Michael Caines: 'Sexism is still simmering away in many top kitchens'

A clutch of Michelin awards for women is great news – but a "macho" culture is the accepted norm, says the chef
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Last week, a record number of female chefs were among those awarded the coveted Michelin star, with 11 women now having the top culinary honour. It's great news, but it doesn't mean that when it comes to equality in professional kitchens, everything in the garden is rosy.

The array of cookery programmes on television, along with the channels dedicated to all things gastronomic, is evidence that most of us share a passion for cooking. The chefs presenting these programmes are instantly recognisable names and most are global ambassadors for British cuisine. However, take a minute to consider how many of those "celebrity" chefs are female. It would appear to be only a handful.

Research from People 1st, the sector skills council for the UK's hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism industry, found that more than 60 per cent of chefs are male, a percentage that greatly increases within restaurants and hotels. So why are female chefs such a rare ingredient in kitchens?

There are a number of reasons why the doors to the kitchen can remain off limits to aspiring female chefs. The long working hours that are followed in many businesses, known in the industry as split shifts, where a chef can work from 9 am to 3 pm and 5 pm to 11 pm, can make it almost impossible for working parents to balance family commitments. Furthermore, a lack of industry mentors and female role models can hamper a women's progress.

Perhaps most damaging of all is the perception that kitchens, especially in hotels and restaurants, are exclusively the preserve of male chefs and that displaying a "macho" culture is the accepted norm. It is not uncommon for women to be "encouraged" by some head chefs and employers to think of a career only in patisserie – a section of the kitchen which is said to a "less pressured" environment, better suited to women.

Why is it so important for hotels and restaurants to have female chefs? Gone are the days when all that was required of a chef was to be just a good cook. In today's fiercely competitive restaurant industry, the 21st-century chef has to be skilled in team management, finance, purchasing, customer service and marketing to ensure their kitchen can stay one step ahead of its competitors. Restaurants need multi-disciplined, multi-skilled talent. Compared to some of their male counterparts most female chefs bring level-headedness and stability to a fast-paced kitchen. In fact, the majority of female chefs I have observed are calm when working under pressure – a quintessential quality needed in a five-star hotel/restaurant.

There is also an economic imperative for hotels and restaurants to secure highly skilled female chefs. Recruiting chefs is already extremely challenging. It is estimated that annually there are more than 11,000 chef vacancies, but businesses find it difficult to fulfil more than 63 per cent of these positions due to a number of reasons. Until very recently, skilled chefs were listed on the Home Office's Shortage Occupations list along with jobs such as biochemists and mechanical engineers. If the industry is to overcome this challenge and fill these vacancies with the right calibre of chefs, does it make commercial sense to overlook half the country's workforce?

I believe that discriminatory practices that hinder the progress of female chefs don't belong in today's workplace and that they must be stamped out. This is what prompted me to join the Women 1st Female Chefs' Development programme, as it is time we took steps to help female chefs to achieve their career aspirations.

Encouragingly, flexible working patterns are being introduced into some kitchens by the more enlightened restaurateurs and managers, helping to reduce split shifts to a minimum. This is a remarkable start but if we are committed to helping women reach their career aspirations, more can be done.

Firstly, managers and business owners must recognise that both females and males can make very successful chefs. Next, business owners must be flexible to staff needs and look beyond the "conventional" way of doing things in a kitchen. Just because something has been done for a very long time in a rigid manner does not mean that you can't try something new. If female members of staff are faced with a challenge, ask them to find a solution – they will usually propose practical and workable ideas.

Last but not least, support your staff's training and development needs, ensuring that it includes a mix of culinary, financial, management and personal skills such as confidence building. A successful chef must have the knowledge and competence to be able to balance the needs of the customer with those of the business they work for. It is such skills and attributes that both women and men need to have if they are to take their careers in the kitchen to the next level.

If the industry chooses not to support half the country's workforce in helping them achieve their career ambitions in the kitchen, then we all stand to lose a valuable resource the hospitality sector can ill afford. In this instance, yes, a woman's place is in the kitchen and we should all help our aspiring female chefs to get there.

'I had to put up with digs and banter'

Stacey Noble has spent 14 years working her way up as a chef, and the early days weren't always easy. "They would pull down their trousers and put their willies in a hotdog bun, then offer you a 'sausage' in a bun. They would also put leeks up their bums," she recalls of her time in one high-spirited kitchen. She also had to learn to put up with a stream of lewd banter and references to her gender in what was often a very aggressive environment. "When I got to Chef de Partie level I worked with 10 men and there were constant digs and comments," she says. "If you were having an off day, or if you snapped at someone, they would say it was because you were hormonal."

But Noble says that the days of chefs exposing themselves in the kitchen are largely over. "It's got a lot tamer because people know the legal rules." She also says that many kitchens are now far calmer places where chefs keep their tempers in check, or at least keep their anger below a certain level.

However, Noble says that working in some environments, including many restaurants and hotels, is still a challenge for women. As a mother, she says she would have difficulty working outside the private school and party catering she does now. "You need a job that fits around your child, and being a mum you cannot always go into work. But you wouldn't dream of phoning up and saying your child is sick."

Change needs to come from the highest level, she believes. "It comes from the top. Once the lower-ranking team see that the head chef is speaking to someone in an inappropriate manner, they join. If a company lets a head chef get away with it, everyone else gets on the bandwagon."

JASPER JACKSON

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