Stephen Jardine: Cooking up some gender equality

The man who said “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” lacked more than just an understanding of gender equality. He also hadn’t a clue how the food industry works.

Stephen Jardine. Picture: TSPL

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that, of the 187,000 people working as chefs in professional kitchens in the UK, less than 20 per cent were women.

When you look at top chefs and the highest levels, the problem gets even worse. Of the 169 UK restaurants in the UK awarded Michelin stars last year, only eight had female chefs in charge.

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In an age of equality, the professional kitchen remains an anomaly and next week the issue will be under the spotlight like never before.

London cook shop and school Divertimenti is hosting three culinary salons based around discussing women in food. Speakers include Leon co-founder Allegra McEvedy, Morito chef Sam Clark and, from Scotland, restaurant owner Carina Contini.

North of the Border, many food businesses have women in prominent positions. Mara Seaweed, Genius Foods and Graham’s the Family Dairy are just some of the firms with women in senior roles. But step through the doors of a restaurant kitchen and it’s a very different story. Suzanne O’Connor is executive chef at the Scottish Café and Ristorante Contini in Edinburgh and one of the few women working at that senior level. Even after 24 years in the business, she encounters old-fashioned attitudes every day.

“If a workman comes into the kitchen, they will often walk past me in my chef whites and start talking to the male staff because they simply assume they will be in charge,” she says.

So how do we make the professional kitchen more attractive for women? The solution isn’t straightforward.

Behind the problem lies a mix of low-level sexism, machismo and the punishing hours that make kitchen and family life pretty incompatible.

“Women often start in the pastry section in the kitchen, but to rise up the ladder you have to build experience in all the stations. Breaking out from pastry is often the hardest battle, but the long hours and hard, physical work also mean other professions look much more attractive,” O’Connor says.

There are signs of change. High-profile chefs like Angela Hartnett, Clare Smyth and Anna Hansen are significant role models for women wanting to break into the industry. But their success won’t alter things overnight.

“Seeing successful female chefs on television has brought more young women into the industry, but that doesn’t mean they will make it. Lots fall by the wayside. I started at college with about 20 women. Only two of us are still cooking for a living,” O’Connor says.

Women are doing all they can to progress but until men encourage and support them as equals, the restaurant kitchen will remain one of the last bastions of male domination.