Invisible Women, by Tanya Gohil

Marco Pierre White is thirsty. Last month, in his most recent bid to reinstate relevance (i.e. more attention-seeking clickbait from the dubbed ‘enfant terrible’), he prattled on to the Irish Independent, outlining the supposed differences between men and women in professional kitchens. The comments, as you can imagine, were ill-considered, and from a man regularly vying for ‘current’ significance, quelle surprise.

To summarise White’s words: men can absorb pressure better, as women can get emotional and take things personally; men have better physical strength, whilst women can struggle carrying heavy pans; and of course, the quote, ‘can you imagine you’re a lady in the kitchen and saying “will you carry that pan for me?”. You don’t want to say that do you?’ (Insert eye roll here).

Yet, all was not lost (!) On the ‘plus’ side, according to White, women tend to have a better palate. They may not be as fast, or as physically strong, but they are consistent, well turned out and punctual. Yay for us.

Always dependable for fuelling controversial wildfire, Insta was alive with withering clapbacks. Queen Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express noted that these comments, ‘like three-day-old fish, reek of patriarchy’ and was disappointed that these words came from such a venerated chef. Neil Rankin of Temper steakhouse aptly pointed out that, ‘the only real difference between men and women in the kitchen is that men don’t have to put up with this nauseating baseless antiquated bullshit every day’. Yes Neil, this.

White’s superficial comparisons of men and women in restaurants are an immediate underestimation of female capabilities and display what many female chefs know already:  that the very idea of strength and success in this industry is gendered within itself. Differences between sexes in the workplace always offer the same hackneyed stereotypes of women as ‘emotional’, ‘weak’ and ‘dependent’, while men are associated with higher levels of ‘mastery’,  ‘greater assertiveness’ and ‘individualism’. While men are expected to be – and are rewarded for being – tough and hard, women who display the same traits are accused of being ‘bossy’ and ‘aggressive’. Why do we even have to be compared, to be measured this way? Why are men the benchmark?

Whilst illustrating how old gold chefs still stubbornly cling to old-fangled blanket stereotypes, White’s words are only the very beginning in highlighting the personal and systemic sexism facing female chefs today. But these oppressive and damaging gender biases, though still so prevalent in our industry, merely scratch the surface of prejudices facing women chefs at the intersection – specifically, women of colour.

The domain of the kitchen has always been seen as a domestic sphere that women occupy as caregivers and nurturers. As soon as the kitchen becomes a commercial operation, a place of business, female chefs struggle to separate themselves from ‘home-cook’ labels. For women-of-colour chefs, these shackles are tighter. We face the sort of gatekeeping where our food is rarely equated to what is widely considered as fine dining. The industry’s imagination falls short so that the value of our food is often limited to, and coded as, ‘cultural’ and ‘comfort food’: less sophisticated and less refined. We are seen as the custodians of culture; the preservers of tradition. Eras of culinary erudition pale in comparison to professional culinary qualifications. The food given more weight and power in our industry is very rarely ours, and the media perpetuates this bias. 

These notions undermine the contribution of women-of-colour chefs, and as Asma Khan points out to Big Hospitality, the potency of White’s comments ‘dismiss women as neither innovators nor creators’. Female chefs are described as warm and mothering. By contrast, male chefs are pictured as mavericks; they break rules and experiment. If these men were inspired by their mothers or grandmothers – and of course, they almost always were – they are typically praised for moving beyond the base levels of “comfort food” to arrive at their current genius. But us WOC? Well, we lag behind them. We stay in our lanes.

The restaurant industry is generally regarded as unfriendly to women. Restaurants are seen to reliably fail us. Aside from sexual harassment in the workplace (!), there are nonexistent maternity policies and an arguably inflexible work/life balance – a culture that is slowly changing but still makes it incredibly difficult for women to build families. The problem is, WOC are disproportionately freighted with family and childcare responsibilities relative to their white peers. This is a barrier for both our entry and our success. But we’re still here, scrabbling for our place, still turning up and doing the damn job. Returning to the kitchen a few weeks postpartum is not unheard of. This is something that resonates with most women across most industries. This is what you do to be taken seriously at work; this is how you attempt to have it all. For WOC, this is how you take up space.

