forgot password?
remember me

Female chefs taking the restaurant world by storm

Anna Hansen gazes up at the hand-painted sign on top of her new restaurant. Large golden letters spell out The Modern Pantry on two sides of the Grade II listed Georgian building in the heart of Clerkenwell in Central London. This is the chef's first solo venture and it has been four years in the making - probably the longest opening in restaurant history, owing to one thing and another, but the fact that she has stuck with it and made it happen (it opens on Monday) is a testament to her drive, enthusiasm and talent. Have you spotted anything unusual yet? Yup, she's a woman.

Being a top chef has never been so good - especially in London. The capital is crammed with cooking legends who turn out world-class food, and have made a fair amount of dosh doing it. But here's a question: where are all the women?

The majority of home cooks are women; and we are now into our fifth decade of feminism, yet only a small percentage of women run top kitchens. And I'm not talking about the Nigella Lawsons of this world - they don't turn out hundreds of meals every night in hot, sweaty, shouty kitchens.

The main theory has to do - not surprisingly - with children. Women chefs, like women in any other demanding and time-consuming profession, have to make loaded decisions when it comes to having a family. Restaurant hours are hardly child-friendly, and taking a year off to have a baby is deemed to be career suicide. The solution, say those who have managed to pull it off, is to focus on your career first, then have a family (or make sure you have a great sous chef).

Then there is the long-held opinion that the work, particularly in French kitchens, with the lifting of large, heavy stock pots, is just too physically demanding - women simply don't have the stamina. That's rubbish, of course.

And what about the bullying and aggression? Professional kitchens are seen as ugly places, where hot palette knives are frequently brandished and walk-in fridges double up as the naughty corner. But that has changed now too, thanks to legislation in the workplace, and restaurateurs and chefs are now refusing to tolerate such behaviour, spurred on by their need to encourage talent.

One of the best barometers of change has to be catering college. One of the UK's largest, Bournemouth & Poole College, reports a surge in female students this autumn, with the numbers jumping dramatically - the intake this year is around 50:50, compared with a 75 per cent male student body last year.

�It's a more female-friendly industry now,� agrees the course tutor and co-ordinator Debbie Sherman. �When I worked in kitchens from the mid-Eighties through the Nineties, it wasn't the done thing for women to enter the profession. You were always treated like a commis, whatever your position. But attitudes have changed. A lot of women are putting family plans on hold for their careers, and the industry has also realised that women make reliable, good workers, and can often defuse a situation.�

In fact, women chefs are rising through the ranks faster than in many other male-dominated industries, from 27-year-old Lancastrian Lisa Allen, the head chef of the Michelin-starred Northcote Manor in Blackburn, to Ramsay-trained Sue Ellis, a former Worcester Chef of the Year at Belle House in Pershore; to the London crowd, which includes the Finnish-born chef Helena Puolakka at Skylon at the Royal Festival Hall, Skye Gyngell at Petersham Nurseries, and Maria Elia, a former head chef at Delfina in Bermondsey who is soon to open her own place in London.

Some have already reached the top - if the top is a three-star rating from the Michelin guide. Among them are Clare Smyth, who was last year appointed head chef of Gordon Ramsay's three Michelin-starred restaurant in Chelsea at the age of 29; Anne-Sophie Pic, who was awarded three stars for her family restaurant in Valence, southeastern France, just two years ago - the first French female chef to do so in 50 years; and Elena Arzak, of Arzak restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain, happily juggling the 50-seat restaurant and 30 chefs (many of them women) with the care of her three-year-old daughter.

Anna Hansen isn't worrying about children yet - she's finding it hard enough to get a bloke, she tells me, with a giggle. It's difficult to imagine why: she's tall, blonde and attractive. �Maybe I'm too tall?� she ponders (she's 6ft). Maybe she's too ballsy? �I run a calm kitchen. I'm generally quite a laid-back person. In fact, I tend to hum when the s*** hits the fan,� she grins.

Born in Canada and raised in New Zealand, Hansen first came to London in 1992, aged 22, after a degree in business management. At a loose end, a friend persuaded her to join him in the kitchen at The French House Dining Room in Soho, where she worked as a kitchen porter.

She didn't stay as a KP for long and was soon running the place when the bosses were away. She was fired up for the first time in her life. �My family are all very creative - except me. I felt like an outcast. But then suddenly I found that I could cook,� she recalls.

