Sienna Miller as a chef in Burnt 

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Are professional kitchens sexist? And why are so few of the top chefs women? 

Sexist banter and physical violence are often overlooked in professional kitchens but is that the real reason there are so few women chefs? Kate Spicer investigates 

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By Kate Spicer on

There are many accuracies in the critically panned (boom boom) professional kitchen romance Burnt – and so there should, with Gordon Ramsay as executive producer.

There’s a lot of banging, clattering, screaming, shouting, effing and blinding. Our wannabe Michelin-starred hero Bradley Cooper’s problem with drugs and alcohol is an IRL vicious cycle for many chefs in a workaholic culture that finds it hard to unwind after long days. There’s also a character who has been done for assault in Burnt, which would make sense to Kate Lardner-Burke.

She was working at Simpsons-in-the-Strand when she had a pot thrown at her head. “It was the chef de partie. I don’t know if he didn't like me, or if it was because I was a girl, but he endlessly bullied me and I never saw him throw pans at men. After the pan hit my head, I stopped what I was doing and walked out of my job mid-service.”

It would make sense too to Monica Galetti, the former sous chef at Michel Roux Jr’s two-Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, and now presenter of MasterChef. She told Radio Times this week that, “It was acceptable, back in my day, to be hit by your chef de partie or your head chef.” 

For chef Kate Lardner-Burke, a pan to the head was the last straw: ‘I work in event catering now and as a nutritionist’

Professional kitchens, particularly ones with Michelin stars and critical reputations to uphold, are extremely pressurised environments in which physical violence and verbal abuse have long been accepted as the norm. Two of the most outstanding chefs of their generations, who you might enjoy chit-chat with at a cocktail party or see in the society pages, are known to have branded staff with red-hot knives and slammed arms in oven doors.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this very real situation, it is one that is on the decline. Kitchens are increasingly less hazardous environments, thanks in part to employment law, to the increased respectability of the profession and to the arrival of the calming influence of women in what was once an environment as masculine as an oil rig or the SAS.

For Lardner-Burke, a pan to the head was the last straw: “I work in event catering now and as a nutritionist. You just can’t get away with aggression like this outside the restaurant industry. 

“It’s seen that getting through the bullying in a kitchen is all part of the learning to become a chef. I’m not a wimp, but I never worked in a restaurant kitchen again after that. I couldn’t be bothered with the abuse.”

Plenty of women, however, can be bothered with abuse and, in recent years, women have risen to previously unimaginable heights. The fact that the gorgeous Sienna Miller plays a chef in Burnt is by no means beyond the bounds of believability (though female chefs tend to be built a little less for the slithery red carpet and more for lugging pots around). Women have made the most incredible progress in recent years and have gone from being rarities to forming an estimated 20 per cent of the brigade in fine-dining restaurant kitchens. 

As Judy Joo, head chef at Jinjuu, tells me, “Any industry that has an all-boys-club mentality is going to be harder for women to break into. But we are doing it and getting better at it, too.”

Judy Joo with her staff at her London restaurant Jinjuu
 

Recently, the influential Bloomberg food critic, Richard Vines, wrote about his surprise at quite how many women are heading up kitchens in London now. Angela Hartnett, one of Britain’s best-known female chefs, is an ex-Ramsay alumna, and got him a Michelin star at the Connaught and herself one at Murano. At Michel Roux Jr’s two-Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, women occupy some of its most senior positions, including its head chef, Rachel Humphrey.

Of the four British three-Michelin-starred gaffs, one of them was run by a woman until last month, when Clare Smyth left her role as head chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, where she’d held those stars for him for nearly a decade.

Smyth, by all accounts, can be as tough as any man in her position. She is rarely interested in discussing being a woman in a business that was, literally, constructed to reflect the discipline and structure of the 19th-century French army by a French chef working at the Savoy in London, Auguste Escoffier – a place, interestingly, which only employed its first female chef a few months ago.

When I’ve seen dodgy sexist things going on in my own kitchen, the female chefs involved have asked me not to do anything. It’s seen as upsetting the apple cart – Anna Hansen

Cheffing has long been a man’s business. For all his critics, Ramsay has not been backward at putting women forward. In fact, while I rang around the industry, some people subtly suggested he may be a little overkeen on putting women in charge for PR purposes. I find that extremely hard to believe, given what an intense job cheffing is at this level. If you can’t stand the heat, forget getting out of your own accord – the kitchen will spit you out like a droplet of water hitting hot fat.

Michel Roux Jr says, “When my dad was running the restaurant, it was practically unheard of to employ women, but my family always believed in equal opportunities; consequently, I don’t even look at the gender. If you’re good enough, you’re in. There are still a few dinosaur male employers who don’t want to employ women, and believe the restaurant is a male domain, but they are dinosaurs. Ironically, they’re always the ones who say they were ‘inspired by their grandmother’s cooking’.”

Anna Hansen is executive chef of The Modern Pantry in London. She is adamant that she will sack chefs who sexually harass her female staff, but says, “When I’ve seen dodgy sexist things going on in my own kitchen, the female chefs involved have asked me not to do anything. It’s seen as upsetting the apple cart and kitchen banter can get quite full on – you can see how it tips over into abuse based on gender, sexuality, body shape, race... Then it’s bullying. But it’s not unusual for a chef to work 100 hours a week; when you’re that knackered, your moral compass is skewiff. There’s a jokey kitchen banter that makes an incredibly stressful job easier. It requires a certain level of tolerance.”

