Heston Blummenthal, Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White: we’ve all heard those names, seen their faces and maybe even eaten their food; as chefs these days are turning into superstars, megabrands and million dollar businesses. The never-ending list of cooking shows, “best chefs” and “best restaurants” lists all explicitly show one sad reality: women head-chefs (or even simply chefs) are still a minority. Women only occupy 6.3 percent head-chef positions at 15 prominent U.S. restaurant groups analyzed by Bloomberg. In the 2012 Michelin guide, there was only one female that was on the list of the best 106 restaurant chefs that have been awarded three stars. So despite the majority of female home-cooks and modern feminists speaking up at the UN: where are all the ladies?
We interviewed French chef, Laetitia Natali, who studied at the very renowned Ecole Ferrandi and worked in numerous restaurants in Paris, like Afaria, L’Hotel Vendome, l’Hotel in St Germain and Les Affranchis.
Food shows all seem to have fewer women and more men on air; is it representative of the real world? Are there fewer women chefs?
There were as many girls than boys when I went to cookery school. But all the prizes and TV shows usually show you a guy as a chef and a woman as a patissière. Maybe it’s a marketing strategy: a man seems more professional while a woman seems sweeter and more delicate. But it is changing. We’re starting to see more and more young women as head-chefs in Michelin restaurants. My favourite right now is Adeline Grattard and her restaurant Yam’tcha.
What keeps women from running kitchens? Should they man-up?
People say women are too sensitive and emotional, but I’ve seen men cry in the kitchen. Just because you’re a woman, men will automatically test you. So yes you have to man up, and once you do they will respect you. I’ve seen women climb ladders and become worse than men.
Are there “women’s jobs” in professional kitchens?
No, I think we are capable of doing anything a man does in the kitchen. I once came across a female “dish washer” and was quite surprised. But again, there is no “woman’s job”.
Professional kitchens were known to be shamelessly sexist. Is that still true?
It really depends on who you’re dealing with. Some male chefs will treat you differently because you are a woman. You’ll get “special advantages”, like not being allowed to carry the heavy stuff in case you break it. In other cases you’ll be asked to take the trash out because you’re like everyone else.
Do women and men cook differently?
Absolutely and you can tell when a dish was made by a man or a woman. It’s all in the presentation. I’ve often seen the feminine side of men suddenly pop out while laying out dishes. You see them turning into a delicate flower and saying stuff like “Oh! How pretty and elegant!”
What message would you give to young women who start working in the industry?
Be 100% sure of what you’re getting yourself into. If you want to cook, it’s going to be tough but worth it. If you’re hesitating, it’s not for you.
Some of the women did make it to the top. They seem to be sharing the same message: they are not just female chefs, they are chefs. Here are a few great female head-chefs and what they have to say. Interview by Fiona Sims.
Angela Hartnett @ Murano, London
She won her first Michelin star in 2004, after opening Menu Restaurant at the Connaught Hotel with Gordon Ramsay. In 2008 she opened Murano in Mayfair with Ramsay and won a star the following year. Since 2010, she became the sole owner of the restaurant and is currently a columnist for The Guardian and now also oversees the Whitechapel Gallery’s Dining Room.
“Men dominate most industries, get over it and get on with it, I say. There’s no point in me trying to square up to a bloke, you’ve just got to be smarter about things. I’ve lost my rag in the kitchen, certainly, but I get annoyed when I do. I feel like I’ve lost control.
“I don’t think women have had to work any harder at this job, and they don’t run kitchens any differently to men—we have just as much stamina as men. I think if anything it’s easier for a woman in this industry. Women stand out more—I’m sure I’ve had more articles written about me just because I’m a woman. My advice to any woman wanting to enter this profession is to believe in your cooking and don’t take the option of the pastry section, which seems to be what happens all too often. And I give the same advice to any chef, regardless of gender: choose your style of food and do the best that you can, whether it’s fine dining, turning out burgers or making pizza.
“I think the industry is so much better these days in every aspect—the money is better than it used to be, so are the hours, and there is far less attitude and aggression in the kitchen to deal with.”
Gabrielle Hamilton @ Prune, New York
Hamilton opened Prune in New York City’s East Village in 1999 and has since been regularly listed as one of the top 100 restaurants in all major food magazines. Hamilton is also a prolific writer, contributing to many different publications from The New Yorker to Food & Wine magazine.
“Does the industry give female chefs enough recognition? No, it doesn’t. But then I don’t want recognition just because I’m female. I want it because I’m doing a great job. I think one of the problems is that there are hardly any professional female chefs on television. It’s either domestic cooks wearing sweater sets with long lacquered finger nails or it’s female Iron Chefs commencing battle—it’s so messed up. (…)
“How do I juggle life with my two kids? To be honest, it’s a nightmare. Everyone gets hurt, not least me—the babysitter knows my kids better than me. The clever way to approach this is to do things in succession—jump on the career path early and have kids later if you want them, though I know life doesn’t work out that way sometimes. I have many women working with me in the kitchen. Though I like it best when it’s a mix: too many women and it’s a hair parlour; too many men and it’s a saloon.”
Clare Smyth @ Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London
Smyth is the first and only female chef at a three Michelin-starred Restaurant in the UK (Restaurant Gordon Ramsay). Born in Northern Ireland, she moved to England at the age of 16 to learn the skills, which led her to become a world-class chef. She joined Alain Ducasse’s renowned Le Louis XV in 2005 and became a head-chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London in 2008.
“Yes, it has been a challenge. Being a chef is a hard, dirty, job, and many drop out, but when you’ve gone through the toughest kitchens there are, you come out the other side. And yes, I’ve encountered chauvinistic behaviour—I think there’s a bit wherever you go. I’ve had my fair share of ‘little girl, you don’t belong here’—in France particularly(…). I think, generally, women are better at this job—there is less nonsense, they have more stamina, and higher pain thresholds. Women, moody? Seriously? I work with 15 guys and they are up and down all the time, it makes me laugh.
“One of the most annoying things I’ve ever been told is ‘you’ve done well for a woman’. I find that insulting. I’m good at what I do regardless of my gender. There are some great female chefs all over the world but the majority of the public don’t know who they are. One answer is to get more female chefs on TV and in print. The dominance of female domestic cooks on our screens is quite unnatural—pretty girls making cookies is the wrong image.
What next for me? I’ve achieved all I want in culinary terms—I’ve got the T-shirt. But in a business sense I haven’t yet. (…)”