Later, she hooked up with chef Peter Gordon, who made his name at the Sugar Club, and the pair went on to open The Providores in Marylebone High Street, which won countless awards. She left in 2005 to focus on developing The Modern Pantry, from finding a backer and a builder to negotiating with English Heritage and the local council.

Has she encountered any chauvinism through any of this? �In a lot of ways, I haven't. At certain times I feel like I am being patronised, but that can work to my advantage. If men want to play that role, then I'm not going to stop them,� she says.

Women make up over half the team at The Modern Pantry. �That wasn't deliberate, it just kind of happened that way. Though I have to say, it is important for me to have lots of women working with me - I think it's an environment women will enjoy working in,� she promises.

Women would also undoubtedly enjoy working with H�l�ne Darroze. The two Michelin-starred Paris chef opened up a successful outpost at The Connaught in London in June - and she didn't achieve it by shouting.

�My kitchen is very quiet. Most people are surprised by how quiet it is, even those who come and work for me,� says Darroze. �But they also say that it's better to work this way: you can be more focused. I don't want noise in my kitchen, I want respect, and concentration from my staff - and you need silence for that.�

So how does it work when the pressure is on? �I always tell my brigade to speak to me with their eyes. The solution is not in shouting; you have to recognise the problem and try to solve it quietly,� she says.

Darroze's brigade in Paris is 30 per cent female, though she has only one woman (out of 21) working in her London kitchen. �I'm rather disappointed by that - I was hoping that more would apply,� she admits. �It's such a difficult choice for a woman to make - I know, I have a little baby at home.�

Darroze has an adopted Vietnamese daughter, 16-month-old Charlotte, and divides her time between London and Paris - but Charlotte is always with her.

�She is my priority. I spend an hour with her every day after lunch, and she usually spends 15 minutes with me before service,� the diminutive Darroze grins.

So has this �blonde powerhouse� (a nickname given to her by the French critics) ever run into any problems with boys in the kitchen? �Never. If anything, I have only encountered men who wanted to be too nice to me,� she shrugs.

Do women's cooking styles differ from those of men? �What I would say is this: I cook with my emotions. I go inside myself and put that on the plate. Women don't have the same sensibilities as men - that is evident. I think we are more sensitive in our approach. Men think about technique first, then emotion. Of course I am generalising here, some men can be very feminine in the way they cook; and some women can be very masculine.�

Some might say that chef Angela Hartnett is masculine in her approach to cooking (more than one male chef has whispered that she is as tough as any testosterone-fuelled man). Hartnett was the former incumbent at The Connaught and is now about to open her own place in Mayfair, Murano - with a little help once again from Mr Ramsay.

�I've lost my rag about stuff, certainly, but I get annoyed when I do. I feel like I've lost control,� admits Hartnett. �Men dominate most industries - get over it and get on with it, I say. There's no point in me trying to square up to a bloke; you have just got to be smarter about things.�

Thomasina Miers is a very smart chef who has made it on TV. The owner of the Mexican food-inspired eatery Wahaca, in London's Covent Garden, and winner of the BBC's 2005 Masterchef competition believes that women are much more meticulous in the kitchen than men. �For us, the look of a dish is as important as the taste, whereas men sometimes just end up throwing it all on the plate. But then, women are used to juggling all sorts of things.�

And there you have it - the main reason why women make great restaurant chefs. They can cook, yes, but they can also multitask. Watch and learn, boys.

ChefsWorld a World created by Chefs for Chefs.
We Provide the facility for Chef Employers and Chef Recruitment Agencies to advertise their jobs online to recruit a Chef or find a Chef online.

The Chef Jobs site has : Executive chef jobs, Head chef jobs, Sous Chef jobs, Chef de Partie Jobs, Commis Chef Jobs, Pastry Chef Jobs, Development Chef Jobs, Consultant Chef Jobs, Specialist Chef Jobs - all levels of chef and Catering Jobs.

The Chef Section has : Chef Forums, Chef Network, Chef Recipes, Rate Employers, Suppliers Offers and Chef Links.

+ChefsWorld Tim Capper  
Tags: Anna Hansen , Caterer , Chef , Chef Job London , Female Chefs , London Restaurant , The Modern Pantry

Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on Twitter Find Us on Facebook
© ChefsWorld   |  Terms of Use |  Site map  |  Web Design by OS3