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Angela Hartnett - Female Chef

 
'Women can't cook to save their lives." So said Gordon Ramsay, the chef famed for his kitchen machismo. A decade on and he is back-pedalling fast. As Ramsay's empire expands, increasingly it is female chefs who are running his kitchens.

When his latest venture, a relaunch of the restaurant Foxtrot Oscar, opens in Chelsea tomorrow night, the head chef whites will be worn not by a man barking orders at his brigade but by Gemma Tuley, a softly-spoken 25-year-old who is also the youngest-ever head chef appointed by Ramsay. Later this year, Angela Hartnett, Ramsay's long-time collaborator, will run two of his new restaurants and he has also appointed 29-year-old Clare Smyth as the first female head chef at Gordon Ramsay, his three-Michelin-starred restaurant on Royal Hospital Road in west London.

So are the times finally changing in the male-dominated world of haute cuisine? Of the 121 British restaurants with Michelin stars, only seven have female head chefs. And, according to the Office of National Statistics, less than a third of the 164,000 full-time chefs in this country are women.

Yet a female revolution is on its way. For too long, believes Ramsay, women entering the industry have been selling themselves short. "One of my major gripes is the number of girls I see who don't appreciate the status of being a great chef," he says. "They come into the kitchen and say they just want to do pastries because it's easy. That's bullsh*t and it makes me cross because I know most are so much better than just baking bloody cakes."

But is it any wonder that many women want to hide behind the protection of the pastry cutter? Few chefs would dispute that chauvinism is rife among many of the top kitchens, where women are still viewed with suspicion and, often, contempt.

Gemma Tuley can attest to this. After leaving school at 16, she worked her way up through a series of chef jobs near her home in Gravesend, Kent, before landing a junior position in Ramsay's kitchen at Claridge's at 18.

Her mentor instantly saw her potential. "Gemma had a single-mindedness that was almost unnerving," says Ramsay. "She held her own in that kitchen as a chef de partie, running her own section, so I decided she needed an even greater test and packed her off to get her arse kicked in France."

Tuley spent the next 18 months in the kitchen of Guy Savoy, the legendary Parisian chef. As the only English-speaking woman in a kitchen of 20 men, she was forced on to a steep learning curve. At Ramsay's head office in central London, where she is finalising plans for this week's opening, Tuley shudders at the mere mention of her time in Paris.

"It was absolute hell, the worst time of my life," she says. "They hated the fact that Gordon had sent a girl. Working in that kitchen lived up to all my worst expectations of the arrogant male world of haute cuisine. Whenever I walked into the kitchen, I was stared at and the sexist jokes were nonstop.

"Back then, I had a long ponytail, which the sous-chef would grab and drag me round the kitchen by, in the absence of being able to explain things to me. Needless to say, I learnt French pretty quickly and cut off all my hair."

Within months, she was promoted from helping with the hot starters to chef de partie of the fish section. "It was sink or swim, and luckily I swam."

So impressed was Ramsay by her staying power and skill that he brought her back to his flagship restaurant on Royal Hospital Road. Tuley cites another Ramsay protege, Angela Hartnett, who has a Michelin star and an MBE to her name, as her inspiration: "She's the very best in our business."

Hartnett, now 39, started working with Ramsay at Aubergine, his first solo venture during the 1990s, going on to open restaurants for him in Scotland, Dubai and Florida, before revolutionising the Grill Room at the Connaught hotel in London. In April she opens the York and Albany restaurant in Regent's Park and in June she will launch Murano, a fine-dining Italian restaurant in Mayfair. Insiders believe she will soon be the first British chef to earn four Michelin stars.

Like Tuley's, her path to success has been far from female-friendly. At Aubergine, Hartnett, the only woman on the team and the first to last a year in a Ramsay kitchen, worked 17-hour days, six days a week, in conditions she described as "psychological warfare". Chefs at other restaurants referred to Aubergine as "Vietnam".

Marcus Wareing, chef-patron at Petrus and another "Vietnam veteran", recalls Hartnett's first day. "We had a sweepstake on how long she'd last. After she'd gone home, Gordon said, 'Right, what do you reckon?' Some people said a day. I think I said two weeks, maximum. And years later, she's still there. You've got to hand it to her, it was hell. Angela is a grafter, she just battened down the hatches and got on with it. She's a true-grit chef
From day one, Hartnett realised the importance of asserting herself as an equal to her male colleagues. While Ramsay was reluctant to let her clean the stoves at the end of the day and often told her to go home early, she insisted on scrubbing in, often staying later than the rest of her team.

