Encourage more women to chef
WHEN Spanish chef Elena Arzak was named world's best female chef last month, the reaction in Australia was, in some cases, openly hostile.
It was not necessarily that people felt Arzak was not deserving of accolades. Tasmanian food writer Winsor Dobbin kicked off the local debate on Twitter: "'World's Best Female Chef award' How sexist is that?''
Victorian chef Alla Wolf-Tasker followed, agreeing that the award was akin to "Chef Special Olympics''. The weight of opinion was on their side, but one correspondent did venture: "Could it be about encouraging more women to chef?''
The debate encapsulates a long-standing quandary for many in the restaurant game. Despite the fact that women make up a larger proportion of apprentices than ever before, top restaurant kitchens and the accompanying trophy cabinets remain largely the domain of men. But working out what can—or even if anything should—be done to level the playing field is, well, a can of worms.
Wolf-Tasker, who has run the two-hatted Lake House in Daylesford for almost 30 years, argues the award effectively diminishes women's relevance. ''Imagine the outcry,'' she says, ''if we had a top female doctor or top female CEO award. It's patronising in the extreme—'Oh, look, the girls are finally making the grade'.''
Restaurant magazine runs the award with Veuve Clicquot. Editor William Drew says the award was created two years ago to "highlight and promote'' women excelling in what remains a male-dominated field. "In turn,'' Drew says, "we hope this inspires more women to enter and succeed in the higher echelons of the gastronomic world.''
Of the 82 Victorian restaurants awarded hats in The Age Good Food Guide 2012, 11 have kitchens run by women. Of those 11 women, seven own the restaurant. Our culinary temples are predominantly female-free zones. There are no women working in the kitchen at Jacques Reymond and just one of nine chefs at Attica is female. At Vue de Monde there is one female apprentice among 20 chefs and at the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld there are no women among the eight full-time restaurant staff (although two of the hotel's three casual chefs are female).
These are striking figures, given the most recent census data shows a quarter of Australia's 44,500 chefs are female. The proportion of women entering apprenticeships is creeping up. Of the 488 would-be chefs studying a certificate III in hospitality (commercial cookery) this year at William Angliss Institute, 40 per cent are female. Figures from two decades ago show the proportion was about 20 per cent. Despite this, it seems a minority of these women will go on to work in our best restaurants, let alone end up running them.
Jacques Reymond says he receives one in 50 job applications from women. He last had a female chef working at his eponymous Prahran restaurant three years ago. Vue de Monde head chef Cory Campbell says males make up 75 per cent to 80 per cent of applicants. "I really don't know why,'' he says.
Campbell's boss, Shannon Bennett, says the answer lies largely in the physical demands of the job. "How many female abalone divers do you hear of? How many female race drivers are there?''
At restaurants owned and operated by women, the statistics are similar. Virginia Redmond says women make up a quarter of applicants for chef roles at her south-side restaurants Ilona Staller and Cicciolina. Leilani Wolfenden likewise received many more applications from men when she ran Northcote's popular Next Door Diner.
Wolf-Tasker says the reason there are fewer female chefs in restaurants lies in her industry's well-known downsides: "The hours, the sheer physical impost, the consequences for one's social and family life.''
Dale Lyman, who has been training apprentices at William Angliss for ten years, says female graduates are more likely than males to bypass restaurants for other areas that offer a better work-life balance such as catering, teaching, cafes, food styling or development roles such as recipe testing.
Lyman says that, in general, males find the "rush and the hype" of high-profile restaurants offset long hours and low pay. "It's often the case that the better the restaurant, the longer the hours,'' Lyman says. ''That adrenalin you get from a busy service [and] that camaraderie as a team in a kitchen is quite attractive to young males."
Campbell says female chefs either take to the environment at Vue de Monde immediately or discover quickly it is not for them. He appreciates that for some, there is comfort in numbers. ''[Guys] might not have the skill but they know they can fit in with other males.''
Stephanie Ribaux, 20, is the only woman working in Vue de Monde's kitchen. She describes her colleagues as "awesome'' but says many women would be intimidated. It's not just that there are many "boys'' in restaurant kitchens, she says, but "there are a lot of blokey boys''.
Bennett points out the profession has traditionally appealed to many people with limited education - people who are "more gifted artistically than academically''. He argues more men fit into this category because women are more often ''socially encouraged to take their education a far as they can'' - beyond the age at which most people enter restaurants.
Australian Culinary Federation president Peter Wright says that across the industry the number of women progressing to become head chefs is increasing. Physically, some working conditions have changed and made kitchens a more equal workplace.
"These days a lot more of the preparatory work is done by suppliers,'' he says. "Chefs are less likely to do their own butchering, for example, although many high-end restaurants still prefer to do this work on premises.''
Many chefs—male and female— also believe the culture of commercial kitchens has taken a big leap forward. Wright says anti-harassment laws and greater awareness about the impact of bullying has filtered through to kitchens.
Redmond says the head chef at her first place of employment liked to put chilli powder on her drinks and cigarettes. "He was a pig," she says. "The owner of that restaurant walked into Cicciolina a few years ago and I thanked him: 'You showed me how not to run a restaurant'."
Wolf-Tasker's stints as a young chef in France stand out. "[Butt] pinching and groping was de rigueur," she says. "There's no doubt the boys are generally better behaved now."
Rather than being fuelled on testosterone, restaurants with "beautifully controlled kitchens'' are the vanguard, she says. Wolf-Tasker has difficulty imagining Gordon Ramsay-style meltdowns at the current crop of world-leading restaurants, such as Noma, the French Laundry, Eleven Madison Park or Melbourne's Attica. "The British bully boys have lost their shine; you can taste the stress in the food,'' she says. Nevertheless, Wolf-Tasker still tries to get "at least 30 per cent women" in the kitchen at Lake House, "or it can get a bit blokey".