Having worked this summer in a kitchen alongside seven others, it came to my realisation pretty early on that I was, in fact, the only female presence working amongst an all-male chef team. I found this pretty confusing when reflecting on my teenage years and childhood, where I have such a strong association of female figures who’ve dominated my upbringing, dominating the kitchen too. So if there’s this archaic culture that ‘women belong in the kitchen’- why is the culinary industry so male dominated?
Thinking back to a five year old me who took to the simple mantra of what you’re good at now you’ll be when you’re older, it seems to make so little sense that the gastronomical industry is so male dominated when there is ample global culinary talent from both men and women alike. What is quite shocking to discover is that even though interest in the chef profession is booming in the UK, only 18.5% of over 250,000 professional chefs are women according to the latest ONS figures, showing a pretty steep decrease of just over 20% from last year. When it comes to Michelin stars the story worsens; with only 10 of the 172 Michelin star restaurants in the UK housing female head chef’s.
The real crisis in the industry unfortunately falls upon reputation. As a society we suffer from a conflict that it is reputable for women to possess culinary aptitude but when it comes to them pursuing a professional career in such talent, the regard falls significantly. In addition there is a historically engrained culture, established by both culinary professionals and diners alike, that the industry is male dominated for a reason. This being that men possess the skills, aptitude and resilience to survive the pressures and hardship of a professional kitchen that women do not. The ‘father of French cuisine’, Fernand Point, embodies this ideology saying that “only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art.” What’s shocking is how outdated this comment seems when it was only made in the 1950’s – the same decade my dad was born.
Though the situation isn’t great in the UK, dominance of female chef’s in Asia shows even less promise. There is now a title for Asia’s best female chef. On the surface this seems promising in the celebration of female culinary talent , although upon reflection it seems disheartening this award is even necessary. All too often women are discouraged from pursuing a career as a chef in Asia because of the physical conditions in a professional kitchen, working hours making it pretty tricky to raise a family or the ‘macho culture and lewd discussions’ in the workplace. Peggy Chan, the chef and owner of Grassroots Pantry Hong Kong, has outlined there are existing archetypes in the psyches of Asian cultures that lends to the assumption men should be running commercial kitchens as oppose to women.
It’s unfortunate that these ideologies have spawned into every day assumptions and dialects- which I can say I am all too guilty for adopting. It is so easy to draw a picture in your head of a ‘classical chef’ and immediately envisage a man with a long hat and white robes like those in Ratatouille, but then when someone asks whose cooking dinner we automatically assume mum or gran.
What is key to enforcing these stereotypes is the large role media plays in normalising this gender imbalance. The reality of the situation is that there are many women in professional kitchens but often press coverage is skewed far more to focussing upon male chefs, because they’re found to be more financially lucrative, according to Amanda Cohen, a Manhattan chef. Interestingly the first person to ever receive six Michelin stars was Eugénie Brazier, a women, yet Alain Ducasse, a man, was given far more media coverage over achieving the same feat. Carrying out a little research of my own I simply googled the phrase celebrity chef. A horizontal scroll bar loads in which there are names and photos of what google recognises as the top 35 celebrity chefs. What’ s pretty shocking is from that list is only 9 are women.
It is important to highlight that what this article should not be digested as is a rant. Nor an attempt to dampen the achievements of many male chefs who’ve contributed to making the gastronomical industry an ever creative, innovative and exciting place. What I believe is a shame, however, is the normalisation of the culinary industry being a male dominated place. Ruth Rogers, owner of the River café London has spoken out about this issue outlining how restaurants actually work much better with gender balance in the kitchen. What is promising however is her optimism for the future of women leading the way as head chefs across the country, where she thinks conditions now are far better than 10 years ago.