Socio-economic factors often mean WOC chefs come from less economically privileged backgrounds. Although cheffing was traditionally a working class occupation, rising through the ranks of revered restaurants allowed social class mobility and access to respect for your craft. Sound familiar Marco? But many WOC are self taught. They haven’t received formal training and their skill set is often unlinked to expensive culinary schools. Our craft is organic and we’ve learned through osmosis – we are not constructs of fine dining kitchens. Angela Hartnett on Desert Island Discs speaks of the outrage she faced when, in 2002, she began as the first female chef at the helm of the long-standing and established dining room of The Connaught. She’s one of the very few British, Michelin starred, female chefs, yes, but her skills have been honed in both Italy and France, countries with cuisines held in higher esteem to more ‘ethnic’ fare, and under the mentorship of industry heavyweight, Gordon Ramsey. This has all been conducive to her success, but she does not represent the trajectory of WOC. This is a lack of representation in the upper echelons and it trickles all the way down to how few of us are given access at the bottom. 

For those WOC who aspire to opening restaurants of their own, myself included, we face further obstacles. The percentage of venture capitalist backed founders that are people of colour, according to a 2019 study by CrunchBase, is 23%, but even fewer are women. Having succeeded in opening their own restaurants, women chefs of colour are then pursued daily by preconceived notions of what a professional chef ‘looks like’. This is why we need to push against the archaic pigeonholing perpetuated by fossils like White. 

So, what needs to change? 

What are we doing to make space for all women to achieve their goals in the culinary world? Gender imbalance is one thing, racial and class inequalities are another. Whilst we wait for the rest of the industry to catch up, it’s our leaders, both men and women, who can help instigate change.  

First, we need to be much clearer about the importance of diversity in the workplace.

  • WOC chefs need to see themselves reflected in professional kitchens – when we see more women that look like us and share our narrative, we start to feel welcome. We start to feel like there’s space for us and that we matter. 

  • When we are covered in food media, let’s think about our tokenisation and that the language used to describe our work doesn’t just convey ‘warm homely cook’, but rather, exciting new talent. As WOC chefs we need to take control of own narratives.

  • Restaurateurs need to start realising that there is an existing, informal economy ready to be formalised and enrich the industry’s supply of employment, the food on our plates, and restaurant kitchen teams. This is the type of untapped economy that thrives in humble kitchens of first and second generation immigrant families. We need to focus on women of colour and immigrant chefs, because this is where the barrier to entry exists. But this goes beyond entry - it’s access to market. It’s access to opportunity, growth, sales and access to capital. The pathways to economic opportunity within the food realm need to be not just equal but equitable. Whilst Brexit looms over us and we freak about staff shortages in hospitality, let’s take advantage of this more-than-equipped pool of workers on our home turf, and enrich our kitchens through diversification. White, your vision is stunted. 

  • The food industry changes rapidly, but little seems to be changing for women in these times. We need to expand the conversation about supporting women into leadership – women who look like me.

We are certainly not post-feminism (got the memo thanks Marco) and we have only just begun with diversity and inclusion. You can’t skip these steps and expect to just arrive at healthy, happy restaurant culture. There are no shortcuts, justifications or rationalisations here. We just need to do the damn work. White is pitifully short-sighted and out of touch. Within a male dominated sphere where we are massively underrepresented as women, his stereotypes are regressive and counterrevolutionary for us all. It’s trite, it’s tedious and I’m just not here for it. Let’s occupy this space with enlightened change; there is work for us all to do. As for White, well, dinosaurs die out. Bye, Felicia.

Tanya GohilNatalia Ribbe