Last week I decided to imagine that I, a woman, was entering the London restaurant industry in 2017. Should I let myself dream big — of cooking my way to the top — or would that be preposterous?
When I sidled onto social media things looked promising. Here, I found women across London boldly flying the flag. Chef and Masterchef judge Monica Galetti and former Gordon Ramsay protegée Clare Smyth — one of the few women in the world to earn three Michelin stars — are both launching their own restaurants. This felt exciting. Without digging far, I could quickly list 25 restaurants owned or run by women, including Thomasina Miers, who co-founded Wahaca, Zoe Adjonyoh of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen in Brixton, Anna Hansen of The Modern Pantry, and Emma Reynolds, who started Tonkotsu. All of them, if not instantly recognisable chefs, were behind places of note.
Curiously, moving up a level to international recognition was a less encouraging story. I looked at a well-known list called The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, featuring chefs such as the UK’s Heston Blumenthal, America’s David Chang and Italy’s Massimo Bottura. This year, just three women, all with male co-chefs listed with them, plus Ana Roš, in an (insulting) separate category for The World’s Best Female Chef, made the cut. Turning next to the prominent list of London’s 53 Michelin-starred restaurants, I encountered, again, only three women: Angela Hartnett of Murano, Hélène Darroze of The Connaught and Ruth Rogers of The River Café.
Wondering if I’d gone to sleep and woken up in 1950, I checked the Office for National Statistics and found that in spite of an 89 per cent increase in jobs in London’s accommodation and food service industry since 1996, only 35 per cent of its half million workforce in April 2016 were women. It was time to ask some women what is going on.
There’s no point picking holes in frustrating guides and lists, according to Smyth, who will be opening Core, her first solo restaurant, this summer: “It’s about building [up] those respected guides that do exist — the Good Food Guide is one that I value — rather than lists that people are voting for. [That said, the big lists] are all great for the industry, as some people get amazing recognition from them.”
As for the female chef category, Smyth says: “The whole male-female thing didn’t come into it when I was starting. I wanted to be a chef judged on my merit. It was frustrating when people would compare me to other female chefs. Why couldn’t I be compared to a male chef for my work?” When people ask her what it’s like to be a female chef, she asks, “What’s it like to be a male chef?”
Meanwhile Natalia Ribbe-Szrok is co-founder of Ladies Of Restaurants, a series of dinners and talks aiming to give women in the industry a voice and a support network (recently discussed topics include unflattering uniforms, mentoring, and guilt at taking time off to have a baby or even go on holiday). She believes there’s a dated attitude in the upper echelons of dining, though women have been making progress. For her, watching 50 Best “felt odd because the only women I saw that had anything to do with the awards were those giving out the awards.”
That said, Ribbe-Szrok feels the female category, which Smyth argues is irritating, is important. “We need them to shed light on an area where we don’t have a lot of women working. If you can create something that gives people a place to work towards, then in 15 or 20 years from now we might not need that award — because of that award having been there [in the first place].”
While Smyth is excited to see more women entering kitchen roles at a younger age, she thinks more needs to be done to put gender diversity in people’s minds, especially considering lists like 50 Best are decided upon by voters. “There is much more the media could do. There are some amazing female chefs in the world who you’ve never heard of,” she says.
Still, working in restaurants isn’t widely considered a distinguished career choice (or a lucrative one). If this perception were to change, it could help set a new standard in the industry. Chefs like Smyth would like to be respected on the same level as doctors, lawyers or workers in finance.
Reynolds, the founder of Tonkotsu, encourages all employees, regardless of gender, to focus on career development by setting up programmes such as manager training and six-week cocktail training, “that aren’t core to the business, but will help them further their careers either at Tonkotsu or elsewhere.” More than half of Tonkotsu’s managers are women, some with young children, and the restaurant has a low staff turnover compared with the industry average.
Meanwhile, Ribbe-Szrok’s get-togethers aren’t being held in a vacuum. Chef Bonnie Porter of Balls & Company in Soho hosted an all-women restaurant pop-up on this year’s International Women’s Day. It featured vigorously on social media and got picked up in publications including the Evening Standard and Metro. Throughout May and June, Sam Clark of Moro hosted a series of women-led cooking evenings to raise money for a breast cancer charity; and Bristol-based Romy Gill is running Severn Sisters in October, featuring cooks and food writers Xanthe Clay, Olia Hercules and Chetna Makan. Zoe Adjonyoh, who will participate in Severn Sisters, is a strong advocate for female support and collaborations. “I think it's a fantastic way not only to share insight and skills, but also to teach a wider audience using a shared platform,” she says
Within the wider industry, too, there are meet-ups and events set up specifically with women in mind. Parabere Forum, now in its fourth year, is an international campaign foregrounding women’s views on agriculture and nutrition, as well as equality issues within the fine dining industry. In Washington DC, Pineapple DC is a supportive community of restaurant industry women with the aim to “create a better food system.”
Less publicly, Reynolds is part of a WhatsApp group of 10 women running bars and restaurants in Hackney, who message each other with advice. And cookbook writers and food stylists such as Rosie Birkett and Laura Jackson agree with Melissa Hemsley that it’s “really bolstering” to not only work together, encourage each other and share jobs and contacts, but to laugh and air the odd grievance, too. According to Birkett, such chats are essential for “blowing off steam.”
As I step back into the clogs of that woman hoping to enter the restaurant industry, I feel that perhaps there are more opportunities than the famous lists would suggest.