WILL ANYONE STAND UP FOR FEMALE CHEFS?

Ishwariya Rajamohan

Ishwariya Rajamohan

Other 15th April 2019

WILL ANYONE STAND UP FOR FEMALE CHEFS?

The recent story about sexual harassment in London has drawn lots of muted commentary and even some excuses for inappropriate male behaviour, but we’re no closer to anyone boldly taking a stand for how female chefs are treated in kitchens. This is an industry where we thrive on the camaraderie between us: there are chefs who normally take to Twitter faster than Trump to express outrage or solidarity, but there’s been no outpouring of empathy for women here.
When poorly moderated, chef social media groups clearly reflect this dynamic.

This is my observation - a female chef requesting wellbeing advice is trolled with scores of comments from male chefs on what she could do with her body. A few female chefs will even ask her to ‘man up’. Only a handful of comments show genuine concern for what she’s going through, even when it’s a universal challenge that all chefs face. In contrast, a male chef sharing mental health struggles is showered with comment after comment of commiseration.

Having worked in two male-dominated industries, I know that’s not the full picture. I’ve experienced the support of my male colleagues - whether it was vouching for my capabilities or standing up against someone who didn’t treat me well. But at the macro level, why is there a reluctance in our kitchen culture to concede any kind of place to female chefs? Why are the industry’s women left to self-organise into groups that advocate for their voice and dignity?

OUR KITCHEN CULTURE SERVES NO ONE

This is the question that I want to address in this article: what do male chefs stand to gain from not supporting their female colleagues? Will acknowledging women undermine their status in a very competitive industry? Each of us lends our own unique flavour to the chef collective. So if you’re not putting your own individual energy into developing that, but into inhibiting the growth of your female colleagues, or asserting your status over them, your energy is being misspent, chefs.

If you’re simply subscribing to the existing kitchen culture, this is the truth: the dynamic that encourages you to dominate over someone of a perceived weaker status (like a female colleague) is doing no favours to men either. How can it be, if you’re not secure in your place yourself? And ironically, it’s that very same dynamic that impacts the mental health of both men and women in hospitality - because we’re not allowed to display any form of weakness - whether we’re struggling with our workload or personal issues. As teacher Caroline Myss said, “What is in one is in the
whole.”

CHANGE STARTS HERE

How can you support your female colleagues? The scope of this article is too narrow to address this, but you have to start with empathy. If you have the capacity to imagine how your customer will respond to every flavour in your dish, then you have the capacity to imagine what it’s like to be a female chef - battling the hostile environment around you, while also trying to forge ahead with the never-ending challenges every kitchen day brings.

We’ve built a whole mythology around the ‘macho’ chef. But the real warriors on our brigades are those we marginalise - in particular, female chefs. If anything, the men in our industry, our team leaders and employers should be looking to harness what our female colleagues bring to our kitchens, not diminish it.

(Ishwariya Rajamohan founded Love Letters to Chefs to help chefs navigate the challenges of the profession. It's about really seeing the human being who shows up to work in a chef's jacket. Her current focus is the #BetterCheflife project and the hashtag is being used on social media to promote the concept of better work-life integration in our industry. )