it’s never been more important to celebrate and encourage women working in this high pressured culinary world. In 2016, the Office of National Statistics announced that - although there are 250,000 professional chefs in the UK - only 18.5% (46,000) are female, a decrease from 20.5% in 2015.

Despite these statistics, female chefs, restauranteurs, sommeliers and entrepreneurs have all been making an impact in the industry. Including Australian founder and executive chef of Balls & Company, Bonny Porter, who was the youngest ever finalist on Masterchef Australia: The Professionals at the age of 23.

Like others, Bonny sees ‘cheffing’ as a very male dominated industry. Which is why, in honour of International Women’s Day on March 8, she is hosting an event to celebrate some of London’s most influential women from all corners of the industry.
The evening will see respected chefs Margot Henderson, Olia Hercules, Sandia Chang, Freddie Janssen, Emily Dobbs, Tania Steytler and Roz Bado each cooking a dish inspired by women who have shaped their lives.

“Gender inequality is a very real issue particularly amongst chefs,” said Bonny. “With female chefs, woefully, few and far between. I think it’s time we celebrated those who do fight to be seen and make their mark in this profession.”

So why are there so few women entering the industry? Restaurant kitchens are often seen as environments where women are not welcome; a testosterone filled workplace with physically demanding work, unsociable hours and a ‘macho culture’.

“In the majority of kitchens I have worked in, being a woman has not been an issue,” said Bonny. “It’s more of a stigma that means, as a woman, you do have to fight that much harder, work that much longer to get where you want to be. It’s almost unspoken, no one ever says you need to work harder, or that you can’t be in that section because you’re a girl, but intuitively you know you need to fight tooth and nail to make any headway.”

Respected chef, cookery writer and co-founder of Clerkenwell’s Rochelle Canteen, Margot Henderson said she has never found it an issue being a woman in the kitchen, but understands a problem some female chefs might encounter.
“Men always find it hard for me to tell them what to do,” said Margot. “I have to convince them that I am right. I want the onions sliced like this and they go, ‘oh really?’ and I have to say, ‘look, this is my place and you do it how I want it.’”

But women can be just as strong and capable in the kitchen as male chefs, and can do as much butchery as pastry.
“I was very strong in the kitchen,” said Margot. “I could do as many shifts as anyone else. I was fast. I wasn’t weak and afraid of the hard work at all. It’s not an easy job, you’ve got to be prepared to stand up, lift things and get burns.”

“Women always think they get stuck doing pastry. While it’s an incredible discipline - so learn it while you can – push yourself to get on the meat side. The fun bit is being on the stove. You know, you’re in the power zone and that is an exciting place to be.”

Breaking out of the stigma that kitchens are scary places where ‘men are chefs’ is crucial to encouraging more women to join the industry. That’s not to say there aren’t any young female chefs entering the industry at all. Emily Roux, Georgina Dent and, Young National Chef of the Year 2017, Ruth Hansom are all up and coming talent on the culinary scene.

“The perfect kitchen has a mix of guys and girls in it,” said chef Emily Dobbs, founder of Weligama. “Girls can create a calmness but then guys are quite good at picking up the pace, so it’s nice to have a balance of both.”

Though the industry has yet to break away from its stigma, these female chefs agree that the industry is very much changing, with kitchens becoming more professional in general.

"I think there is this whole idea around macho culture, but I feel like that has become very old fashioned," said Freddie Janssen, founder of F.A.T Pickles. "From what I've noticed, it's just not like that anymore, which is great."

Chef, sommelier and founder of Bubbledogs, Sandia Chang said: “It is more equal than people make it seem. I have, from my own experience, seen that if you put out the results, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

“Retaining chefs is an issue across all genders now,” added Sandia. “Life and work balance needs to be addressed but at the same time we cannot cover up the fact that this industry takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get to places you want to go.”

After years of hard work and sacrifice, a great accolade for any chef in their career is to have their efforts praised and awarded. Yet, there has been some criticism over Best Female Chef awards in the industry, with some arguing that the awards fuel everyday sexism and women shouldn’t be singled out from the men.

“I think it’s really great that there’s a spotlight on female chefs,” commented Freddie, “but then I also think, why do we have to have such a spotlight on it? I just feel like we’re at this point where it should just be a given.”

In 2013, Anthony Bourdain called out the World’s Best Female Chef Award under The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. He criticised the award and said: “Why – at this point in history – do we need a “Best Female Chef” special designation? As if they are curiosities?”

Talking about the award, Freddie said: “It should be just ‘best chefs’ for male and female. I don’t understand why they need to make a separate category. It just seems silly and disrespectful really.”

Others argued that the award addresses an imbalance in the industry. 2017’s winner, Ana Ros, chose to accept the award with the comment that the accolade was good for her restaurant and her region gastronomically.

“The reality is that the industry is male dominated,” explained Bonny. “By pure logistics this means that the top restaurants and awards will go to men. I don’t believe these awards are biased against women, simply that the barriers that have been erected for so long, make that last hurdle, that little harder to obtain.”

While the industry has already made huge leaps for female chefs, it still has some way to go in certain areas. So how can we encourage more young aspiring female chefs to join the industry, and more importantly, how can we retain them?

“School based apprenticeships are great initiatives to allow young women to catch the buzz of the kitchen,” said Bonny. “We retain them by treating them as equals – equal pay and equal opportunity.”

Being a chef isn’t an easy job for either male or female chefs – but for female chefs it’s also about being brave in the kitchen and self-belief.

“I made a new year’s resolution one year when I was about 26,” said Margot. “I was going to push myself in every way. Before I knew it, I was a head chef and then I had my own restaurant. It all happened really quickly because I decided to say ‘yes, I can do it’.”

By Lauren Phillips



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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 6th March 2017

International Women’s Day: Celebrating Female Chefs