Women In White
Despite significant, positive changes in kitchen culture, at most, only about a fifth of professional chefs in Ireland are female. Is the industry’s reputation still putting women off? Andrew Jennings talks to London’s most decorated female chef and four emerging Irish culinary stars about the gender issue.
Earlier this year, influential French food magazine Le Chef released its 100 of The Best Chefs in the World 2016.
The list is created by asking 528 Michelin-starred-chef voters to each provide a list of five names of those who they think best represent the cooking profession.
Among the plethora of culinary masters acknowledged, notably, just four women made the top-100 list, and none of them near the top ten. In fact, one of the four – Elena Arzak – is listed along with her father, Juan Mari, who is considered a genius of new Basque cuisine, in north-western Spain.
Closer to home, at the recent Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) Awards, held in Dublin, in the categories for individual winners, featuring the likes of Best Chef and Best Restaurant Manager, the awards went to men.
Meanwhile, a government report entitled Future Skills Needs of the Hospitality Sector, released late last year, estimates that there were 23,948 chefs in Ireland in 2014 [a figure significantly higher today, surely].
Again, notably, of these almost 24,000 chefs, the RAI estimates that, at most, only about 20 per cent were/are women. It is a similar story in the UK, where, according to the Office for National Statistics, there are currently 250,000 chefs, yet only 18.5 per cent (46,000) are women, which actually represents a 2-per-cent decrease on 2015 levels, so it seems that the hackneyed phrase ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’ is still as misguided as it ever was.
The questions now is: where are all the female chefs? One thing that male chefs seem better at doing is advertising themselves. Men push more for culinary recognition.
This is one of the reasons why men dominate the top kitchens, says arguably the finest female chef that this island has ever produced.
Clare Smyth (pictured below), the first female chef in the UK to hold three Michelin stars – just one of six women in the world with this prestigious accolade – and the first female to be awarded a perfect ten by The Good Food Guide, tells Hospitality Ireland that there are plenty of women leading the kitchens in some of London’s top restaurants, but they are not as quick to self-promote as their male counterparts.
“There are a lot of talented female chefs out there that people just don’t know or talk about, women who just are not so keen about talking themselves up,” says Smyth, who was born and brought up in Co. Antrim before moving to England at the age of 16 to pursue a career as a chef.
Smyth has forged a remarkable career, having honed her craft in the kitchens of Heston Blumenthal, the Roux brothers, Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse before finding her culinary calling in leading the kitchen at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London, where she has worked for over half a decade, picking up three Michelin stars and numerous other accolades along the way.
Smyth, who late last year revealed that she will leave her post as head chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay to open her own restaurant in London towards the end of 2016, does not believe that gender discrimination is behind the low ratio of women in the top restaurant kitchen jobs.
“I don’t think gender is an issue at all and never thought that it was,” she says. “I never found that gender had anything to do with it. I think kitchens and restaurants in general are much better places to work today than, say, ten to 15 years ago. It really comes down to individual choices in relation to what you want to achieve in your career. There’s nobody that stops anyone from doing it. The challenges are the same for everyone, male or female,” she adds.
Smyth, who says that her new restaurant venture will be “casual fine dining”, puts her meteoric rise in the restaurant industry down to persistence and hard work more than anything else.
“Yes, there is a low level of women entering the industry, and there’s also the fact that women do not tend to carry on as long in the industry, due to them deciding to have a family, because it is very difficult for people to work nights, weekends and bank holidays when they have a family.
“Making it to the top is about working hard, studying, and learning as much as you can. Being in kitchens, it’s all about practice. If you want to get to the top, it does take a long time. It doesn’t happen fast.”
One of Smyth’s culinary contemporaries in London, Monica Galetti, a presenter on MasterChef, made headlines last year with her comments about the sacrifices that aspiring female chefs must make to reach the pinnacle of the cooking profession.
“At a certain point, women have to decide how much they want their career versus having a family and spending time with family,” Galetti said.
“There’s no BS about it. The truth is, you’ve got to put it first to do well. I’ve seen many amazing chefs, girls, come into the kitchen and then give it up to be with their boyfriend. Would he do that for her?”
Galetti, who left her job at top London restaurant Le Gavroche last year, said that there was no gender bias in professional kitchens, adding that more women were beginning to enter the profession, and “In the kitchen, we’re all equals. Once you’ve got a jacket on, you’re a chef. It’s not about gender. It’s your ability to cook.”
It is true that in recent years, the industry in Ireland has made efforts to make itself more hospitable to all genders and races, modernising to a degree and allowing people employed in kitchens to maintain some sort of healthy work-life balance.
However, it still has a long way to go in this regard, with the cheffing game still viewed as a tough career path to take.
“It is difficult, like most careers, unfortunately, to get ahead if you are a woman,” Jessica Murphy (pictured below), head chef and co-owner of the Kai cafe-restaurant on Sea Road in Galway, tells Hospitality Ireland.
“Not in skill or in creativity, but simply by lifestyle choices. Cheffing means long hours, and it is very pressurised. This is not ideal for any woman who wants to have children and be with her family.”
Murphy says that the fact “we are still talking about gender roles in this industry in 2016” is one of the things that annoys her about the industry.
“The fact that we have to highlight women leads in the kitchen by doing articles like this – I am looking forward to simply it just being as such: women chefs are class, men chefs are class. There is nothing that separates them, only gender.”
