International Women's Day: Chef Helena Puolakka talks about her latest Aster Chef Series Dinner

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th March 2018

In celebration of International Women's Day, three groundbreaking chefs are coming together for a celebration of women chefs at the critically-acclaimed Aster Restaurant.

Angela Hartnett and Sally Clarke are joining Aster's Executive Chef Helena Puolakka for next week's Aster Chef Series Dinner which will be a celebration of women chefs with profits going to women’s charity, Women’s Aid as part of International Women's Day. The Staff Canteen caught up with Helena to find out more.

On Monday, 12th March, Aster’s Executive Chef, Helena Puolakka, will welcome two of the UK’s most accomplished chefs – Sally Clarke and Angela Hartnett to her critically acclaimed Nordic-French restaurant.  With this much-anticipated event, taking place just after International Women’s Day and with 50% of ticket sales going to Women’s Aid, this is set to be a very special night and will be the third in the series from Helena where chefs are 'in conversation' with Richard Vines (Bloomberg’s chief critic) whilst a four-course menu is prepared by Helena and her guest chefs. 

This will be a rare opportunity for those in attendance, to learn more about these women who have had such a positive impact on the UK dining scene as well as enjoying a delicious meal too.

It's fair to say that the food and drink sector has traditionally been male-dominated, we speak to Helena about her all-female Chef Series dinner, her collaboration with fellow top chefs Angela Hartnett and Sally Clarke and how she the industry is finally starting to change.

The Aster event is a celebration of women chefs with profits going to women’s charity, Women’s Aid – can you tell me a bit more about the premise of this event and how you decided upon this charity, please?

It was a very straightforward decision. No women should find themselves in an abusive or violent environment. Unfortunately, this goes hand in hand with our industry, less so now than 20 years ago when I started cooking, but it still exists today. Unless we start talking about it and have these conversations, it will never stop.

You have previously undertaken this event with Pierre Koffmann and Tom Kitchin, how do you select which chefs to work with and what the theme of the evening will be?

I pick chefs who are an inspiration to me. Pierre Koffman has been my mentor for a long time as I worked with him for 5 years at La Tante Claire, whilst Tom Kitchin is a great colleague of mine. In the upcoming chef series, I have selected Angela and Sally as they are both inspirational in many different ways, and they’re both true leaders in our business.

Can you elaborate on how you designed the four-course menu? Was it a collaboration across all the courses or did you each select a course that you wanted to include?

The three of us collaborated on the menu, but Angela and Sally were happy for me to decide on who will be looking after what. Naturally, I asked Angela to do the pasta dish and Sally to do a lovely starter, whilst I took care of the main course and dessert.

Are you able to give us an exclusive reveal on what to expect from the menu?

Absolutely! The starter will be a fresh and seasonal salad followed by a guinea fowl pasta dish. The main course will be centred around warm smoked fish, and to finish the pudding will have flavours of rhubarb, pink peppercorn and lovage.

This event aims to ‘celebrate women chefs’, from your own personal experience - what would you say are the ratios of men to women chefs in the kitchen?

Just 1/10.

Do you feel there are still obstacles in place for women chefs in the kitchen?

There are fewer obstacles than there used to be, and I find the obstacles are often found in people’s mindset rather than in reality. The restaurant scene is slowly changing by chefs like myself, Angela and Sally, as we offer a different mindset.

Why do you think there are so few women entering the industry and have you noticed many women leaving the industry?

The industry is challenging for women for many reasons, including the long hours which makes starting a family very difficult. Without a support network, it can be impossible. I have been lucky that when I had my children I was working for big companies that could be flexible, but I also remained determined in my work and my passion drove me to carry on.

Do you think that there should be separate awards such as ‘Best Female Chef’?

Definitely not. For two decades, I have been hoping to be referred to as a chef by the industry rather than a female chef. It is so old-fashioned!

How can the industry encourage young aspiring female chefs to join the industry, and more importantly, how can we retain them?

The industry must please give these chefs the platform to operate, to show them opportunities and to engage their talent.

Often, the female palate is better and more sensitive than men’s. This is better recognised in the wine world at least, hopefully, things are changing!

What do you think are the main challenges on female chefs in the industry?

Once in the industry, there is no difference in the challenges for men and women. There is no difference in my mind.

This is the third dinner in the Aster Chef Series, following the stellar footsteps of Pierre Koffmann and
Tom Kitchin. Tickets are priced at £60 per person and are for sale through the D&D website.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th March 2018

International Women's Day: Chef Helena Puolakka talks about her latest Aster Chef Series Dinner