Nearly a year ago, I passed the keys to my restaurant on to the incoming chef, having cooked, brewed and baked my way through two years of service and administration. I’d created something I didn’t expect and my life was out of kilter. My daughters were growing up rapidly and needed their mum around. On running my fingers through the hair of my youngest child, I found it matted – this was the final straw. I could no longer ignore the fact that I had a young family who needed me. The restaurant had to go.
Women in Food came out of my experience of working in the food industry and grappling with the challenges of also being a mum. I wanted to know how other women managed the hours, the physicality and how they retained the rest of their lives intact. Initially, I drew a blank. Other than the women’s voices who lined my shelves with their cookery books, where were the female chefs? I realised the majority of my formal training had been from male chefs, not women. It occurred to me that if I, in my mid-40s struggled to find female role models in the industry, what of the younger women making their first tentative steps into professional kitchens – who was going to inspire them?
With my antennae finely tuned, female chefs began to surface both in the media and closer to home. Since then, I’ve spoken to women running award winning kitchens, toting MBEs, changing their communities and juggling motherhood all through the prism of food. The possibilities are limitless.
Common themes began to appear: many of the chefs I spoke with are self-taught and have learnt on the job. They work with instinct, creativity and love for the food they make. However, many also experience self-doubt. ‘I’m not a chef, I’m a cook’ is a phrase I commonly hear. These women know their stocks and sauces and run their kitchens efficiently, yet hesitate to step up for the glory. At this point, I like to point out that neither is Raymond Blanc classically trained but is certainly no less a chef. The term ‘cook’ suggests domesticity and a lower pay grade, the question is, why sell ourselves short? I’m convinced that the more we celebrate the achievements of our female chefs, the easier it’ll be for women in food to value the work that they do so well.
Women are changing practices in our professional kitchens, summed up so neatly by Rosie Healey, chef-founder of Alchemilla, in a recent interview with Cate Devine, “I cook beautiful dishes. My food is not played with. I don’t do puffs, gels, foams, ices or water baths. To me, that kind of cooking is very male and more about showing off the chef rather than what’s delicious to eat.”
‘Who can wear the dirtiest apron’
Women are also changing cultures. Chef Laura Hart, founder of Harts Bakery, Bristol says of the gruelling culture found in many pro kitchens, “It was the physicality of it, the long hours and in an incredibly macho environment, best described as who can work the longest, be the toughest and wear the dirtiest apron.” In response, Hart decided to set up in business on her own terms and now, in charge of her kitchen, is well positioned to juggle her recent entry into parenthood alongside her career.
Chef Julie Lin MacLeod opened her first restaurant, Kopitiam in Glasgow motivated by a similar drive, “Prior to opening my own place, I learnt a lot about how not to do things.” Based on her experiences, MacLeod wanted to run a kitchen with a different approach, which not only produced great food but also provided a place for female chefs to shine. “We have no hierarchy and no recipes,” says MacLeod, “No one gets stuck on a station and we mix up tasks which makes the team stronger.” MacLeod talks about listening to her team, learning about their ambitions and figuring out how she can incorporate that into the business. “The way we work allows for a creative flow,” says MacLeod. “When you’re working, it’s much more important to find a resolution to matters rather than simply get angry. Things get done quicker this way.”
At this point, my heart beats a little faster. Positive change is afoot and it may benefit all chefs – female and male alike.
The secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.
This is the sweet spot. As women in food pull away from the traditional, out dated and exhausting habits, they bring a fresh energy to the table which may stand to benefit us all.
The project began as a personal quest to make sense of my own experience and place it in context. In doing so, it has revealed so much more and taken on a momentum of its own as chefs of both genders get in touch to say how much they enjoy reading the pieces.
It is my wish that Women in Food will help to inspire an industry that has a big heart, masses of creativity and the capacity to influence our wider culture in a positive way.