Recognise chefs for their skill and talent

Five female chefs and restaurant owners share their experiences with KATE RYAN of working in kitchens. They talk about gender equality, juggling work with family life, and their wish to be judged only by their cooking — and nothing else
Recognise chefs for their skill and talent
Tessa Perry, Glebe Gardens, The East Village, Baltimore, Co Cork. Picture: Emma Jervis Photography

MAYBE it’s just me, but it feels like many of the discussions around gender equality are acrimonious; lots of ‘men versus women’ status arguments.

This discussion has now reached the kitchens of our restaurants and cafes at the exact same time as the debate around the chef shortage in Ireland has reached fever pitch.

It seems, after years of feminists advocating ways to get women out of the kitchen, in a domestic sense at least, now more than ever we need them to return to it as professional chefs.

So what is it to be: women in the kitchen or not? And if you are a professional chef and a woman, are you treated differently to your male counterparts?

I spoke to five female chefs from across Cork, and Mary Farrell — a professional chef based in Dublin currently researching her PhD into gender imbalance — to gauge their views on the issues.

Head Chef Caitlin Ruth, Deasy's Harbour Bar and Seafood Restaurant.
Head Chef Caitlin Ruth, Deasy's Harbour Bar and Seafood Restaurant.

SEXISM OF THE PAST

Caitlin Ruth is Head Chef of Deasy’s Harbour Bar & Seafood Restaurant in Ring, West Cork. A head chef for 20 years, her early experiences working in her native New Hampshire, USA, were difficult to say the least.

“Sexual harassment in one form or another was the norm. It would range from openly being groped to chauvinistic remarks, to someone calling you “babe” because they couldn’t be bothered remembering your name. Those were my early experiences in the US.

“When I moved to Europe, things started to change — mostly in a positive way, first in The Netherlands and then eventually in Ireland. When I finally settled in West Cork, I was fortunate to work for people who treated everyone equally, no matter what your gender.

“I think it’s disingenuous to say that kitchens are no longer a boys’ club, but things are starting to change — certainly here in Ireland. Eurotoques in particular are trying really hard to change the old-fashioned cultures in kitchens but there is still a way to go. For instance, I always find I have to fight harder to gain ground with suppliers, but once a relationship has been established then things become easier for everyone.

“Personally, I prefer to hire women to work in my kitchen — I just find that women are better at multi-tasking and are more intuitive in their cookery. Women have more tenacity too, they just power on through when they know what has to be done.

“For me, it all comes down to whether someone has a curiosity about food, how quickly they can learn and how they move in a kitchen.”

Diana Dodog - Master Chef Ireland winner.
Diana Dodog - Master Chef Ireland winner.

PHYSICAL CHALLENGES

Diana Dodog is chef and co-proprietor with her husband Michael O’Donovan of Food Depot — Gourmet Street Food in West Cork. She earned her stripes working in kitchens around the world and then went on to win Masterchef Ireland in 2014.

“Pure strength is an asset as a chef,” she said. “Hauling large pots, crates of vegetables and bags of ingredients up and down stairs will be a challenge to anyone, but definitely puts most women at a disadvantage.

“Women have a shorter window of opportunity to climb the ladder and prove themselves, if they are planning to have children, for example.

“But everyone wants an even playing field and to be recognised for their skill rather than their gender and to be judged equally — by their cooking, nothing else.

“There are certain sacrifices that we all have to make when we decide to join this wonderful industry, but these are the same things we are giving up, whether a man or a woman. It might be a tough environment, but I don’t think that a strong-willed woman can’t do it!”

CAN DO ATTITUDE

Clare Nash, chef proprietor of well-respected and long standing Cork city restaurant, Nash 19, says being successful has nothing to do with being male or female. Instead, it’s about the approach a restaurant has to its business.

“Female chefs, whether they realise it or not, are also a mammy, a sister, a friend and a psychologist!” she said.

“A woman’s ability to do often means that they are invaluable in the higher chef roles; she will never say something can’t be done. That ability to be flexible and adapt to a changing situation, work with others and tackle anything that comes at you is incredibly important to be a successful chef.

“However, I feel that men and women will equally flourish if they are in the right environment. It depends on each chef and the approach of each restauranteur: do you want a tightly controlled environment (say, a Michelin-starred restaurant), or do you want to be able to adapt to an unforeseen change, like we have to do in Nash 19 very often? The right chef must be in the right kind of establishment otherwise nobody wins.”

SISTER ACT

Tessa Perry is Head Chef at The Glebe Gardens in Baltimore, West Cork, a successful restaurant run by the three Perry sisters where 80% of the staff are female.

The season is short and hectic, and Tessa finds that the most difficult part of doing what she loves is the time she doesn’t get to spend with her children.

“I honestly think the days where an old French guy is shouting at their staff and declaring kitchens to be no place for a woman are over.

“Most people just want a good team behind them, regardless of their gender. When it comes to talent, hard work and drive there are no differences.

“I think maybe the majority of women don’t have the need or desire to prove themselves ‘the best’. I’m a community-girl and I want the food at The Glebe to be fresh and exciting, but accessible and uncomplicated. To me that is enough, but it probably wouldn’t be enough to get a Michelin star, but I am totally grand with that!

“You have to love this business for it to be worth the sacrifices. Speaking as a mother as well as a chef, it really is a tough choice for a woman to work the hours required to maintain a top restaurant and spend quality time with one’s family: in the summer months, I don’t see much of my kids. It would and should put any sane person off being a chef and a parent.”

Head Chef Pamela Kelly, at Market Lane.
Head Chef Pamela Kelly, at Market Lane.

GETTING THE BALANCE RIGHT

Pamela Kelly has been a Head Chef since she was just 22 years old, and has been at the helm of Cork city favourite Market Lane for the past three years.

“There’s no point in trying to say that there is no pressure in this job — it’s always there, but it’s important to remember that being a head chef isn’t just about the cooking: there are other roles that you have to fulfil,” she said. “I have to be involved in managing training for staff and nurturing the development of their careers. I have to look at product planning, cost projections, supplier management and so on.

“I’m lucky that, as part of the Market Lane Group (which also covers city eateries Orso, Elbow Lane and the Castle Café at Blackrock), there is a team there that can provide a kind of scaffolding to help with implementing training and efficiencies, which helps to make it easier to do what needs to be done to continue being a successful restaurant.

“Any chef needs to be able to achieve a balance between inside and outside of work — but ultimately, this has nothing to do with gender.”

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