A woman’s place should be in the professional kitchen

9 July 2018

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The #MeToo movement may have been inspired by the shocking experiences of women in the entertainment industry but nowhere has the clammy hand of sexism reached further than in the notoriously testosterone-fuelled world of professional kitchens.

Stories are legion of the discrimination and harassment suffered by the few women determined and thick-skinned enough to make it to the top in an industry that, until now, has been so brutally male dominated.

The sexual imbalance that continues at the top of the industry was laid bare at the illustrious World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards in Bilbao last month. Of the 50 institutions recognised, only four are run by female head chefs.

Perhaps sensing a PR elephant trap, organisers had introduced a new gong for the world’s best female chef, won this year by Clare Smyth (pictured), the only British woman to hold and retain three Michelin stars.

Rather than appeasing criticism, the award served only to refocus attention on disparity. Smyth herself was among those to point out that the award, while no doubt well-intentioned, only exists because of sexism.

Just as #MeToo reflected a commonality of discrimination from the casting couches of Hollywood to the offices and shop floors of workplaces around the world, the problem in the catering industry exists across the board, from the most rarefied Michelin star restaurant to the lowliest neighbourhood diner.

In the UK, only 18.5% of professional chefs working in restaurant kitchens are women and, earlier this year, a study by the US-based Restaurant Opportunities Centre found that 80% of female restaurant workers had experienced harassment from a co-worker. Some two-thirds said they had experienced such behaviour from a manager.

Such harassment — which ranged from inappropriate comments to assault — remained unchecked according to those at the sharp end. Predatory, bullying chefs were excused as rogue geniuses, captains of pirate ships with absolute power.

The kitchen bully has become a well-rehearsed media trope, whose bad behaviour is excused and even expected as part and parcel of a high octane, high pressure working environment.

Natasha Cooke, co-owner and head chef at Lupins, in London Bridge,  said she experienced harassment on her first day as a trialist at a Michelin-starred restaurant, when she received comments about her bra and was even asked back to a senior chef's house.  

Helena Puolakka, chef patron at Aster, in the capital, said she was "continuously called a f****** b****," had her suitability for the job questioned because she’s a woman and endured comments about periods on a regular basis. 

Sophie Michell, who became Britain's youngest female executive chef at Belgraves and is now executive chef at Home House, said that as a teenager she was "grabbed in restaurants, and lunged at," but the most degrading sexism she faced were comments undermining her success.

"At 17 I was nominated for a young chef of the year award, one of the only female nominees. Someone said it was only because I had slept with the chef, who was 60 at the time. When I got the job at Belgraves, someone said it was only because I was pretty. It takes away the value from the work you do." 

The imbalance of women in professional kitchens  is regularly attributed to the physical rigour of the job; the punishing hours; the men’s club, testosterone-fuelled energy; and the challenges of combining it with a family life, but such arguments no longer hold credibility.

Smyth's award has contributed to the conversation about sexism, inappropriate language and behaviour and career progression being blocked because of gender.

There’s a perception among women that they must give more to the job than men and many feel there a lack of recognition among men of the difficulties created by being often the only woman in a kitchen. 

Anna Hansen MBE, owner manager of The Modern Pantry in Clerkenwell, says long hours are a problem for everyone, no matter their sex. She wants to see greater tolerance of women taking career breaks to have children.

“I have never worked anywhere that I have seen somebody rendered incapable because they were a woman but by the same token I’ve seen plenty of harassment. Women are just reduced to their anatomical parts.

“It’s just a form of bullying - it’s about power tripping and I don’t like it. I have probably been subjected to it once in my life, but I have seen it happen with other people. It has never been acceptable, but it has been the norm before but now there is just no place for it.”

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