The women cooking up a storm

THE phrase “Girls Night Out” has a chick-lit girliness to it, but the series of three dinners hosted under that name at One Lombard Street this week is anything but pink and girly. A celebration of top women in the male-dominated business of cheffing and wine, the series was organised by ex-Ramsay super-chef and head of Murano Angela Hartnett and food writer Fiona Sims. On Sunday night, Hartnett and Gabrielle Hamilton, of Prune in New York and author of hugely acclaimed memoir Blood, Bones and Butter (now released in the UK) cooked up a feast, washed down with zingy wines all made by women. Last night, Clare Smyth, head chef of Gordon Ramsay’s Hospital Road, teamed up with Helena Rizzo of Brazil’s Mani and tonight (tickets are still available), Anna Hansen of the Modern Pantry in Farringdon and Margot Janse of Le Quartier Français in South Africa take the helm.

The Sunday dinner I attended sang with woman-power, as opposed to anger. But the fact remains that kitchens are strongly male-dominated, and most celebrity chefs are men. Often, shouty men. So what’s going on and what does it take to get to the top with two X chromosomes?

“With Girls Night Out there’s certainly no resentment, no anger,” says Hartnett. “It was just a fun thing to do – get some girls along doing their thing.” Are women being held back because of their gender? “I have never experienced that. In fact, for me, being a woman has always been an advantage.” Both Hartnett and Anna Hansen think success in the industry is more about individual temperament – and the ability to work bloody hard – than gender. After all, Hartnett actually liked the brutally tough environment of a Ramsay kitchen – “I liked the severity, the discipline, the whole thing. There was a good sense of camaraderie, so I decided to stick with Gordon. There are some hardcore kitchens run by women relaxed ones run by men.”

But why are there so few women at the top? “Well, maybe it’s the s**t hours, the hard work,” says Hartnett. Anna Hansen speculates: “People expect women to be able to cook – if a man can do it, that’s something to be lauded. Perhaps, too, men are more competitive, more eager to put themselves out there in the public eye.”

Hansen doesn’t feel she’s faced any problems in the kitchen, but she says that the business side of it has led to some dodgy “you’re just a woman” moments. “I’ve never been in a hostile kitchen environment. But in trying to get a business off the ground, people look at you and think ‘oh you’re a woman, what do you know about it, or poor little thing.’”

And the key to success? “It’s such an overused word, but passion,” says Hartnett. “I really enjoy my job – I don’t moan about it. I get a kick out of cooking, running services and talking to customers.”

Hansen agrees: “The key? Work your ass off. You get opportunities and it’s up to you to take them or not.” Surely that applies whatever your sex. To book for tonight’s dinner, go to 1lombardstreet.com/girls-night-out