Female chefs who've done the hard yards

By Virginia Ginnane

Lauren Murdoch, head chef at the Felix restaurant in Sydney, says she's never seen it as a disadvantage being female in the kitchen. Photo / Thinkstock
Lauren Murdoch, head chef at the Felix restaurant in Sydney, says she's never seen it as a disadvantage being female in the kitchen. Photo / Thinkstock

Lauren Murdoch, head chef at the Felix restaurant in Sydney, says it's hard for women chefs to make it to the top - but that shouldn't stop them trying.

When she started out in the trade she was cleaning 20kg of mussels every day, lifting heavy stockpots and, as a second-year apprentice, was picked on by male chefs.

"There were a couple of things I did wrong, and they made smart comments and thought I was useless."

But rather than cave in to this bullying, the young woman from Coffs Harbour, thought "I'm going to show you".

These days she's one of a small handful of female head chefs in Australia - and she now gets help lifting the pots.

"Sometimes it's not appropriate to lift this 50kg pot. I'm not going to break my back over it. It's sensible knowing your limits physically I think."

But she's not one for limiting her emotions.

"I do cry in the kitchen quite often. Two reasons - it's genetic, my mother's nickname at school was Waterworks, and it's the first sign of emotional release.

"It upsets the males and they think something's really wrong. It kind of freaks people out sometimes."

Although Murdoch says she's never seen it as a disadvantage being female in the kitchen, she agrees it's hard for women to make it to the top in the cooking business.

"Obviously having children and a family is a big part of why women would step out of the industry. It's definitely male-dominated," she says, explaining that her being single and without children helps.

But left to their own devices, women create their own kind of kitchen.

"I try not to bring gender into work at all, but definitely females can create more of a community spirit than a hierarchy."

This is an approach that Murdoch adopts.

Her kitchen is more of a sharing and encouraging environment.

"It's quite sociable, I like to like my staff, I like to be friends with them. And I want them to enjoy their job. Know them and like them, that's the way I work."

Brought up by her father, she doesn't see working in a male-dominated industry as an issue, "I'm quite comfortable hanging around men," she says.

Celebrity chef Maggie Beer agrees.

"For me it's not a gender issue, it's an attitude and empathy," she says.

Beer, who employs more women than men, acknowledges that the macho approach can dominate some kitchens, but cautions that it depends on the leader in the kitchen.

Beer advises women who want to find success as a chef to "find the place to work that's right for you and will nurture you and you can contribute to and they can contribute to you".

"Find the place that's right for the individual and don't put up with anything that's not."

- AAP

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