Most of the women running kitchens will agree that as they rose through the ranks, shouldering the abuse was not always, but often, part of proving you’re fit for the job. Joo says, “Kitchens are like trading floors – and I have experienced both – full of misogyny. You hear crazy things like women cannot be sushi chefs because their hands are too warm and therefore they cannot handle the rice or fish correctly.”

Chefs Angela Hartnett and  Monica Galetti
 

She points up a recent interview in The Wall Street Journal, in which Yoshikazu Ono, who works at his father’s famous three-Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, says, “To be a professional [chef] means to have a steady taste in your food, but because of the menstrual cycle women have an imbalance in their taste, and that’s why women can’t be sushi chefs.”

Joo rolls her eyes whereas women in other industries might be calling an employment lawyer. “I recently fired one of my chefs for groping a female chef. I have zero tolerance for this behaviour, but he wasn't phased by it at all, and didn't really understand the seriousness of his offence. He'll do it again in his next kitchen.”

Women are quite common in what is known as “pastry", meaning puddings and sweets, and a very separate part and sub culture of the pro-kitchen. The hot new restaurant, Sexy Fish, has an all-female pastry team down in the basement, underneath its lavish dining room. Upstairs, visible in the open kitchen, it's all blokes though. "Where there's fame and glory to be pursued, you'll find men," says Hansen.

The undeniable truth however is that the main reason women are still a minority in restaurant kitchens is not because of their warm hands or their inability to take a ribbing – it’s the hours and how deeply incompatible they are with having a family. Heston Blumenthal describes doing 20-hour days regularly at the start of his career.

Female chefs accept that parenting and slaving over the pass are hard to mix. Hélène Darroze has two Michelin stars, both here at the Connaught and in her eponymous restaurant in Paris. Veuve Clicquot recently crowned her the greatest female chef in the world 2015. Darroze adopted two children in her forties. She said recently that, "You just have to make a choice. You have to be very, very involved for long hours. Many women want to be a wife, they want to be a mother. And I'm not sure that everything is compatible."

Last night, I lost the plot, I was really angry. That is how kitchens work. I am really fair but, if someone fucks up, I’m not going to say, ‘Don’t worry’ – Gary Usher

In the end, despite working throughout her pregnancy for Roux Jr at Gavroche, Galletti said recently that, “My career took a back seat for seven years because I wanted to be a hands-on mother for my daughter. At a certain point, women have to decide how much they want their career [versus] having a family and spending time with family… The truth is, you’ve got to put it first to do well. I’ve seen many amazing chefs, girls, come into the kitchen and then give it up to be with their boyfriend.” Ouch!

Sophie Michell is executive chef at Pont St in Knightsbridge, a great favourite with the Delevingne family who live nearby. She said she’s spent her career, on and off, wondering if it’s safe to bend over. “I’m a strong person and I found sexual, physical and verbal abuse bothered me less than not being respected for my achievements. My brigade is a good one – I don’t want to hear screaming and bullying. And it’s not unusual; the industry is changing.”

Michell is 34 and starting to think about having a family. And here is where Burnt rockets up the implausibility charts. Sienna Miller is a single mother. Working in a Michelin-level kitchen. With time to snog Bradley Cooper in her time off. Just, nah.

Many people agree that what really keeps women out of kitchens is not the screaming and shouting and arse-grabbing, or even the pots to the head – it’s the complete incompatibility of mothering with cheffing at this level. “If you want kids and a career as a chef, it’s going to be very hard,” Michell says.

Zuleika Fennell, the COO at Corbin & King, which includes the chic Wolseley and Delaunay in its portfolio, agrees: “Women leave catering colleges choosing different routes. Because, yes, I see prejudice. The minute women decide to have a family, if they can’t work evenings and weekends, as an industry we lose them.”

Some might say that adapting the business so that it can attract and, importantly, retain female chefs is impossible, short of installing martial law, changing working hours and insisting everyone goes out to eat between nine and five. Which obviously isn’t going to happen in Britain any time soon – hopefully.

However, others disagree, including the formidable Fennell. She introduced 30-hour contracts and “jobshares” for working parents. In September, she invited mothers to a forum to try to encourage them back to the jobs they leave as soon as they have children. Ten women turned up. “I gave half of them a job,” she says.

The group has a code of conduct that includes no swearing and no bullying. Fennell says that a more traditionally “feminine” approach to kitchen work is possible. “We have a female sous chef working for us who can certainly cut it, but she is emotional and will internalise problems where men would start effing and blinding. That approach has never been given any airspace before. Actually, it can be an asset.”

“Bollocks,” says Gary Usher, who cooks at the Sticky Walnut, one of two small, but highly regarded, restaurants he owns in Cheshire and the Wirral. “Abuse and bullying, I will not tolerate. But often blokes say dick, fuck and wank, and so do girls. Last night, I lost the plot, I was really angry. That is how kitchens work. I am really fair but, if someone fucks up, I’m not going to say, ‘Don’t worry’ – they’re gonna get fucking shouted at.

“I’ve worked for Angela Hartnett. She kicks ass. Keeping standards in the renowned kitchens is ridiculously difficult. Kitchens can be nasty places. I’d employ anyone good enough, but the truth is the women aren’t coming through.”

Sophie Michell has a more philosophical take. "When I chose to drop school and become a chef it was not a popular choice with my family. I loved it, I got a buzz from kitchen life, even if it was sexist, exhausting and hardcore. I'm trying hard here to change the traditional brigade behaviour and many others, male and female, are too. It's changing, and that makes me happy. It's only someone's dinner at the end of the day. It doesn't need to be seasoned with four letter words."

@spicerlife

Sienna Miller as a chef in Burnt 
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