Cracking the culinary glass ceiling


When asked to conjure a picture of a typical chef in one’s imagination, it is likely to immediately see a caricature, a Ratatouille-esque figure with a tall white hat, and long robes. The old-fashioned notion exists that ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’ meaning that we likely visualise our mothers and grandmothers to be the ones cooking dinner. However, this belief does not extend to the male-dominated culinary industry, with ONS figures showing that in the UK, only 18.5% of over 250,000 professional chefs are women, with this number decreasing each year. We must question who to hold accountable for perpetuating the historically-engrained narrative that despite ample global culinary talent from women and men alike, the professional kitchen is predominantly seen as a male domain. 

Claiming women cannot handle the heat of the kitchen is an archaic assumption

In 1950, Fernand Point, the father of nouvelle cuisine, claimed that “only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art”, an ideology that is still seen as the status quo today. The professional kitchen is considered one of the most challenging work environments; with long hours, unrelenting pressure, and physical strain, it is considered a job only to be attempted by those with a true passion for cooking. Claiming women cannot handle the heat of the kitchen is an archaic assumption, but it can become unbearable when the territory is fuelled by misogyny, abuse and aggression. A spate of allegations of misconduct in Michelin-starred restaurants across the UK is no surprise; research at Cardiff University found the physical isolation of chefs created a feeling that ‘rules don’t apply’, allowing for a hostile workplace where physical and sexual violence, as well as bullying, are tolerated, behaviours that in any other professional setting would be deemed inappropriate and unacceptable. World-renowned Clare Smyth, the first and only female chef to be awarded three Michelin stars for her restaurant in London, referenced this feeling saying in her early days: “ I could never say I’m tired, or I’m sick, or I’ve cut my finger, as the response would be, it’s because you’re a girl”. This frequently toxic atmosphere, coupled with the challenges that young women aspiring to advance as chefs encounter in balancing motherhood with the demanding hours of kitchen work, go some way to explain the dwindling numbers joining the gastronomy workforce. The Michelin Guide, one of the most prestigious honours a restaurant can achieve, can also be blamed for encouraging a prejudiced stance, one that overlooks innovative and talented female chefs and perpetuates the gender imbalance. Despite Michelin denying this, the facts speak for themselves, with only 10 of the 172 Michelin star restaurants in the UK housing female head chefs. 

The physical isolation of chefs creates a feeling that ‘rules don’t apply’

The media plays a role in glamourising and normalising this hard-charging, harmful and sexist work environment. Popular confessional chef memoirs are formulaic, telling tales of fighting, late nights, drug use, and the desperate pursuit to become a respected name, a story that leaves no room for women in the kitchen as serious professional competitors. Author of the bestselling Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain, found himself questioning the role he was responsible for in encouraging this toxic masculinity and alienating young women, asking himself “to what extent in that book did I provide validation to meatheads?”. Despite his introspection about his place in misogynistic culture, Bourdain felt it was unrealistic for older men in the industry to change their “hearts and minds”, instead encouraging women to come forward in instances of coercion and harassment in the kitchen, feeling it was a ‘personal failing’ that more women did not feel comfortable confiding in him. 

Even in television and film, the fictional male-dominated chef narrative is not a new entertainment trend. The hit series The Bear, follows “Carmy”, a fine dining chef returning to Chicago to run his family’s sandwich shop with the help of his young sous chef, Sydney.  Although it shows a diverse kitchen and evolves to incorporate female leadership, it is initially led by a man. Netflix’s Emily in Paris celebrates male chef Gabriel, and the 2021 film Boiling Point provides an insight into the life of a head chef keeping a  claustrophobic and overwhelming kitchen running, a unique viewing experience, filmed in just a single shot. And while these performances do provide a somewhat authentic idea of what the industry is like, change begins with how professional kitchens are portrayed in the media; women need to be included equally to encourage more to be brave enough to participate. 

While cooking is an ability that is traditionally aligned with femininity, once it became economically exploitable, we saw it change, becoming a more masculine skill worthy of economic reward. It is the responsibility of institutions such as Michelin, the media, and male peers to create an inclusive industry that allows for young, talented, female chefs to shine. 

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