"Fire in their bellies": What holds female chefs back?

The lack of female chefs at the very top of the industry does not go unnoticed. But what is it about the professional kitchen that is holding women back? Ellie Clayton talks to leading chefs and experts to get their views

Of the 50 best restaurants in the world, only three have a female head chef or owner. And, according to a recent study by Bloomberg, women make up only 6% of the top positions at leading restaurants across America.

Yet the hospitality industry as a whole is much more diverse. Data for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the USA shows that women have made up a majority of the sectors employees since 2004.

So why are there so few women in the professional kitchen? Speaking at the Cheltenham literary festival last month, Tom Kerridge made headlines across the UK with his comments that it was a lack of “fire” that keeps women from the top level. Their lack of aggression might make the kitchen a more pleasant place, but it could also be the key to what is holding them back in their careers, he said.

“I like girls in kitchens a lot because it brings that testosterone level down a little bit, it does make it not so aggressive.

“But then at the same point a lot of that fire in the chef’s belly you need, because you need them to force themselves to be ready for dinner service. That’s probably why there’s not so many female chefs.”

“They are out there; it’s just whether it’s the industry for them. I’m not sure, at that level.”

Maneet Chauhan, TV chef and former executive chef of Vermilion in Chicago, perhaps understandably disagrees. When it comes to fire and aggression in the kitchen, gender is a false distinction, she says.

“No two chefs, be it a man or a woman, have the same style of running a kitchen,” she says. “I have worked with some chefs who are men and have the calmest kitchens, and kitchens where the female chef leading the brigade is flying.”

“You don’t need to be a man or a woman to have that fire in your belly.  You just need to be a chef.”

Chefs like Chauhan prove that women can, and do, make great leaders in the industry. So what is it that holds so many women back? Debbie Harris, a sociologist at the University of Texas, currently researching the topic for a new book Taking the heat: women chefs and gender equalities in the kitchen, puts the gender imbalance down to a number of different factors.

Family is an important consideration for many women. Long hours and low pay anywhere other than at the very top of the industry is endemic throughout the sector, with women more frequently the primary carer, a career in the professional kitchen is often untenable.

“Quite simply,” she said, “lots of women opt out early”.

Chauhan, whose new restaurant opening, along with the arrival of her second child, is imminent, says that women’s perceptions of the options open to them must change.

“I think women need to know that they can have it all, if they want it.  I think I am a good example.  I am a chef, a wife, a mother of a 3-year-old with another one on the way, in the process of opening a restaurant, on TV, involved in anything and everything.”

But, says Harris, the imbalance goes more deeply into the culture of professional kitchens. An historic desire to separate masters of professional restaurants from servants and home cooks led to a heavily gendered distinction between the two. And today, she says, the difference between male and female chefs still endures in the media.

“Men get celebrated for being visionaries. They are revolutionaries, gods of food.” While women, she says, are much more likely to receive commendation for cooking something in a traditional, home-cooked way.

“Female chefs are influenced by that, that may affect their aspirations.”

Many female chefs do not agree that gender has played a role in their careers. As Chauhan says, kitchens are a challenging environment for anyone, man or woman. Charlotte Kemp, a development chef for Levy Restaurants, part of the Compass Group, agrees.

“Professional kitchens are challenging and rewarding environments to work in – in some cases they can be male dominated – but above all it’s the skills you have whether you’re male or female that will determine success.”

Harris’s research, which takes in a study of women working in professional kitchens at all stages of their career, shows that things are starting to change.

“The older chefs say they’ve noticed change. That it’s a lot easier now to get along in a kitchen than it was twenty years ago.”

Clare Smyth, the only female chef in the UK to hold three Michelin stars, recognises the gradual improvement.

“As time goes on we’re getting more and more females coming in,” she said in the most recent issue of Foodservice Consultant.

“We’ve got three young ladies in the kitchen with us at the moment, all between the ages of 20-23 and they are doing phenomenally well and there’s no reason why there can’t be more women or why there shouldn’t be more.”

Chauhan agrees. “This industry has for a long time been one that is male dominated. It will take time to see an equal ratio, but I don’t think that this day is too far off,” she says.

Ellie Clayton

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