Just a short time ago, Irish food writer Trish Deseine responded to a column on the scarcity of women chefs at the very top of the profession, especially obvious when it came to divvying out food awards.
Deseine’s article, drawing on her own experiences over close to two decades in the professional food world, attracted much comment and a lot of it was negative.
This did not go unnoticed by other women in the Irish food world.
Following an introduction by Deseine, Jess Murphy, chef/proprietor of Kai restaurant, in Galway, had attended the inaugural Parabere Forum, in Bilbao, in 2015, an international conference designed to strengthen the role of women in food.
Assembling a few like-minded souls, Murphy resolved to do similar in Ireland and Parabere’s founder, internationally-renowned food writer Maria Canabal, agreed to attend.
Next week, some of Ireland’s leading female chefs, restaurateurs and other culinary figures will assemble in Galway to attend Athrú 2016 (July 18 and 19), a conference aimed at empowering women working in professional culinary arts.
“We started off discussing three, four issues,” says Murphy, “then we realised there are so many more and many aren’t even gender specific, they are common problems.
"The only difference is for once we are looking at these problems from a female perspective first rather than the more usual male perspective.”
Despite the modern mania for all things food, the restaurant industry is experiencing a chef shortage crisis on a global scale.
In Ireland, it is estimated we will require 5,000 new chefs each year until 2020 to meet demand though the colleges only produce 1,800 chef graduates annually.
Then consider figures for female head chefs in relation to male head chefs: 22% and declining in the US, 18.5% and declining in Britain.
A figure from 2014 puts the Irish number at 14%.
Is the hospitality industry missing a trick by not encouraging more women into the industry?
Or does the old canard still prevail, that women are better off at the domestic stove, leaving the pro stuff to the men?
Mary Farrell, Executive Chef at Morton’s, in Ranelagh, is also a serial academic holding several degrees, currently a PhD researcher at DIT prone to underpinning her observations with research: “The problem isn’t necessarily in the education system, because women are on a par with men or higher and there are plenty of women at the lower end in the profession but the higher up you go, it changes.
"It is a gendered world and women have a mountain to climb to get there, they have to prove themselves beyond the standards expected of men.”
“The gender pay gap,” says Canabal, “in the industry globally, is 28%, the biggest pay gap of all industries. The UK is 19%. When you see this, why should a woman go and work in kitchens?
"The industry and male chefs have a lot to gain if this gender inequality changes because they can attract talent.”
“We have a constitution based on Catholic social teaching,” says Farrell, “and the role of the woman was enshrined in it and our perception of women as domestic care workers and domestic cooks holds true to this day.
"So for many professional chefs, a woman is still associated with domestic roles even though she is a fellow professional.
" My research is to open it up and see what the problems are, not to point the fingers at specific individuals. It’s about creating a better work environment for both men and women.”
The professional kitchen has always been an intimidating place, traditionally based on a ranked brigade system designed by army officer-turned-chef, Georges Auguste Escoffier.
“It’s a male dominated industry, very masculine,” says Canabal.
“Escoffier took the military as his model, follow the orders, never answer back, just say, yes chef. It can be a boy’s club and ladies are not often invited to the parties; when they are, they are not always invited to dance.”
Chef Louise Bannon, considered one of the ‘best pastry chefs in the world’ by Rene Redzepi, has worked in multiple Michelin Star restaurants in Ireland and Europe, including Redzepi’s Noma.
“Working in high-end kitchens is a tough environment, everyone is under a lot of stress, especially the head chef, he can take his temper out a lot. I’ve worked in kitchens like that and you either have to accept it or do something else.
"Some chefs just can’t control that impulse but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Some male chefs direct it more at women, others direct it equally at men and women but, either way, it’s still not acceptable.”
Dubliner Anna Haugh, formerly head chef of Gordon Ramsay’s London House, is now Executive Head Chef at Bob Bob Ricard, in London’s Soho.
“I’ve always compared myself to a short skinny man, they have similar issues to women.
"I’m not talking about kitchens with an openly sexist presence, but in a regular kitchen it is assumed women are the same as a short skinny man.
"But if you, a woman or short skinny man, can show you are a little firecracker, commanding your space, showing you can do it, you are taken seriously, eventually.
“Part of the reason for more women not succeeding in the kitchen is we have so few role models, women chefs who young women can aspire to being.
"I was very lucky, though, in my first job, in L’Ecrivain, that I worked with several, strong empowered women, including Sallyanne Clarke.
"They were very shaping for me. I watched them handle strong men, manage them without being aggressive. In fact, they were the same to everyone, great examples of leaders.
“Most of my experiences in the kitchen have been very good and that is down to me wanting it to be that way, I’ve been really focused, I’ve wanted to be as good as I can be.
"The men who succeed in this industry are like me, to succeed you need drive — this isn’t a crèche, the pressure is huge, even in a supportive environment.
"How do you command people’s attention, getting them to listen to you and stay focused? I am feminine up to my ears, but you need to be able to command a kitchen just as much as any man would.”
But still there remain doubting Thomases. One such Thomas is English Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge, who in 2014 questioned whether women can survive in the upper echelons, whether they had the ‘ability to dig deep … under pressure,’ whether they had sufficient ‘fire in the belly’.
“It’s really hard to not respond to that without anger,” says Murphy.
“First of all, I think it’s a macho notion and that’s as damaging for men as it is for women. It is misinterpreting men.
"Don’t forget, men are our husbands, brothers, children, friends — to come out with that comment is very damaging for both sides of the gender.
"Without my husband Dave there would be no ‘Jess Murphy’ anyway. Dave is an engineer who has given me his career, following me all over the world to help me achieve what I want.
"I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was ten years old. Talk about fire in the belly? I had it and I’ve still got it and Dave doesn’t feel threatened.”
Athrú will also feature male speakers and the emphasis on gender equality does not exclude men.
The brigade system may work as it does for the army, instilling fierce discipline and bonding under extreme conditions but, as many former soldiers will confirm, it doesn’t always bear any relation to the regular life.
“I’ve seen male chefs taking a half day off when their wives had babies and then they’re back at work —that’s wrong!” says Jess, “we need a balance between both worlds, a realistic block of 40-50 hours a week, rostered a month in advance, so chefs can really plan their lives outside the kitchen.”
Pamela Kelly, head chef at Market Lane, oversees 24 chefs in one of Cork’s busiest restaurants: “Any organisation that sets out to improve aspects of the hospitality sector for people, regardless of gender has my full support.
"The change is happening, maybe not as fast as some people would like, but kitchens are evolving to encourage healthier work-life balances.”
And finally we come to the ‘F-word’.
“I don’t believe you can achieve gender equality without embracing feminism and it is still very much a term that is feared in Ireland,” says Deseine.
“There is a still an outdated, stereotypical image of the movement that needs to be left behind. But it’s not just enough to call yourself a ‘feminist’ simply because you believe in gender equality.
"You must recognise that women are disadvantaged in our society and then act to change that by changing the causes. My biggest hope for Athru would be that it will enable women not to be afraid of feminism.”
“A lot of people are scared of the word, ‘feminism’,” says Murphy, “but it means gender equality... A lot of my peers, men and women I respect, are coming.
"Even if one of us comes up with a single idea to make our lives in the hospitality industry a little bit easier and to get more chefs back in the kitchen, then everybody will benefit.”