Where are all the female chefs?
Despite the popular image of shouty, sweary male chefs, the modern restaurant kitchen is a place where women can thrive, says restaurateur Jill Stein. So why aren’t more young women joining the industry?
It’s no secret that preparing, talking about, looking at and enjoying good food is popular among the female half of society – apparently three quarters of delicious. readers are women.
So I never fail to be surprised – dismayed is a better word – at the lack of young women training to become chefs. There’s no shortage of talented women getting to the top in restaurant management, often working their way up from waitressing to be in charge of a dynamic front-of-house operation.
So why not cheffing?
Ten years ago, my ex-husband Rick Stein and I started an apprenticeship scheme for chefs in Cornwall. In all that time, the number of female applicants has been way below the number of male applicants. In the UK, only 18.5 per cent of professional chefs are women. This is such a shame because in the pressurised environment of a restaurant kitchen, female leadership, with its talent-nurturing skills and empathetic qualities, is a welcome thing.
It’s not as though there’s a lack of female chef role models. In recent years we’ve seen Angela Hartnett, Monica Galetti, Margot Henderson, Nieves Barragán Mohacho and many others show that the restaurant kitchen can be a place for women to thrive and show their creativity. These women are inspirational and we need to see more of them on our television screens and throughout the media.
There remains a perception within the restaurant industry, and society in general, that the professional kitchen is a man’s world, where tempers boil, voices are raised and anyone with a more timid temperament finds the going tough. Yes, some kitchens are like that (and women can be just as aggressive as men) but it’s largely an inaccurate, out-of-date perception.
I’ve worked in restaurants for 40 years and I know from experience that the best kitchens are run in a calm, disciplined way – whether it’s a man or a woman heading up the team. When you’re in the position of presenting food to customers, you don’t have time to lose your temper every five minutes; there’s work to be done. If the team pulls together as it should, there’s an atmosphere of quiet, methodical purpose, not fear and intimidation. Times have changed and the old-school kitchen environment with excessive hours and more physical demands is no longer the norm.
When we do get young women joining the apprenticeship programme, more often than not they turn out to be wonderful chefs and potential leaders
for the future. One of our apprentices, Laurissa Barriball, was garlanded at an awards ceremony late last year and we’re excited to see where she takes her career. But it’s not just about apprentices. We need to attract older women into the industry too. It would be great to have a balance of genders and a healthy mix of young and old, creating an environment where talented people of all ages work together.
It’s vital we invest in our women and give them the opportunity to fulfil their dreams. Sometimes we need to give young women the confidence to follow those dreams, even though the idea of doing a catering course or an apprenticeship might seem daunting. So if you’re the parent, relative or friend of a budding female chef, do please nurture their talent. You never know where it might take them.
Do you agree with Jill or do you take a different view? Tell us in the comments below.