Women changing the world of food
To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, we meet inspiring women in food and drink. From redesigning chef’s whites to overcoming barriers, they reveal how they are making a change.
Of the 237,000 chefs working in the UK, just 41,000 – around 17% – are women, according to data gathered by the Office for National Statistics. Another survey, conducted by employment experts People 1st shows that women and men working in the hospitality industry have a similar career trajectory – from apprentice to fully employed – until they’re around 30 years old. At this point, the number of females in the workforce drops markedly – and for predictable reasons. ‘The sector fails to retain female talent following maternity leave, largely owing to a lack of flexibility,’ say the survey’s authors.
In addition to that, they note, ‘Focus groups with female students revealed consistent examples of intimidation which, in another work environment, would be considered to be sexual discrimination but, in a kitchen, is often dismissed as friendly banter.’
So what does it take to succeed in this male-dominated landscape? Imagination, problemsolving, sheer determination and a healthy sense of community are part of the solution, according to the game-changers we spoke to.
The tailor - Maxine Thompson
Maxine Thompson launched Polka Pants to make trousers for female chefs, so they don’t have to wear men’s clothing in the kitchen. Her black-and-white polka dot design and a leopard print option went on sale in 2012 and are now sold internationally.
The idea of Polka Pants was born when Maxine, a former chef, was working 14-hour days in a hot kitchen. ‘It was a time when open kitchens were a thing and there was increasing focus on chefs. The clothes lacked comfort and were impractical,’ she recalls.
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She decided that a pair of trousers, designed specifically for women running the pass, was a necessity and set to task making them. It proved a transformative experience for culinary A-listers like Ruth Rogers from The River Café and Gizzi Erskine, who immediately praised the debut range.
‘Polka Pants wasn’t just a solution to our clothing problem. Back then, it represented a community of women in food and a new emerging camaraderie,’ reflects Maxine. Six years on and the permanent collection choices are must-haves for women chefs, while new additions are equally renegade. In a collaboration with Cherry Bombe, the US food magazine, a quirky cherry pattern speckles another sartorial edition, while camomile pants, by artist Billie Justice Thomson, also attract a cult following.
The beer sommelier - Melissa Cole
As a certified cicerone – a well-recognised qualification in the brewing industry – Melissa champions beer. Alongside her new recipe book The Beer Kitchen, about cooking with and matching dishes to beer, she’s kickstarted the Everyone Welcome Initiative that aims to diversify the beer scene via events across the UK. Its manifesto includes ideas like putting baby-changing facilities in gender-neutral spaces.
Melissa fell for all things hoppy as a journalism student, her first job being on a trade paper for publicans. But what committed her to the cause was an invitation to judge the International Beer Challenge. ‘The first beer of the day tasted of rhubarb but the three experienced male judges at the table said I didn’t know what I was talking about.’
Sexist jokes followed and yet, it transpired that the beer was called Ruddles Rhubarb. ‘That was a challenge, but also the point when I made up my mind that not only was I clearly better at tasting than certain men in the industry, I wasn’t going to be bullied like that ever again.’ She continues, ‘It’s not that women aren’t equal to men in my industry, it’s that all too frequently we’re dismissed as novelties or filling the quota, or “trying to keep up with the blokes”, and it’s infuriating.’
Other challenges she faces are in the marketing of beer. ‘For 50 years or so, they’ve been driving beer in the male market and now, in an era of declining alcohol consumption, they’re desperate to win back those people they’ve spent half a century alienating.’
However, she finds the crudest insult the ‘beers for ladies’ ranges, predictably erring on the side of pink and fruity. ‘It gives me rage - the only scientific difference between the average male and female palate is that we are better at smelling and therefore, tasting.’
On the Everyone Welcome Initiative, she explains, ‘It’s about tackling the issue of beer being mostly a white, straight, male world. It’s designed to get people thinking about not just being welcoming, but actively inviting people from all walks of life into establishments by signalling that they’re safe and protected when they come to this bar, pub, brewery tap or beer festival.’
The chef - Asma Khan
Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express restaurant in London’s Kingly Court has been in the limelight constantly since opening in 2017, employing an all-women team of untrained cooks delivering authentic Persian-influenced Mughlai dishes, such as saffron chicken stew. She recently opened Calcutta Canteen in London’s Soho.
‘Before the restaurant, I started my first supper club in 2012 at my house in London. It was women – nurses from the local hospital, the nannies after school – who would sit around the table prepping with me, peeling the potatoes,’ recalls Asma. ‘This is the team I still have with me today.’
There is no hierarchy at her establishment. ‘Everyone is on the same wage, including me.’ She asks the question, ‘Why do men or women get paid differently? It’s just beyond me – why would one be more significant than the other?’
