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Leading ladies

Leading Ladies

Discussing Melbourne's hospitality scene through the women who live and breathe it

By Delima Shanti

In an industry where men have previously occupied the majority of top jobs, what does it mean to be a woman in the restaurant business today? Time Out talks to three women at the forefront of Melbourne's culinary scene to find out how far the industry has come and what still needs to be done. 

Tick off your restaurant bucket list with our list of the 50 best restaurants in Melbourne and check out the best new openings.  

The restaurant world's leading ladies

Gail Donovan
Gail Donovan

Gail Donovan

Co-owner, Donovans
 On starting out… I’ve been in hospitality for 48 years. My first foray into cooking was when I was 14, working at a milk bar making sandwiches and milkshakes. Then I started Relish, a catering business and food store in Armadale in 1970 when I was in my late teens.

On learning curves… The best way to learn, whether you want to run your own business or work in a kitchen, is to work in the hospitality business. After ten years of buying and selling businesses, I started working at Hyatt on Collins (where I met my husband Kevin) because I’d had no formal training and I thought a big hotel might be able to give me that for my future ventures. 

On equal opportunity in the workplace… These days, if you want a job badly enough and you’ve got the skills for it, you can get it whether you’re a man or a woman. At Donovans, we have two head chefs – Adam Draper and Emma D’Alessandro – and they’ve been with us for 14 years now. We have a policy at Donovans where if you’ve worked here for three years, we will fully train you in every section of the kitchen. I think the industry has changed to accommodate more women now out of pure necessity. The decision to hire won’t be gender-based, we just want someone who’s really good.

On kitchen culture… Despite the TV shows, I think the days of bullying and screaming chefs are done. Kitchens are always going to be high-pressure workplaces, but it requires teamwork for service to run smoothly.

On sexism in the workplace… Because I was running my own business when I started out, I was lucky enough not to notice any sexism, but when I worked in the corporate world, I had to work harder than everyone else to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where the gender pay gap is still a reality, but I think that doesn’t exist in our industry because talented chefs are so hard to find that you’d want to pay them properly.

Karen Martini
Karen Martini

Karen Martini

Chef and co-owner, Mr Wolf

On starting out… I never considered cooking as as career option. I went to a private girls’ school and never thought I’d leave school early until I sought out an apprenticeship when I was 15, much to the horror of my parents. I did work experience at Mietta’s where Jacques Reymond was executive chef and I fell in love with the energy of the kitchen.

On how the industry has evolved… There were very few females in the industry [back then]. A lot more women are entering the industry now because kitchens are often more flexible with their hours, and the culture has become more accommodating. But you still have to be quite tough – it takes a certain type of person to be able to cut it in the industry.

On sexism in the workplace… Sexism and sexual harassment was rampant when I started in the industry. When I was 16, an older chef took me to the cool room to get some produce, filled my apron up with whatever we needed in the kitchen and when my arms were full he grabbed my breasts. I dropped the vegetables, hit him and just went about my day! Nowadays that guy would have been sacked instantly, but back then they just told you to stay away from that guy.

On how motherhood has changed her career… When Stella was both in 2006, then Amber in 2008, I had to consider motherhood alongside running Mr Wolf with Michael [Sapountsis], writing my Good Food column, being on Better Homes and Gardens and later My Kitchen Rules. I still miss the adrenalin rush of service, and missing out on that is something that many of the men in industry don’t have to worry about as much. But it’s not an issue of whether women can make it in the industry… women just have to work differently to a man if they want to have children.

Rosa Mitchell
Rosa Mitchell
Photography: Graham Denholm

Rosa Mitchell

Chef and owner, Rosa’s Kitchen and Rosa’s Canteen

On starting out… I grew up in a large family and I used to help my grandmother cook, but I haven’t actually been in the industry for that long. I was a hairdresser and my husband Colin and I were founding members of the Slow Food Melbourne organisation, through which I got to meet a lot of chefs. I only started working as a chef 12 years ago when I was in my late 40s when Brigitte Hafner and her partner James Broadway opened Gertrude St Enoteca and she asked me to be her chef.

On sexism in the industry… I certainly had the benefit of being older when I started cooking. I went from working in a small wine bar to my own restaurants so I never experienced any negativity. There were the rare occasions when men would act like they know better than me but I’ve always cooked food the way I know how and that’s from the heart, so they have to go my way or no way!

On confidence… If had started in my teens, I don’t know if I’d make it in such a cutthroat industry and if I’d still be cooking now. Being older and knowing exactly what I know and how I want my food to be cooked has made things a lot easier. And it’s not work when you love what you do!

On equal opportunity… Some female chefs might be more inclined to be a pastry chef because they think it’s less physically demanding, but I think everyone should learn a bit of everything. At my restaurants, we don’t have a separate pastry chef or a larder chef. If the floor needs to be swept, the head chef might do it, or the young apprentice might have a go with making a sauce. I also make a point of making sure the restaurants are nice working environments for the staff, which translates happy customers down the line. 

On overcoming challenges… Fortunately, my cooking has always been really simple and homestyle so I never really had any challenges when I took up cooking professionally. It’s the food I learned to cook at home with my family and nothing is too technical. 

Check out Melbourne's best restaurants

Paccheri at Osteria Ilaria
Photograph: Graham Denholm

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