I've been a qualified professional chef for a good few years now. Having had the awesome opportunity to work in hotels, lodges, catering companies, private homes, restaurants and damn near anywhere a chef may be asked to perform their trade. No, I won't say I'm a job hopper, I just enjoy new experiences and pushing my skills to the limit in as many ways as possible. Having been a corporate worker for 6 years taught me just how soul destroying a stagnant job can be. By nature the majority of qualified chefs are nomads, forever yearning to use all their knowledge in new ways and to learn as much as they can in different places around the world.
A few days ago I was asked to voice my opinion on the rather peculiar dynamic that is the image people have about the perceived sexism of the industry I love so much. The most famous chefs in the world are 90% male. (Before we get into the whole "Chef vs Cook" debate please see my previous blog post on what a cook is and what a chef is. ) It's a strange phenomenon because society tends to view cooking as a female pastime and moms are the ones celebrated in family food adverts and kiddies meal campaigns. Think about it, where have you seen an advert where the narration is targeted at men cooking dinner (and not in a tongue-in-cheek way)? The whole idea of cooking and being in the kitchen has been a patriarchal one for centuries with the domestic view being that it's a woman's domain...yet the majority of celebrated chefs and restaurants are male dominated. Why and how?
Having had the chance to attend a culinary school and also having interacted with many chef students and colleges I can safely say the students studying to become chefs are mostly female. Take my experience for example. Out of our chef class of 18 students only 5 of us were guys. In the class ahead of us the ratio was also the same. Yet somehow when you get into industry and look at the make-up of professional kitchens at restaurants and hotels the majority of staff are male. In the first professional kitchen I worked in, at a large hotel, out of the 30 chefs only 3 were women. When I was in London I noticed it was actually even worse over there, quite a few kitchens only had women staff members who worked in the back as hostesses and waitresses, no chefs. What was also very peculiar that side was that the majority of chef brigades were made up of very young chefs with only the head chef being a bit older.
So where do the female chef students go after graduation? Is the chauvinist industry blocking them from entering the fray? Actually it's a tough one to work out. There is a high staff turnover rate in the chef world. A lot of people only realise that the industry is a tough and brutal one after they graduate with expensive qualifications and enter the dungeons of hell that we call industry kitchens. Working 12 hour shifts, working holidays and weekends, being on your feet for half a day without a break, being sworn at by senior chefs, eating and drinking nonsense, treating your body like a wrecking ball and then going home to come back in a few hours to do it again all for shitty pay and no love from management. The industry is not fun at all. Sticking a group of creative people in a very hot place with the pressure to produce top quality products day in and day out is a recipe for disaster (excuse the pun). I would bet that 60% of qualified chefs don't make it past 5 years working as full-time chefs.
Why do people enter the industry then? Honestly? I reckon because no one is doing enough to educate the public about what chefs actually do. Before you bring up the Food Channel and food shows, I'm referring to the actual everyday work of a chef. People assume it's a fun career and see glamorous tv shows and celebrity chefs and believe they can also become one. They read food blogs written by people who have never worked a day in a professional chef brigade and buy cook books with pretty pictures and then decide that the food industry is for them, "coz it will be fun, I'm a foodie, I love food"...then dum dum, reality hits...hard. I'm saying it as it is because it's the truth. I've met so many kids who get broken by the reality and the truth. When someone asks me "what should I do to become a chef" I tell them to volunteer for a few months in a professional kitchen and afterwards come back and ask me again.
Ok, that answers why so few people make it to being a chef for many years. It doesn't answer the original question, why is the industry so male dominated? Well, imagine a rugby team, a big group of individuals primed and ready to take on whatever is thrown at them...whilst always having to remember small intricate details...and needing to be creative...and be clean and hygienic...and work in a cramped and sweaty environment. The loud, brash and often physically demeaning nature of a kitchen is often what turns a lot of people away. We guys and our rather huge machismo are taught to embrace such environments, we laugh off burns and cuts, we share crude and rude jokes over expensive cuts of venison, we throw things and openly embrace our aggressive side...and then at the end of the night we laugh it all off and go out for a beer and wipe the slate clean and start again the next day. For some guys this is even considered a fun experience, hence us starting so many wars. I'm not a woman, so I can't speak on their behalf but what I can say is that being in such an environment every single day for years on end is highly unlikely for ladies. There are a few women who do succeed in that kind of environment and what I've found in my experience is that instead of trying to get us guys to adapt to the more gentle approach, they melt into ours and become one of the boys.
A lot of women chefs tend to leave the rather heated world of high end restaurants and hotels and move to the smaller kitchens of boutique restaurants, exclusive fine dining, lodges, bakeries and catering establishments. Besides those kind of kitchens being less physically demanding, they also tend to be a bit more flexible in terms of working hours and personal time.
Why are the world's most famous chefs mostly male? That question, I honestly don't have an answer for except to say the world's most famous cooks and food bloggers seem to mostly be female....