Female chefs are not uncommon, but there’s still a certain fascination with what it means to be a woman in such a male-dominated landscape and hierarchical environment.
According to data gathered between 2009-17 by the Office for National Statistics, only 17 percent of chef positions in the UK are held by women. They’ve been cooking professionally for millennia and in the restaurant industry, but the metrics by which restaurants are judged still don’t reflect that. In honour of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8, we asked some of the most influential women in food and drink to weigh in on what change they’d like to see, re the industry’s gender imbalance, how they’ve learned to overcome challenges and what they would change to bring about a better future.
Adriana Cavita, chef-patron at the soon-to-be-opened Cavita in Marylebone
‘As time goes on, it becomes more and more common to have female chefs leading kitchens and creating beautiful food, but you definitely have to work harder than a male chef to prove yourself. [Having a] private life can be very challenging and the job demands a lot of compromise. But it is very important to have confidence and keep cooking, keep making mistakes and learning from them, for ourselves and for the passion and love we feel for restaurants.’
Esra Muslu, chef and founder at Zahter in Soho
‘Even in this day and age there are still barriers in gender equity in many sectors. Whether in [their] business or personal life, women are more likely to be affected by unconscious bias and negative stereotypes, which leads to them not being taken seriously. That’s why we need to own and celebrate the successes and achievements of women and keep marking a call to action against gender inequality. In times of crisis, I try to keep calm and approach the problem from the perspective of offering tailored solutions. Being a female, being a foreigner, with English not being my first language, going into a new market is hard, but I know that my team and I can make it. My own example shows that it’s about having the courage. Everything is possible if you work hard for it. Success and celebrating success shouldn’t be gender-biased.’
Judy Joo, chef-owner at Seoul Bird in Shepherd’s Bush and Canary Wharf
‘Women are generally not taken as seriously as our male counterparts. Even with numerous accolades under our belts, we tend to get second-guessed and our skill level doubted. We are not immediately perceived as being qualified… we always have to prove it. These misconceived perceptions and attitudes have to change.’
Masha Rener, executive chef at Lina Stores in Soho, The City and King’s Cross
‘While the industry has seen an increase in female chefs over the years, a lot of women still don’t consider becoming a chef to be a very attractive career path. Whether that is because of the lack of tolerance and respect by their male counterparts in professional kitchens or the worry of raising a family within unsociable working hours, female chefs still experience more difficulty in their roles. This is not only a problem for us, but a larger conversation in all industries and the workplace at large where, still to this day, women are unfortunately experiencing professional difficulties, like being rewarded less than their male counterparts for the same role. Discussing these things more openly and inviting everyone to the table to raise awareness and find solutions together is certainly a step in the right direction.’
Fanny Svensson, head pastry chef at Warehouse in Covent Garden
‘I would say that the hospitality industry is lacking when it comes to equality. My negative experiences have pushed me to pursue more professional workplaces where you can see that the food is the focus and everyone has a clear mission. My goal has always been to create delicious food as well as a great work environment that I look forward to coming into. The industry has so much growing to do and for that to happen I believe it needs to become more professional. But it is getting better every day and if we can build good restaurants and work environments that are successful, without bullying and misogyny, more people will follow and seek out similar restaurants or create them themselves.’
Ruth Hansom, head chef at The Princess of Shoreditch
‘I think we need to see more female chefs empowering younger females up through their brigades. The more we shout about it and encourage other women to follow us, the more females there will be in the industry and the sooner we can stop putting gender into the conversation.’
Meriel Armitage, founder of Club Mexicana in Soho and Covent Garden
Chantelle Nicholson, chef-patron at the soon-to-be-opened Apricity in Mayfair
‘In the future, it would be really great for hospitality and cheffing to be seen as a rewarding career for women. There is both conscious and unconscious bias at present, which favours males and comes across in many facets, from opportunities available for women, expectations about their approach and ability to contribute to the role or business, as well as language and nuance in general. My hope is that the narrative shifts on this and things are levelled up to ensure there are equal opportunities, rewards and empathy for all.’
Find more International Women’s Day events.
Meet the women who are changing the restaurant industry.