Women battle to make the cut as top chefs

While Josh Emmett, Al Brown, Ray McVinnie and Simon Gault are all household names, naming a high profile female chef - aside from winners of reality TV cooking shows or baking matriarchs such as Jo Seagar or Alison Holst - is often a difficult task. Brendan Manning finds out why.
Where are all the female chefs? Photo / HOS, Supplied
Where are all the female chefs? Photo / HOS, Supplied

Women in the industry say the glass ceiling of the kitchen boys' club was broken through in the 90s, however high-profile female chefs are still noticeably vacant from the country's culinary landscape.

Leaving the kitchen to start a family and then never returning is the most common explanation given for the absence, and while women putting their careers on hold to have children is hardly a phenomenon limited to the culinary world, those who have made it to the top reflect a constant theme of single mothers and women with fierce, unabating determination.

Samoan-born, New Zealand Monica Galetti is an example of such a woman.


Chef Monica Galetti.

Having worked as senior sous chef at London culinary institution Le Gavroche since 1999, Galetti is one of the country's greatest culinary exports and arguably one of the most well recognised internationally, having recently appeared as a presenter on BBC's Masterchef: The Professionals.

Galetti says when she first started cooking, few women were choosing cooking as a career and graduation figures from the country's most prestigious cooking school show little has changed.

Since opening in October 2012, Wellington's Le Cordon Bleu has had 23 male and 14 female chefs graduate. Conversely, 22 females and a mere five males have graduated from its patisserie course.

"There's always been more men or guys in kitchens," Galetti says.

"It's a tough industry to be in and I think as a woman ... you've got to be physically as tough as the guys to keep up with it."

Women had the same opportunities as men when trying to make it in the kitchen, however few choose to stick it out to reach the upper levels of the kitchen, with the long hours and tough environment putting many off, she says.

"At a certain point women think, 'you know what, I'd actually like to have time with family and friends, or to make a family'."

Galetti says she has made huge sacrifices to achieve the success that she has and only recently has she cut back on hours in the kitchen to be able to spend more time raising her daughter.

In New Zealand there is a noticeable absence of high-profile female 'celebrity chefs' presenting reality food shows, which chef Michael Meredith describes as bizarre.

"I don't know why they don't get picked... it would be nice to have a woman in there."

Kate Fay, Sue Fleischl, Jo Pearson, Judith Tabron and Sarah Conway have all achieved considerable success in New Zealand kitchens, however they remain in a minority, he says.

"It's always been a male dominated industry. It's quite funny because everyone's brought up with your mum cooking for you right and then when you're out in this professional environment, it's a male dominated world. It doesn't make any sense."

Great Catering Company founder Sue Fleischl says her family were horrified when she first told them she wanted to become a chef.


Great Catering Company founder Sue Fleischl. Photo / NZH

"It was the lowest of the food chain being a chef - it was like, why don't you be a teacher? Why don't you be a secretary?"

Fleischl ended up travelling to the other side of the world to pursue her dream, getting her first break at the prestigious Savoy Hotel in London.

While it was hard starting out as a woman in a then very much male dominated environment, Fleischl says she was determined to succeed.

"You have to really fight to earn your stripes. You just make it happen. You just can't give, you can't be weak."

When she eventually came back to New Zealand, Fleischl says female chefs were far from admired.

"It was, 'you're not going to get a job of any significance because you're a woman and you're probably end up getting pregnant, and you won't be able to carry anything, you'll be too weak to be able to cope with it, and you'll probably bust under the pressure'."

However it was setting up her catering business in 1995 that presented her toughest challenge as a woman in the industry, she says.

"Going to suppliers and wanting to open accounts - they just wouldn't let me.

"It's like, 'you're a woman, you've got no proven history in New Zealand, you're a single mother' - 'how on earth are you going to get a job'."

Head chef of Parnell restaurant Cibo, Kate Fay, says while some women leave the kitchen to have children and never return, that was never an option for her.


Head chef of Parnell restaurant Cibo, Kate Fay. Photo / Janna Dixon

"My marriage split up and I had a 9-month-old baby of my own so I thought, 's**t, I've got to go back and work and provide. I thought, 'I don't want to go on the DPB'.
"It inspired me, to push a little bit harder.

"I look at it now - I don't know how the hell I did that - I must have just been tired the whole time. Every day you're tired, but you just keep going."

Fay says few women remain in the kitchen for 10 to 20 years it takes to truly succeed as a chef.

"It's all well and good to say, 'yes, I'm a chef/owner' - but are you behind the stove every night? Because I am, six, or seven shifts a week."

She attributes her longevity - circa 30 years - to her enduring love for the profession.
"I've never woken up and gone, 'urgh, I've got to go to work'.

"It is a lifestyle, you're not there for anything else, you're there for the love of the job and the food. It's a hard career regardless. I love it."

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