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Why Aren’t Women Cooking in Indian Restaurants in London?

Restaurants like Asma Khan's Darjeeling Express are addressing the gender imbalance

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Asma Khan, centre, at Darjeeling Express
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The issue of gender imbalance in the restaurant world keeps simmering. And this week the centre of the conversation swirls around Asma Khan, the supperclub chef beloved by Fay Maschler and Grace Dent who recently found a permanent home for her Kingly Court Indian restaurant Darjeeling Express — a restaurant which has an all-female kitchen.

“Professional kitchens need more women, especially Indian restaurants who are all complaining about visa restrictions and struggling to recruit male chefs from India and Pakistan,” she said in an interview with Big Hospitality last week. “Look at the women who are already in this country that can cook, why aren’t they hiring them?”

Indeed, as Victoria Stewart recently pointed out, women make up only 35% of London’s food service industry. Alongside the debate over gender disparity, there is a parallel problem for Indian restaurants in the UK, an industry currently embroiled in what the Bangladesh Caterers' Association (BCA) have acknowledged as a 'curry house crisis'. And, according to the Guardian, A third of 12,000 UK Indian restaurants are set to shut over the next few years due to staff shortages.

Brexit hasn't helped: the president of the BCA, Pasha Khandaker, urged the association’s 4,000 members to vote leave, under the impression that a points-based system would enable south Asian chefs easy access to work visas. That system hasn't been implemented and the crisis continues. So why are Indian restaurants not employing more women, if only to address the shortfall of staff?

Because they're not applying, according to Dhruv Mittal, founder and exec chef of DUM Biryani.

“Systemically in the culinary world,” Mittal said to Eater London. "We are facing an increasing shortage in female chefs, unaided by strict immigration regulation and more recently, Brexit. During our own hiring process to fill chef positions, we receive less than 5% of applications by women."

As Vivek Singh, CEO and exec chef at The Cinnamon Club, points out to Eater London, "traditionally professional kitchens — all kitchens, not just Indian kitchens — have been male heavy, and the poor conditions of work and relentless hours haven't made it easy for women to break-in, thrive and get to the top." It makes sense to point out here that the progenitors of the modern kitchen are all men.

Khan also referred to a "macho culture in some kitchens which can be intimidating: Indian men have very thin skins. They are not used to seeing women succeed on their 'patch.'"

Male or female, it’s not uncommon for the average line cook to spend fifteen hours a day boiling, frying, and chopping vegetables into tiny pieces — all while suffering burns and earning below the national average wage. A junior chef in central London, for example, earn an average of £25K. Adding insult to injury, female chefs earn an average of £4K less than their male counterparts.

Like Khan, Samyutka Nair has attempted to circumvent some of the big issues by opening her own restaurant, Jamavar in Mayfair — a restaurant which recently launched an ‘Underground Women’s Club’. The club will host speakers like Polpetto chef Florence Knight, on being a woman in a male-dominated kitchen as well Kathryn Sargent and Isa Guha. There are success stories elsewhere in London, including Ravinder Bhogal of Jikoni, which Khan praises for being female led, and Sunaina Sethi, the wine maven who co-owns Gymkhana and Trishna. When Karam Sethi — Sunaina’s brother and co-owner of those businesses — was asked about Khan’s remarks, Eater London was told through his PR that he “won’t be able to comment.”

Asma Khan

"I agree that not enough women apply to be chefs despite being good cooks," Khan added to Eater London. “The onus is on restaurants to show their willingness to open their doors and be more inviting to women. Restaurants should make the women already working for them more visible so other women can see someone they can relate to. Role models matter."

She credits Singh, who let her host a profile-raising supperclub at Cinnamon Club, as a beacon for change.

"It is gestures like this that will make women apply. When a person of stature puts his hand out to pull women into the profession." Mittal agrees. "I believe that as leaders of the industry, we need to work together to incentivise women to train as chefs," he said. "Head chefs of all backgrounds should provide women with leadership positions within our kitchens based on merit alone, removing any gender bias from the equation."

Beyond the issue of institutionalised misogyny, the very future of London's curry scene is also at stake.

Correction: This article originally stated that Karam Sethi said he would be unable to comment on Asma Khan’s remarks. It should have said that his PR told Eater London, “he won’t be able to comment.”

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