Some food and drink celebrations – like this week’s Mulled Wine Day and National Cereal Day – just need to stop. However yesterday saw a celebration that deserves all the support we can give it.
International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the 20th century and has grown into a worldwide commemoration of female achievement. It also serves to highlight where more needs to be done and high on that list is the food and drink sector. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that of the UK’s 237,000 chefs, just 41,000 of them are women – less than 20 per cent.
There is history behind this. Macho cultures, dreadful kitchen conditions and shift systems designed to make work and family incompatible conspired to discourage women from entering the profession. But there is something else going on.
While chef suggests craft and skill, the word cook denotes something more mundane. Within the ONS figures, 50,000 women said they were cooks, compared to just 14,000 men. Even today most home cooking is done by women and the lack of value attached to that seems to spill over into the workplace. Kitchen staff in restaurants are more likely to be male. Kitchen staff in schools and hospitals are more likely to be female.
In any other industry, there would be a clamour for change and equality and it is growing in the food and drink sector. Last night Giovanna Eusebi had a special dinner to celebrate International Women’s Day at her deli and restaurant in Glasgow’s West End. Female chefs and business owners including Rosie Healey, Pam Brunton, Carina Contini, Roberta Hall and Flora Shedden show what can be achieved.
They follow in great footsteps. From Shirley Spear at The Three Chimneys to Hilary Brown at La Poitiniere, Lady Claire MacDonald at Kinloch Lodge and Gunn Eriksen at Altnaharrie Inn, there is a fine tradition in Scotland of women running acclaimed restaurants. But if the culture isn’t in place to feed and grow that legacy then it will never really blossom.
In Scotland, we have more women in the restaurant business than ever before and employers are pushing the doors open further. Traditional barriers are being swept aside. At Monachyle Mhor near Balquhidder, executive chef Maria Paszkowska juggles running the kitchen and caring for a young son thanks to sensible shift patterns that work for everyone. However the restaurant business collectively needs to understand what it is missing by being so patriarchal. Last year the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list contained not a single establishment run by a female chef. Instead the phenomonally talented Clare Smyth was awarded the prize for Best Female Chef in the World. Asked what it is like to be a female chef, she replied with remarkable restraint: “I’m not sure because I’ve never been a male chef.” There lies the problem. Awards like that one suggest female chefs are a sideshow, worthy of a consolation prize but nothing more. That needs to change if equality is ever to exist in the kitchen and, until then, we are all missing out.