In the spotlight: women chefs are at the top of their game but is this a true reflection of the industry?

The  Staff Canteen
With an increasing number of female chefs in the media spotlight and at the top of their profession, it seems like now has never been a better time for women in the catering industry. With Clare Smyth of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay recently awarded an MBE, female chefs winning two of the last three MasterChef: the Professionals series and women like Clare Smyth MBE, Helene Darroze and Rachel Humphrey running multi-Michelin-starred restaurants, the tide is perhaps turning in what has notoriously been a male-dominated environment.  Or is it? The Staff Canteen decided to find out. The thing about spotlights is they make things look good, perhaps better than they really are. When the lights go down, the truth can be a much less attractive sight. There are a number of well-known Michelin-starred female chefs like Helene Darroze, Clare Smyth MBE, Angela Hartnett, Lisa Allen and Ruth Rogers but a closer look at the Michelin club makes sober reading. According to a survey by Great British Chefs website, of 161 Michelin-starred UK restaurants in 2013 just eight – or five per cent – have female head chefs. The picture across the industry as a whole is much the same. According to the Office for National Statistics, of a total of 153,000 full-time chefs across the industry, just 22,000 – or 14 per cent – are women. So what is causing the yawning gender gap: working conditions, discrimination, training? Emily Watkins, Great British Menu contender and chef-patron of the Kingham Plough, is someone who has experienced this gap throughout her career from being a young commis in an all-male kitchen in Italy to running her own establishment in Gloucestershire. She said: “I’m always shocked at how few women there are in the industry in relation to men. We’ve had four female CVs in the entire six years I’ve had the Kingham Plough and I’ve probably seen hundreds of CVs.” At first Emily decided to opt for a career in business rather than follow her passion for cooking because of what friends told her about the atmosphere and working conditions in professional kitchens. But she changed her mind and followed her dream, soon finding that the kitchen was a place she thrived in, and where discrimination was at most petty and harmless. “There’s a lot of bad language, a lot of jokes and a lot of sexual innuendo in the kitchen,” she said, “but it’s not something I take personally. It’s mostly at the junior level by commis chefs and so on, who are trying to get on in the industry and being a bit cocky.” For Emily the industry imbalance is more the fault of education: “I don’t think the colleges are appealing to or going out to recruit women,”she said. Clare Smyth MBE, chef-patron at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, is the UK’s only three-Michelin-star female chef. As someone who rose through the ranks of the Ramsay organisation she knows a thing or two about hard work and pressure and believes it’s about how you well you cope with th ose things irrespective of whether you are a man or woman. She said: “Any person who gets to where they want in this Industry or has become successful, it’s because of hard work and mastering the craft. With the kitchens I came through, I gained respect from the way I worked and that was nothing to do with my sex.” Clare had a particularly good insight into how gaining the respect of your colleagues could change attitudes. Gordon Ramsay famously said, “women can’t cook to save their lives,” earlier in his career, but it was experiences with women employees like Clare Smyth and Angela Hartnett that led him to change his mind.  Ramsay later ate his hasty words in an interview with The Telegraph saying: "Women definitely learn much quicker and they bring a far greater level of patience and tolerance to a kitchen than any male chef I've ever met." Anna Hansen is chef-patron of the critically acclaimed The Modern Pantry and author of The Modern Pantry Cookbook. She thinks that kitchen conditions are equal for men and women but often that means equally bad. “I think I was lucky,” she said, “and this isn’t about being a female chef – I came through some nice kitchens run by nurturing people, but I wouldn’t have worked anywhere where it was an aggressive environment. There are unfortunately a fair few of those kitchens still around. I think if I’d been unlucky enough to start my career in a place like that, I probably wouldn’t have pursued cooking.” But aren’t aggressive kitchens a product of too few female chefs in high positions? “I would like to think that would be true,” said Anna, “but I’ve also seen plenty of female head chefs acting like a***holes.” Camilla Waite is a 22-year-old female chef, just starting in the industry, who is working as a commis in Cornwall’s Michelin-starred Paul Ainsworth at Number 6. She is the only woman in the kitchen but loves the atmosphere, which she says is like a big family where all the guys treat her as an equal. Camilla admits that, as a female chef, you have to prove your ability to do the work but once you have gained your colleagues’ respect you are treated no differently to  anyone else. “You have to prove that you’re not going to give in and say it’s too hard,” she said. “Sometimes I ask myself, do I want it enough? The answer is always, yes I do, and I carry on.” Camilla, who is competing in this year’s South West Young Chef competition, has been inspired in her career by the growing group of female chefs at the top of the industry. She said: “Seeing more females in the industry on Great British Menu, MasterChef and on chef forums really encourages me and meeting people like Lisa Allen and Angela Hartnett and seeing how lovely they are is great.” Which brings us back to that media spotlight; is the picture as healthy as it suggests? Yes, in general, it is; that is one opinion that all these female chefs have in common – that there is no inherent, widespread discrimination against women in the industry. If anything it is the outside view of the industry, rather than the inside reality, that is the problem. Anna Hansen agrees. She wants to turn the spotlight back on the spotlight, believing that media-led portrayals of the industry perpetuate the myth of an imbalance. “The biggest problem about female chefs being under-appreciated is not from within the industry,” she said. “I think male chefs are really happy that there are women chefs in the kitchen.  It’s often about people’s perceptions, not the reality of the industry and I think that’s something that needs to be addressed.”
In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th June 2013

In the spotlight: women chefs are at the top of their game but is this a true reflection of the industry?