Like Clare Smyth in London, Murphy, who is originally from New Zealand, agrees that the culture in Irish restaurant kitchens is changing for the better.
“Strong female and male leads are important, and often I think we are too focused on strong female leads in industry. It shouldn’t be gender specific, as the roles are not. Men need to lead the change as well, and start championing women in this and every industry. I think if we can all come together as a collective, the environment will just naturally start to change.”
Murphy, like a growing number of female chefs in the country, is ambitious.
“There is a long list [of career ambitions], but these are definitely at the top: I would love to do a Kai cookbook, open another restaurant, make some cheese, carry on my dream of charcuterie, and train more female chefs to take on head roles in my kitchens. I want to ensure that every experience at Kai is a very good one, and always love having so many chefs beginning their careers come train and cook with us.”
Louise Bannon (pictured above), who works as a chef at René Redzepi’s multi-award-winning Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, confirms that, on paper, it is not the easiest of careers for young women.
“It can be tough, with long days, and financially hard,” says Bannon, who is originally from Greystones and has done stints in the kitchen at Ballymaloe, Thornton’s, in Dublin, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant, in Berkshire, and Dylan McGrath’s former Mint, in Ranelagh.
She agrees with both Smyth and Murphy that although most kitchens are full of men, gender is not an issue when it comes to the top jobs therein.
“I don’t think it is as much of an issue any more,” she says. “I felt, at the beginning of my career, that it was pretty tough. I had to work hard. Kitchens are still mostly run by guys, and it can be physically and emotionally challenging at times.”
It is an industry that is tough for young women, especially those who want a family, with long and unsociable hours, which impact both men and women.
A head chef’s role is physically and emotionally demanding. The more progressive restaurant owners acknowledge that there is a need for more mentoring, fewer expectations, and something of a reality check when it comes to the hours they demand of their chefs. In some cases, these women are turning out hundreds of meals a night on a hot, high-stress line at some of the country’s most esteemed and critically scrutinised restaurants.
In Ireland, it is worth taking into account that it is not really just an issue of there being a shortage of female chefs – there is a huge shortage of skilled chefs in general.
The aforementioned Future Skills Needs of the Hospitality Sector report estimates that from 2015 to 2020, between 1,632 and 3,552 extra chefs will be needed, due to growth and demand in the sector.
A main skills shortage identified by hospitality businesses was for suitably qualified chefs. According to the report, shortages of commis chefs feed into shortages at higher and specialist levels, such as demi-chef, chef de partie and pastry chef.
There are also significant skills shortfalls emerging among front-of-house and other staff. It is estimated that the chef-related apprenticeships approved by the Apprenticeship Council, which are being led by the Irish Hotels Federation, the Restaurants Association of Ireland, IT Tralee and Euro-Toques, will deliver approximately 130-150 chef-related apprenticeships on an annual basis.
Is this enough to meet a demand that is only going to increase, with new restaurants springing up around the country? What ratio of women will take up these apprenticeships? “If you have talent, drive and ambition, it will drive you forward,” says Kate Lawlor, head chef at Fenn’s Quay, in Cork (pictured below).
“The first hotel kitchen I worked in, on my first day, I was told, ‘Your hair is too long. You’ll have to cut it,’ and ‘That’s the pastry section. You’ll become familiar with this.’”
“Alas, I did cut the hair, but didn’t follow suit on the rest [of the advice]. I had a great sense of pleasure in meeting that chef years later and telling him I was a head chef. “While women tend to leave the industry, or indeed go to the daytime pastry/cafe/restaurant side of things due to family commitments, women are very much still involved in the industry. They may have to work hard to get accepted to a brigade – it’s like joining a gang, you have to earn your stripes – but if you’re good enough, you’ll be accepted whether you’re a man or a woman.”
Lawlor, who says that her ambition is to lead her business in the best way that she can and train up the next generation of chefs to be ambitious, have passion for what they do and enjoy the industry, reveals that in Cork City, several well-known food businesses are run by women, and that in Ireland, more and more kitchens are being headed by women. “Perhaps it is not noted because it’s not at Michelin level, or we’re very much too busy.”
Gráinne O’Keefe (pictured below), sous-chef at the recently reopened Pichet in Dublin, is another young woman passionate about what she does, despite, as she says, “having to work Sundays.
Apart from working in a job that I enjoy and am passionate about, it’s the people you get to work with,” says O’Keefe, when asked why she loves the industry.
“Chefs and waiters have a different lifestyle to people who have office jobs. Sunday night is our Friday night, and having a few drinks straight after work is normal. You get to work doing something you love and can do it in any country in the world.” O’Keefe does not believe that cheffing is still something of a boys’ club. “It just so happens that the majority of chefs are men,” she says.
“Being a chef is hard work, and all chefs need to work extremely hard to do well, regardless of gender. I don’t think being a woman makes it more difficult to work in kitchens, and if it does, then you are in the wrong kitchen. “Nowadays, chefs are in high demand, and any chef who can take the head-chef position of a top restaurant and do a good job is very much sought after, regardless of gender.
There are far more male chefs than female chefs, so it isn’t surprising that most head chefs are men, it’s just math. That isn’t to say that female chefs don’t make it to being head chefs. There are many female head chefs in Ireland, and if you work hard and persevere, it’s always possible.”