Skye Gyngell: culinary director at Heckfield Place in Hampshire, England and former Michelin-starred chef of Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, who will open a restaurant in central London next year.
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A Toast To Women in Food!

Andy Lynes - December 9th, 2013

Suddenly, gender is top of the food agenda. This November, the Le Fooding guide staged Le Clan de Madone in Paris, a pop-up restaurant where the food was prepared by 13 successful female French chefs, including Céline Mingam of Le Galoubet in Arles and Alice di Cagno of Chatomat in Paris. In the same week in New York City, under the banner of Women in Whites, the annual James Beard fall gala spotlighted the cuisine of half a dozen leading female American chefs including Melissa Kelly of Primo in Rockland, Maine, and Kristen Kish of Menton in Boston (read a full report of the event). And in London, the Toast events company staged Women in Food, a series of moderated panel discussions focusing on wine, media, and restaurants, held over three nights.

“We felt that women were underrepresented in food and yet no one was really talking about it. The issue is often ignored. So we decided to do something about it,” says journalist Miranda York, who founded Toast earlier this year with business partner and fund-raiser Sarah Chamberlain.

York's assertion has been borne out by the lack of female chefs featured in two recent major culinary-themed articles in the international media. Time magazine's much discussed “Gods of Food” cover feature listed 13 movers and shakers, including cover stars René Redzepi, Alex Atala, and David Chang. While four of those mentioned were female, none of them were chefs. In the same edition, a “food tree” charting the influence of Redzepi, Alain Passard, Ferran and Albert Adrià, and Thomas Keller included just two female chefs, both of whom were pastry chefs and only mentioned in sidebars to the feature.

In the same week as the Time story, French newsweekly L'Express published “Génération New French Bistrot!,” naming Inaki Aizpitarte of Le Chateaubriand in Paris as leader of a more experimental style of bistro cooking and a further 14 chefs who were deemed to be following in a similar vein. Not one of them was a woman.

“One of the reasons women don't appear in the media more is because they don't tend to put themselves forward,” says York. “Perhaps it's humility or simply there's less desire to be in the spotlight. I often find female chefs are less arrogant.”

For their sold-out Women in Food: Restaurants event, held in South London, York and Chamberlain assembled a panel made up of Skye Gyngell (culinary director at Heckfield Place in Hampshire, England and former Michelin-starred chef of Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, who will open a restaurant in central London next year); Aurelie Jean-Marie-Flore (general manager of Michelin-starred Hedone in Chiswick); Niamh Scott (assistant general manager of Hawksmoor restaurant in Guildhall in the City of London); and Claire Roberson (owner of the acclaimed Mayfields in Hackney). Scandinavian-style canapes created by London-based Norwegian food writer and cook Signe Johansen were served alongside glasses of Nyetimber sparkling wine from West Sussex in the south of England.  

York approximates that the audience was split 95 percent female to 5 percent male, with attendees including Emma Reynolds, co-founder of the critically acclaimed Tonkotsu and Tsuru Sushi restaurants, and Melissa Hemsley from health food company Hemsley and Hemsley.

The discussion touched on a number of topics, including sexism in the industry. “Certain restaurants prefer a female front-of-house, so it works both ways,” said Scott, while Jean-Marie-Flore stated that, “If you show you can work hard and prove yourself, it doesn't matter what gender you are.” Combining motherhood with a career in restaurants led Gyngell to state, “It does get difficult when you have children—even working part-time in a restaurant is pretty much a 40 hour week.” Roberson agreed, adding, “It can be done, but you have to be prepared to take at least a small break from the industry.” Regarding gender being a factor in kitchen brigades, Gyngell noted “I do look for a balance of men and women in my kitchen.”

Female role models cited by the panel included chef and author Jane Baxter (formerly of Riverford Kitchen); Margot Henderson of Rochelle Canteen in East London; and pioneer of modern British cooking Joyce Molyneux, who ran the influential Carved Angel restaurant in Devon (now closed). “All the people who inspire me in food are women,” said Gyngell.

“One interesting point made by the panelists was that they sometimes felt at a disadvantage when dealing with suppliers,” says York. “They would try and get away with things, like supplying substandard produce, which the panelists felt they wouldn't have tried with a man.”

“Overall, the panel concluded that gender has become a much less important factor in working in restaurants,” says Chamberlain. “It's a hard industry for everyone, with incredibly long hours and tough physical labor. As long as a chef or front-of-the-house staff member can prove their worth and give as good as they get, he or she will be OK.”

Not everyone agrees with the panel's conclusions, however. Restaurateur Josie Stead of the critically acclaimed Quality Chop House in Farringdon in Central London and former general manager of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, feels that there is still some way to go in changing perceptions and attitudes toward women in hospitality. “Although the industry is progressing, it still has an innately narrow view with archaic attitudes that question whether women should be in leading roles. Preconceived ideas of gender encumber our industry, but not just from other chefs and restaurateurs. It's a mentality shared by the public. Many of my customers are surprised that I am the owner,” says Stead. “Women's recognition by the media for front-of-the-house is minimal and at best token. There's an inclination to feature women in a category of their own rather than seeing the individual's impact on building and shaping the industry.”

Things may not be straightforward for women in today's hospitality scene, but it's not difficult to find recent success stories. Sam Williams has just opened Cafe Murano as head chef under Angela Hartnett, the United Kingdom's highest profile female chef and a role model to many, while Sandia Chang, restaurant manager at Bubbledogs and Kitchen Table in Soho, has arguably made as much impact on the London scene as her chef husband James Knappett.

“What I actually find is that women are generally harder working, more reliable, and less ego-driven than most men I've worked with,” says Stead. “I prefer to work with them because of that.”