Considering Darjeeling’s roaring success, one wonders why there aren’t more restaurants like this. ‘Because of prejudice,’ comes Asma’s answer. ‘It’s incredible what people ask: I get asked about hormones in my kitchen. It’s deeply offensive.’
She believes we’re far from attaining equality in the food world. She says, ‘Somehow men look down on female chefs, they expect them to be pastry chefs, to work in the cold kitchen – it’s a misconception that women can’t take the heat.’
Asma’s newest project is setting up the Second Daughters Fund, a charity that aims to empower second-born daughters in India by sending celebration care packages on the day of their birth, as well as helping to fund their education.
‘I am a second daughter, most of my team are second daughters and we knew that our birth was a disappointment. We were not the sons the family had anxiously hoped for and most of our births were not celebrated. Through the charity, I want the birth of second girls to be celebrated in the village and for them to have the same rights as boys: an education, an opportunity and a reminder that they are not a burden on their family.’
Twenty percent of the profits from Darjeeling Express will go to the charity.
Asma will be profiled on Netflix series Chef’s Table in Spring 2019.
The chef campaigner - Ravinder Bhogal
Born in Kenya to Indian parents, Ravinder is proprietor of Jikoni restaurant in London, plating up a menu inspired by her mixed heritage. For Jikoni’s recent second birthday, Ravinder held an event to raise money for women and girls network The Samosa Sisterhood.
‘I think we’ve come a long way from the days of cheffing being an old boys’ club. It gives me great joy to see names like Selin Kiazim (owner of Turkish restaurant Oklava), Marianne Lumb (BBC Great British Menu finalist) and (Michelin-starred chef) Angela Hartnett being celebrated. They are fantastic chefs and restaurateurs, not just singled out because they are women.
At Jikoni, I’m interested in promoting an environment which working mothers can be part of. It’s time for restaurants to be open and realistic about what amount of time working mothers can commit to so that we don’t lose a whole pool of talent in an industry which is already workforce-challenged.’
The restaurateur - Samyukta Nair
Entrepreneur and co-founder of upmarket Mayfair restaurant Jamavar, Samyukta is shaking things up with a monthly women’s club.
‘I started a Women’s Club at Jamavar, not only as an antidote to the long-standing boy’s clubs of Mayfair, but also to share and celebrate the ethos my elders taught me, along with inspiring women in Britain. I don’t think women are celebrated enough: every day should be International Women’s Day. Women should celebrate women on a daily basis, just as we do men. Like in any industry, the glass ceiling exists. But seeing the number of women entrepreneurs pave successful career paths for themselves makes me believe it’s fast changing.’
The hospitality innovator - Natalia Ribbe
Natalia runs Ladies of Restaurants, launched in 2017 to support women in hospitality, getting members together for drinks and celebrating their triumphs. Additionally, she is the restaurant fundraiser for Magic Breakfast, a charity that aims to give children a nutritious start every day.
‘It’s not about taking down the patriarchy, but we need to feel we’re on a level with men. My industry isn’t heavily male or female, but it’s about who is in the spotlight. We don’t have a lot of female role models. Where are the female maître d’s? Ladies of Restaurants is about celebrating what we do, empowering us.’
The entrepreneur - Jenny Dawson
Jenny is director of Rubies in the Rubble, a sustainable food brand making relishes and jams from surplus fruit and veg. ‘There are still few women farmers, but there’s movement among female-run start-ups. As half the the population is female, it makes sense that the start-ups in food reflect this. Originally, when Rubies began we had our own kitchens and teamed up with Crisis to employ women. Of our 11 staff now, only two are men. Starting a business can be scary, because you’re risking so much and you might worry about failure. I hope Rubies inspires other women to take the plunge. We need a bank of female role models, instead of always looking to men.’
The coffee roasters - Fi O’Brien and Casey Lalonde
Girls who Grind Coffee is an all female roastery based near Frome, Somerset, established by Fi O’Brien and head roaster, Casey Lalonde. Together, they source their beans from female farmers and those that support them.
‘The main aim for us is to be part of a change in buying policies to ensure that women in countries such as DR Congo and Rwanda no longer need to work in unsafe, unsanitary conditions. Through the industry’s buying support, they can financially support themselves and their families through coffee farming and production. Coffee drinkers can also help with this change by asking more questions about the producers. It’s not enough to simply see a photo of a white middle-class man standing next to a farmer at origin. We need to know about the working conditions of these farmers and producers and how much they are being paid for their green coffee.’
Are there other inspiring women in food you think should be celebrated? Leave a comment below...