Having spent this summer working alongside seven others, it came to my attention pretty early on that I was, in fact, the only female presence working amongst an all-male team of chefs. When reflecting on my childhood and teenage years, I found this pretty confusing, seeing as I have such a strong association between female figures who have dominated not only my upbringing, but the kitchen too. So if an archaic rhetoric that ‘women belong in the kitchen’ still exists, 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, will be your making 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 shocking to discover is that even though interest in the profession is booming in the UK, according to the latest ONS figures, only 18.5% of over 250,000 professional chefs are women, 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 chefs.
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 general consensus drops dramatically. In addition, there is a notion that has been historically ingrained in our culture - established by both culinary professionals and diners alike - that the industry is male dominated for a reason. There are those who think 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, stating that “only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art.” What is shocking is how outdated this comment seems, sadly only having been made in the 1950s – the same decade my dad was born.
Though the situation could certainly be better in the UK, that of Asia shows even less promise, requiring a separate title for Asia’s “best female chef”. On the surface this may seem promising: celebrating female culinary talent and rewarding them for their work… however it is evidently disheartening that the title is even deemed necessary. All too often women are discouraged from pursuing a career as a chef in Asia because of the physical conditions of a professional kitchen; working hours making it pretty tricky to raise a family; or the often-feared ‘macho culture’ 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 lend themselves to the assumption that men - and only men - should be running commercial kitchens.
It’s unfortunate that these ideologies have spawned into everyday assumptions and discussions, which - I will admit - I have been guilty of. It is so easy to draw a picture in your head of a ‘typical chef’ and immediately envisage a cartoon, Ratatouille-esque man with a long hat and white robes, but when asked who is cooking dinner our thoughts fly to Mum or Gran. A key contributor to the enforcement of these stereotypes is the large role the media plays in normalising and preserving this gender imbalance. The reality of the situation is that there are many women in professional kitchens but often the focus of press coverage is skewed towards male chefs. According to Manhattan chef Amanda Cohen, this is because male chefs are found to be more financially lucrative. Interestingly, the first person to ever receive six Michelin stars was Eugénie Brazier - a woman! - yet Alain Ducasse (a man) was given far more media coverage over the same achievement. Carrying out a little research of my own, I simply googled the phrase “celebrity chef”. Unsurprisingly, the horizontal scroll bar that loads throws up names and photos of - what Google recognises as - the top 35 celebrity chefs. From that list, only 9 are women.
The aim of this article is not to provide a one-sided rant about how we should force more women into stressful cooking jobs, nor an attempt to dampen the achievements of many male chefs who’ve contributed to making the gastronomical industry an more creative, innovative and exciting place to work. What I believe is a shame, however, is that the culinary industry has been perpetuated as a male-dominated arena. Ruth Rogers, owner of The River Café London, has spoken out about the issue, outlining how restaurants actually work much better with a gender balance in the kitchen. What is promising is her optimism for the future. Ruth believes conditions now are far better than 10 years ago, which -although perhaps worrying in a sense- can only mean greater improvements and more women leading the way as head chefs across the country.