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‘We want more female chefs!’ by Tony Naylor

Calling all female chefs. In the words of Delia Smith, “where are you? Let’s be havin’ you!”. Tony Naylor explores the lack of equality behind the pass

Last year, something strange happened. Despite the number of UK chefs soaring to 250,000, the number of female chefs actually fell.

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The restaurant industry is currently in the middle of a skills crisis. It’s struggling to recruit capable chefs (if you ever dreamed of retraining, act now!), but in 2015, around 1,000 women walked away. Women now make up just 18.4% of chefs, and hospitality recruitment agency, The Change Group, warns that figure may drop again. In the three years to early 2016, women applied for a mere one-in-eight of the jobs it advertised in London.

Beyond the usual complaints about kitchen work: low-pay, insane hours, pressure – a significant issue is that the kitchen culture remains male-dominated. Sure, kitchens are less macho than they once were; head chefs no longer rule by spittle-flecked, four-letter rants. ‘Pranks’ like burning colleagues with hot knives or locking people in walk-in freezers are, I hear, no longer tolerated.

Nevertheless, kitchens remain ultra-competitive environments where self-sufficiency, a willingness to work bizarre hours and an ability to take part in often rough-edged, 24/7 bantz is key to fitting-in. Of course some women will love that, but even before we consider the difficulty of balancing childcare with kitchen shifts, that working environment is certainly not the nurturing type (of teamwork, praise, personal development) which, studies tell us women prefer. One report from Indiana University Bloomington even found that women working in predominantly male businesses are prey to harmful spikes in cortisol, the stress hormone. Make of that what you will.

It’s no coincidence that, historically, many of Britain’s best female chefs have taken alternative career paths, where they could avoid such BS. Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers set up the River Café. Jane Baxter worked there (after training under another female chef, Joyce Molyneux), before making her name at Riverford Field Kitchen. Margot Henderson launched the Rochelle Canteen and a catering company. The restaurant world, as Margot once told Vice, is “a boy’s club”.

But it’s not just restaurants, is it? The wider food world is guilty of a pervasive gender-bias – if not unvarnished sexism, which undermines both aspiring female chefs and women generally. For instance, we’re bombarded with images of cool, talented male chefs in all-action poses. But when did you last see an inspirational image of a woman in the tense, grimy and, yes, sweat-stained business of leading a busy professional kitchen?

Instead, we get patronising features on ‘hot’ female chefs (that is, the young, photogenic ones) and, periodically, famous male chefs questioning whether or not women can really cut it at the very top of the restaurant game. Tell that to Lisa Allen at Northcote, Claire Smyth who held three Michelin stars at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, or Le Gavroche’s head chef, Rachel Humphrey.

Turn on the TV and the out-dated way that Britain views women in food is obvious. The schedules are packed with glossy lifestyle programmes where beautiful women cook in dream kitchens and help perpetuate the myth of the ‘domestic goddess’, to wit, Nigella, Rachel Khoo, Lorraine Pascale, Sophie Dahl, Rachel Allen. I attach no blame to any of them – it’s the system – but the contrast is stark. On TV, male chefs prepare serious food in serious kitchens with serious rigour. The ladies, meanwhile, amateur cooks, stay at home to feed the kids and throw killer dinner parties while looking fabulous. It is a ludicrous portrayal of female perfection (great cook! brilliant mum! sexy partner!) that I thought we’d left behind in the 1950s.

Perhaps not. Can you think of any woman but Monica Galetti who is allowed to be severe, judgemental and even unlikeable on a TV food show? She’s probably the only woman in that sphere employed primarily because of her skill and knowledge as a professional chef.

Similarly, in an age when the tabloid media is busy policing women’s diets and generating body-image anxiety, could you ever imagine a female version of Man v. Food? We will never see an 18-stone woman touring the US feasting on burgers and ribs. Fat men can pig-out on TV; it’s jolly, endearing, macho – but in a world where TV execs regard women as mainly decorative, the most they’re allowed as a treat – when not cooking healthy, ‘guilt-free’ meals – is an occasional cake, framed as wild self-indulgence. Nigella is ‘naughty’ for openly enjoying food. It’s madness: she merely has a normal appetite.

Not that we’re necessarily more liberated at home. The programmes pander to the stereotype of the housewife juggling a busy life for a reason. Households where responsibility for the cooking is shared equally are rare (guilty!). Generally, mum does the donkey-work of getting tea on the table, while dad, on the rare occasions he cooks, treats it like a Royal Command performance. Some men will commandeer tasks deemed manly (fry-ups, barbecuing, carving a roast), and cook occasional, elaborate feasts. But the less glamorous work? Forget it. Generally, women feed people, men grandstand. They want applause, gratitude and to look cool while they cook.

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Yes, women are turning away from restaurant kitchens, but we need to admit a deeper problem: that, to some extent, we all collude in perpetuating sexist attitudes in food. It’s a thought which makes The Great British Bake-Off (men baking cakes, women competing as equals), a uniquely radical programme. How weird is that? @naylor_tony


Words: Tony Naylor


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