How the proliferation of top female chefs has made the UK restaurant business a better place

Mark Hix

Anyone who has read Anthony Bourdain’s riotous memoir Kitchen Confidential would assume that kitchens are impossibly macho places peopled exclusively by men on some bizarre masochistic power trip.

One passage that’s always stuck in my mind is when Bourdain, in one of his first kitchen jobs, suffers a minor burn – he asks a commis chef for a first aid box, to which the guy raises his red-raw, blistered, seeping hands with a grin and tells him he has a long way to go before he’s a proper chef.

First of all, that’s not the attitude I take towards either safety or hygiene in my kitchens, and no customers want dribbles of chef-plasma in their Caesar Salad. And secondly, kitchens just aren’t that male dominated any more; we’ve come a long way from the times when the only place you’d find women was the pastry section (you do still find some great women chefs there; Emily Dunn who works for me is a star, and keeps one eye on the hot kitchen while she’s at it).

Over the last six months we’ve seen an incredible movement among women in all walks of life speaking out against injustices, from the myriad victims of Harvey Weinstein sparking the #MeToo movement, to former BBC China editor Carrie Gracie quitting the BBC in protest over its unfair pay.

The restaurant world hasn’t been immune, either. Over in the US, we’ve seen chefs Mario Batali and John Besh ousted from their respective empires over multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Thankfully, we haven’t (yet) had any high-profile cases like this in London, and I tell you what – if I ever heard about anything like that going on in one of my restaurants, the culprit would be out of there quicker than you could say P45.

I’m often asked how many female chefs I employ, and I’m sure people expect me to say “none”. That’s nonsense – all of my restaurants have a good proportion of female chefs and I’ve had plenty of women running the whole kitchen operation.

In the UK we have recognised for years that women are an integral part of a successful restaurant. We’ve produced loads of amazing female chefs who have changed the way we look at both food and running restaurants. We’ve had Sally Clarke, Margot Henderson, Clare Smyth, April Bloomfield, Nieves Barragan, Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray to name just a few. And I haven’t forgotten Angela Hartnett, either, one of the most respected people in the industry, who can do no wrong in the eyes of critics and punters alike.

Things aren’t perfect, of course. Training programmes still tend to bring through more male than female chefs, but the whole education aspect of food needs sorting out from top to bottom. Who, for instance, is the minister for food and hospitality? Food doesn’t even get taught at a lot of schools, and domestic science is non existent. This needs to change.

But I see mostly good things from the younger generation of chefs. One of my twin daughters, Ellie, has followed in her father’s footsteps and now works in a kitchen. She worked front of house for a couple of years when she moved to London and didn’t even tell me when she moved into a kitchen in Covent Garden. She wanted to do it independently, and in this climate, she’s been able to do that. She’s cooking in one of my favourite little Japanese restaurants, Koya in Soho, but I’m still waiting for her to cook me a Japanese supper!

I reckon we’ll be seeing a lot more women taking control of kitchens across the country, and this can only be a good thing.

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