Ask anyone to paint a picture of what a professional kitchen might look like and the same impression will crop up. Shouty chefs, clattering pans, sweaty foreheads - every Hell's Kitchen stereotype rolled into one, with added expletives. But how often would there be a woman in the picture? According to the Guardian, fewer than one in five professional chefs are female. Unlike most traditionally male-dominated industries, the numbers are actually dropping. Hospitality recruiter The Change Group recently reported that over the past three years only one in eight applications for chef jobs were female. Yet the food industry is more ubiquitous than ever. Switch on the television and you'll see another group of amateurs battle it out over fondant potatoes and red wine reductions, or take a glance at a bestselling books list and be met with Nigella and Gizzi. Food blogs are flourishing and street food stalls and novel food pop ups smatter the pages of Time Out London each week. So why are there so few female chefs controlling our country's kitchens? Workplace gender equality has taken positive steps in the right direction – the gender pay gap is now at it's lowest percentage in history and the number of workplace sex discrimination cases have been dropping - but the chef industry seems to have been left behind. Anna Tobias is Head Chef at Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch and previously worked at Michelin starred restaurant River Café. Heading up a busy kitchen, she understands the drawbacks women consider when thinking about a cooking career.
"The stereotypical concerns that put women off are the fact that it's portrayed as a bit of a boy's club," says Anna. "Plus, it's quite a physical job, so – if purely on genetics we are weaker – that is seen as a hurdle." These concerns are part in blame to the media, which Anna thinks portrays kitchens inaccurately. "It's done the kitchen industry a massive disservice. Beyond glorifying macho and aggressive behaviour it's also implying that's how every kitchen runs and also slightly implying that it's the only way to run a kitchen, which is completely not the case." Whether the case or not, popular culture isn't helping. Last year Bradley Cooper starred in Burnt, as a macho chef recovering from drug abuse while simultaneously pursuing his dreams of Michelin stars and the perfect tomato consommé. Executively produced by Gordon Ramsay and with "special dishes" by Marcus Wareing, the film was an alpha-male love-in doing the industry absolutely no favours when it came to correcting its reputation for gender imbalance.
Providing a perfect antidote to Cooper's portrayal is Elizabeth Allen, Head Chef at Pidgin in Hackney and previous Masterchef contestant. After training as an architect, Elizabeth switched to cooking and hasn't looked back since. "Nothing really put me off in the start because I just wanted to get involved and be around food," says Elizabeth. "The hours were daunting though, especially if you're young. You don't get any weekends ever again." Head chefs can expect to work upwards of 65 hours a week – with double shifts, early prep starts and late service finishes the norm. However, unsociable hours aside, chefs like Elizabeth are so passionate about their skill, they'll work relentlessly for it. But is the male-heavy environment a welcoming one for women? "When you're the only female in the kitchen, it's obvious to see that discrimination. There have been a couple of occasions where it got a bit too much" says Elizabeth, in reference to sexist comments she received at a previous job. "I raised it with my manager and they were like 'just get on with it'. If a guy was being harassed by a girl would they say the same? Not that that would ever be the instance." After that, Elizabeth "just moved on".
If the kitchen industry offers one luxury, it's the ability to "just move on". Until recently, skilled chefs were listed on the Home Office's Shortage Occupations. Ask any chef and they're quick to tell you the difficulty surrounding hiring (and keeping) staff. For women, this is sometimes a bonus. An abundance of jobs means that picking your kitchens wisely is easy, and switching when things aren't right is far simpler than in other industries. However everyone knows that cheffing isn't a glamorous job and this is something former fashion-designer-turned-chef Maxine Thompson has tackled in her own way. Believing in an alternative to unflattering chef's trousers, Maxine created her own, Polka Pants. Specifically designed for women, they're equipped with a high waist and a handy belt-loop-cum-tea-towel-holder. "I started speaking with female chefs and discovered that the majority of them experienced the same problem as me," says Maxine. "We were limited to chain store trousers or cooking in jeans."
Alongside Polka Pants, Maxine is a chef herself and has also been at the tail end of 'boys club' kitchen behaviour. "A chef de partie once threw a plate at me, so I caught it and threw it back at him. Needless to say he never tried anything like that again." Her resilient attitude is indicative of the modern generation of female chefs that has come to the forefront. Disciplined and passionate, they're determined to use their gender as an advantage, either to shatter stereotypes or fill a previous gender gap in the industry. It's encouraging a culture of female support. A newly launched monthly night, Women of Restaurants, offers a chance to meet other industry girls and discuss topics from juggling family life to working nights. Founded by Grace Welch, senior manager at Spring restaurant (who proudly sport an all-female kitchen team), the night is hosted in various dining rooms across London, and in Grace's words, "Is a great opportunity to share experiences with sympathetic ears." It's just one of many positive developments in the industry that's reflected by the number of women who are interested in pursuing a food career; despite the crushingly low percentage of female chefs, surprisingly more women are studying cooking than men in catering schools. Jenny Stringer is principle of Leith's School of Cooking and says 60% of her diploma students are female, however she blames the lack of women pursuing a cooking career in traditional kitchens on the new opportunities the industry offers. "People now know a bit more about the fact there are different jobs" says Jenny. "So a lot of our students will go onto have a mixed freelance life. They'll do some cooking, a farmer's market, a pop-up, food writing, styling and just have different projects." Jenny's point is an important one. The lack of female chefs can't be blamed solely on the proportion of men in the industry. The issue runs far deeper and ultimately comes down to the fact that more flexible, enticing food jobs now exist and offer women the opportunity to work, whilst being able to bring up a family and be home before bedtime.
For those like Anna and Elizabeth, whose hearts lie in the drama of a professional kitchen, the long hours and daunting prospect of having children alongside their demanding careers is just one they have to accept and challenge to become fairer. More flexible kitchen rotas are needed, says Anna: "The rotas are done on a weekly basis, you don't know next week what you will be working. There's a lack of stability and structure." It's not always the men themselves that reinforce sexism in the industry, but a wider attitude. Anna and Elizabeth are quick to defend the industry's men, who largely have provided them only with support. "All of the men I work with currently are amazing," comments Anna. The current picture is that of promise – yes, things need to change, but no workplace is perfect. Female chefs are no longer resigned solely to pastry, nor are they seen as any less capable because of their sex. This in itself is progress, and a sign of changing times. But more changes are needed. "If women aren't entering into the industry there's going to be a shortfall," says Elizabeth. Kitchens need women desperately, more than ever, and there really is no better time to join than now.