Ramsay recalls an incident in the early days of Aubergine when Hartnett proved her mettle. "I'd given her a bollocking after she made a mistake during service and she asked if she could have a word with me afterwards," he says. "I thought, here we go, she's leaving me, but what she actually asked was that in future I tell her off with the same firmness as I did the men. She thought I was being soft with her."

"Every kitchen I've ever worked in has been dominated by men," says Hartnett. "That's just the way it is."

But nothing prepared her for the barrage of misogyny that greeted her arrival as chef-patron at the Connaught's Grill Room in 2002. It had been run like a gentlemen's club for years and many did not appreciate the fact that a woman had taken charge of the kitchen.

"I was faced with a battalion of staff and customers who very clearly didn't want me there," she says. "Regulars would call up and ask, 'Is she still there?' refusing to refer to me by name, and some would call me out during service to scream that I couldn't cook. I had to throw out a particularly abusive man one New Year's Eve. He kept saying he didn't like the food, but I could tell that it was really me he objected to."

Michel Bourdin, her predecessor at the Grill Room, even telephoned Michelin to complain that a woman had taken charge, much to Ramsay's disgust. "I bumped into Bourdin shortly after I found out what he'd done," says Ramsay, "and told him he was a crusty old chauvinistic pig."

Hartnett was less histrionic in her reaction. "At the end of the day, I just thought, 'You're a petty, small-minded individual, and I'm the one in the kitchen now, so suck on that.'"

Clare Smyth is of the same school of thought. "The only way to make it is to ignore all the negative comments," she says. She is sitting at a table at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, where she has been head chef for nine months - a fact that Ramsay kept secret until recently, for fear that she would be headhunted.

"When I started in this kitchen six years ago, everyone, including Gordon, said I wouldn't last a week. It was full of testosterone and lots of the guys said I didn't belong here. Even though they were often in tears from stress, cutting their fingers or burning themselves, I had to cover anything like that up as it would have been seen as a sign of weakness because I was a woman."

Smyth left home in Northern Ireland at 16 to pursue her career. After an apprenticeship at Grayshott Hall in Surrey, and stints with leading chefs, including Heston Blumenthal and the Roux brothers, she arrived as the only woman in Ramsay's kitchen.

Battling hard to ensure she had the same opportunities as the men, she recalls threatening to quit when Simone Zanoni, the former head chef, contemplated promoting a less experienced male chef to the sauce section over Smyth. "I told him if he didn't let me do the sauces, I was off."

Smyth insists she can be tougher than any man in the kitchen if need be. "I won't tolerate bullying of any sort, but I can be very aggressive and I don't think twice about grabbing hold of a guy and screaming in his face if he gets it wrong. If I don't like a dish, I'll throw it everywhere; if someone has labelled something incorrectly, I will throw it. It's about respect for getting things right. I am dyslexic but I have learnt how to spell everything in the kitchen, and so should my team."

Women, in Smyth's opinion, make better chefs than men. "Sometimes men can be as dumb as donkeys in the kitchen. It is harder to get a point across to them than women."

Despite his ungallant comment 10 years ago, Ramsay now agrees. "Women definitely learn much quicker and they bring a far greater level of patience and tolerance to a kitchen than any male chef I've ever met."

Smyth has an all-consuming devotion to her craft. She starts work at 7am most days, rarely leaving before midnight, when she returns home to devour biographies of great chefs such as Auguste Escoffier and Antonin Car�me.


It might seem sad, but I feel I should always be learning something about what I do, not reading some stupid novel." Most of her free time is spent working over new recipes or placing orders for the restaurant. "Normal life is just quite boring in comparison to all this."

Her heroine is Anne-Sophie Pic, the head chef of Maison Pic in Valence, in the south of France. When Pic was awarded a third Michelin star last year, she became the sixth woman in Europe - and the first Frenchwoman in 56 years - to receive such an accolade.

"Cuisine has been a very male-chauvinist milieu for a long time," says Pic. "Women have a different sensibility from men but we all have the same goal of excellence."

Still, Smyth, Hartnett and Tuley all concede that women are forced to make sacrifices to get to their position. None is married or involved in a long-term relationship.

"I'm sure that my mother wishes she had four grandchildren by now, but I'm addicted to this job," says Hartnett.

Tuley agrees. "As a woman, I don't think you can do this job and juggle a family at the same time. I really do want a family one day, but right now I want this more."

Ramsay believes there has never been a better time for women, and is planning an all-female brigade at Royal Hospital Road. "Angela has put a stake in the ground and broken the mould for female chefs, and Clare and Gemma have proved that the gates are open for women right now. It is more of a level playing field than ever before."

Tomorrow night, Tuley is determined to prove him right. "I keep having nightmares that the kitchen won't be ready."

And if the restaurant proves a success, how will she reward herself? "I think I will grow my hair again, just to prove a point."

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