Why does the kitchen have a glass ceiling?

Female culinary students are at a premium but where are all the female chefs?
Female culinary students are at a premium but where are all the female chefs?

Aoife Lawless looks at what is holding back women chefs in high-end restaurants…

What’s happening to all our female chefs? When I enrolled in Culinary Arts six years ago my fellow female classmates were in the majority, and most of us wanted to be chefs. A recent study conducted a survey of 170 Irish head chefs: only 15% were female. So where have the women gone?

“Cooking has traditionally always been female,” says Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, veteran lecturer at DIT Cathal Brugha Street. Mac Con Iomaire doesn’t agree that the industry as a whole is male dominated, and says the issue of gender divide in the professional kitchen boils down to “positions of seniority rather than a question of male dominance”.

There is, he admits, a historic division of labour. “Historically, the female ‘cooks’ veered into institutional cooking, such as in hospitals and schools, whereas their male counterparts sought out ‘status’ as leading chefs in renowned restaurants. Female cooks, male chefs!” Similar “glass ceilings”, he says, loom over other professions such as teaching and nursing.

Mac Con Iomaire went on to give me at least twenty names of prominent female chefs in the present day, most at Michelin level, spanning Britain and Ireland. However, such a short list succeeding only in driving me back to my original question: Where are all the female chefs?

“Female chefs are often pushed towards the pastry section,” says researcher Mary Farrell. “A female chef interning at Dublin’s prestigious Michelin starred restaurant, Chapter One, was directed towards pastry by her male mentor, advising her that‘that’s where you’ll make money’.” Farrell, a PhD student, is trying to answer, in rigorous academic terms, that same question as to the whereabouts of leading female chefs.

“They’ll make excuses about unsociable hours, the desire to rear a family and the assumption that female chefs will want to veer into pastry at some stage of their careers”,says Farrell, who doesn’t buy these answers and instead believes that “the industry itself is to blame”, that the male chefs in positions of leadership are controlling the fate of their female subordinates.

A successful business woman herself, Farrell graduated from Cathal Brugha Street in 1984, long before the Culinary Arts programme became a degree. She has owned multiple businesses in the hospitality industry; she was head chef at one of these, Café Fresh, a vegetarian restaurant in the Powerscourt centre.. At present she owns and runs a catering company accommodating for special dietary requirements  such as Coeliac disease, dairy intolerance and diabetes.

She has in the past worked with a male head chef who was “aggressive and resistant to change”, she says, creating an awkward and hostile kitchen environment for all his colleagues. As a woman, she was treated as though she “didn’t know what she was talking about”, no matter what the issue, and his opinion was “absolute”. When he left her organisation he went on to work at a Michelin level restaurant and she was forced to take over the kitchen. “In his absence a change occurred in the kitchen – the tension was lifted and the staff were happy.” She doesn’t think male chefs can look far enough past their own ego to see a restaurant as a whole entity, as a business, not just a stage on which they play the lead.

Tom Kerridge, head chef of the Hand and Flowers, a Michelin two-star gastro-pub in England, made some controversial statements regarding female chefs at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in October. “I like girls in the kitchen a lot: it brings down that testosterone level.” He continued to disparage female chefs, stating that women lack the “fire in the belly” to make it at Michelin level. “They are out there; it’s just whether it’s the industry for them. I’m not sure, at that level,” he added before further patronising remarks such as “girls in a kitchen make blokes feel happy at work” before covering himself with a last-minute save: “This doesn’t apply to just girls. We have loads of blokes who do a runner because the pressure and intensity of cooking at that level is so intense.”

All this talk made me think about my own kitchen experiences and reflected on how I had been treated as a young female chef.

On my first internship I was immediately referred to the pastry chef for training in a separate kitchen from the main one. The pastry chef was delighted to have company in his usually segregated kitchen and I was relieved to not be joining a much feared “boys’ club” environment. I meekly pointed out in my mid- apprenticeship review with my college supervisor and head chef that I had no interest in pastry and perhaps I could be involved in the workings of the main kitchen. I was then entrusted to the sous-chef, a pregnant Polish woman who was strict but kind and taught me more in one month than I’d learned in all of my first year in college. The chef directly under her, a male chef, barked orders at me daily and refused to give me measurements for recipes whilst scoffing at my inadequacies.

In my third year I interned at Fallon & Byrne and it was here that I fell back in love with cooking; I had already begun plotting a career as a writer, but this place drew me toward a career as a chef. The hierarchy of the restaurant was equally divided between males and females. The head chef was only 30 and had risen to his position not only through years of experience, but also through education. He had returned to Cathal Brugha Street a couple of years after completing his chef training in order to study management and it was with his combined skills he achieved head-chef status. His sous-chef was a very pregnant and very capable woman of the same age. They had worked together at a hotel and when he graduated to the position of head chef at Fallon & Byrne he took her with him, along with two other female chef-de-parties. Below the head- and sous-chef, male chef-de-parties outnumbered females three to two, but the numbers were evened out with the addition of a pastry chef and occasional chef-de-partie. Another intern from Cathal Brugha Street was female and, lastly, the recently promoted kitchen porter was a male commis-chef. The female chefs were both feared and respected, though they rarely raised their voices. They made it clear they had standards and these were adhered to even when they were not present. I continued to work for them throughout my final year in college and was never put in a position where I felt uncomfortable or undervalued because of my gender and the kitchen environment maintained constant professionalism.

My experiences in a professional kitchen highlighted many of the issues Mary Farrell raises about attitudes to female chefs. I was directed towards pastry. Male chefs did, sometimes, try to undermine and bully me and certainly did succeed in clouding my judgement for a time. Yet the main excuse, as was given to Mary, of females stepping back for family life was unfounded in my experiences, I had witnessed female chefs balancing family life and their careers whilst still providing positive role models.

But I was never content to chop and peel for endless hours, or endure burns, cuts and scalds on a regular basis in the hope of eventually obtaining a senior role in a kitchen after spending four years completing my degree. Perhaps therein lies the answer: education creates aspirations beyond manual labour for minimal reward. Many male chefs rise through the ranks from porter to head chef. The male students who dropped out of Culinary Arts continued in the profession, some of them very successfully. Many of my female peers continued their education at Masters and PhD level in areas of product development and education, the latter now delivering the lectures they once attended.

The glass ceiling of female seniority in the professional kitchen may remain unbroken, for now, simply because female chefs may have their eyes on a bigger prize.

By Aoife Lawless

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