A friend in hospitality posted something on Facebook the other day. It was a list of the finalists for the Australian Young Chef of the Year 2016. There are 30 finalists. And only four of them are women.
It got me thinking – where are all the female chefs?
Looking at traditional roles, women were primarily the ones who did the cooking. The men were out there hunting and gathering. Sure, we’re not living in caves anymore, but the idea of women nurturing and looking after their families is still in place today. Even with today’s modern women in the workforce, and despite working the same number of hours outside the home, the giant’s share of household tasks still falls largely on her, rather than his, shoulders.
So why hasn’t ‘being in the kitchen’ meant women are not naturally drawn to a career in a professional restaurant environment?
“It’s a time-consuming, tough job, and it stuffs up your family,” says Kate Fay, the Executive Chef at Auckland dining institution, Cibo. Kate has been at the stoves of Cibo for more than seventeen years and has seen her fair share of chefs come and go. She was a single mum raising a 2 year-old son when she took up the Head Chef role at the French Café over two decades ago.
“Young female chefs coming through these days tend to be quite emotional. They can be gullible. You need to be able to switch off emotionally, which requires the right personality. Female chefs need to learn to be able to deal with that, as well as do it. A restaurant kitchen is hard.”
Leslie Hottiaux, owner and head chef of Apero, on Auckland’s K’Road, which recently won Best Restaurant Bar at the recent Metro Awards, agrees. She is also one of four NZ semi-finalists in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2016 awards. The other three nominees are all men.
“I am a pretty tough bitch now in the kitchen, and in recent years I have scared more male chefs than I can remember. When I was younger, it was more a case of keeping my mouth shut and doing it better and faster. I let my actions do the talking. Having English as my second language (she is French) has helped because maybe I am less polite. Chefs, male or female, get it pretty directly!”
Both women agree that being a chef, especially an owner-operator, requires a huge amount of personal sacrifice.
“The hours are tough, and you work when all your family and friends aren’t. Maybe as a woman you want to have a family first, and being a chef is not ideal. You have to be strong minded, dedicated and ready to sacrifice a lot and be prepared to work in a male dominated environment, and truthfully maybe that is just not that appealing to a lot of women,” says Leslie.
Working in such a male dominated industry must mean seeing more than your fair share of sexual innuendo and comments, right?
Kate laughs. “Oh yeah, there’s the typical, ‘while you’re down there’ remarks when you’re on your knees looking for something you’ve dropped.”
“I have heard it all…sexist jokes, innuendo, you name it, I have heard it. But it does make you stronger and push harder. In short, not one man I studied with or worked with in my younger years owns their own restaurant,” Leslie adds.
The male chefs I know say the heavy lifting, hours on your feet, and the hot and brutal environment are tougher and more physically demanding than most people think. So female chefs tend to be drawn to areas in a professional kitchen such as pastries, cakes or cold larder work, or move to cafés rather than restaurant kitchens where there isn’t as much pressure.
I have a theory, which is that hospitality, especially in New Zealand, is not considered a career. Kate agrees.
“I heard of a young male chef being told by a trainer that he wouldn’t be a chef forever. So there’s no stickability in the mindset of young chefs coming into the industry as they don’t see it as a long-term career. That’s both men and women.”
I asked what makes female chefs better than their male counterparts? Leslie’s response? “Women cook from the heart, they cook to make people happy and not for the accolades, awards and all that shit. Women are definitely more genuine in the kitchen. If men are better it is because their drive is status and being the best. Their desire comes from a different place. In my opinion men need recognition, as opposed to women who don’t mind the recognition but are not driven by it.”
Kate’s advice for young female chefs? “Don’t think you’re irreplaceable, don’t get emotional, and learn to be clinical and professional.”
And Leslie’s? “Be strong and filter out the bullshit. If you really want to chef, believe in yourself. Work hard and enjoy it. Yes, if you have to work harder than a man to prove you belong, do it. Push yourself because in the end, it is worth it and it is so rewarding.”
This piece is part of our #JobsForTheGirls series, where we look at the barriers that affect women in employment - whether they're personal or systemic. And the badass women who have smashed through them.