There's a new face at the helm of the two-Michelin-starred French restaurant Le Gavroche in London's Mayfair – and she's a woman. Rachel Humphrey, 30, formerly senior sous chef at the restaurant, was recently named head chef; the first woman to gain such a position in the restaurant's 42-year history. But she's much too clever – and honest – to be lured into idle speculation on the subject of whether the small number of female chefs in the UK is due to a lack of talent or a shortage of opportunity. "I'm not really sure why Britain's restaurant industry is male-dominated," she says, "but there are certainly more and more opportunities for women chefs these days. As far as I'm concerned, what's most important is to prove yourself in the kitchen, whatever your sex. The kitchen environment can be aggressive, but I learnt that the best way to be respected in the kitchen was to make sure that I never gave the guys any ammunition against me."
Humphrey joined the restaurant as an apprentice straight out of school in 1996. "I got lucky with the timing. I wrote off to loads of restaurants and when I got an acceptance letter from Le Gavroche, I felt I was destined to work there." Encouraged by chef-patron Michel Roux, she quickly rose through the ranks, despite a three-year absence when she left the restaurant to work in the less rarefied atmosphere of the RAF catering corps – "I needed to gain confidence and experience and I had always wanted to work in the army."
She's treating her new post at Le Gavroche with typical understatement, and is winning new customers over with her subtle, warming dishes including a wintry creamy pheasant and lentil soup. "I'm just trying to keep up the same high standards." But she admits she is also deftly, subtly, lightening up the menu: "I'm trying to make the lunch menu a little less masculine, replacing some of the heavy butter sauces with delicate jus whippings." A woman's touch, perhaps? "Not really," she says. "It just depends on your personality – I know some guys who have a wonderfully delicate touch and other female chefs who are really heavy-handed. All I know is that I've got 40 years of tradition to live up to!"