While women in the workplace are not even close to getting paid as much as their male counterparts, in terms of representational balance, things are beginning to look up. Yesteryear’s jobs for the boys are increasingly filled by women whose abilities aren’t questioned. Rightly so.
But recent comments from Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge shone a light on an area that is still lagging behind in such matters: the restaurant kitchen. Kerridge addressed the lack of women chefs at a recent festival, saying he was unsure whether his industry was right for them.
More men are employed in restaurants because “testosterone is probably the wrong word”, ventured Kerridge, “but that dynamic of getting things done, that ability to dig deep and be put under pressure”.
Cue every woman who’s ever cooked a pie or put together a Christmas lunch for 25 forcing themselves to breathe deeply, call him a silly doofus and be done with it.
Kerridge’s comments are infuriating, yes, and he verbalises a tired assumption about women in his business that’s had currency for too long. The reason women don’t occupy lots of top restaurant jobs is not because they can’t take the heat and need to get out of the kitchen, boom-tish. But we have to accept an assumption exists in order to change it.
Even as I acknowledge it’s tough to bone a chicken, I’m pretty sure the low numbers of women in this industry is more likely attributed to the fact that some of them might have children around the time they’d otherwise be moving up the ranks. And unless you’ve got a partner who is happy taking on the lion’s share of babysitting (a luxury more commonly afforded to men), it’s difficult to get 24-hour childcare to cover those early morning and after-midnight hours you need to put in to be top of the cooking class.
How has this very obvious rationale morphed into the skewed view that women are too gentle in spirit to deal with the rough-and-tumble of a high-pressure kitchen? Figures like Kerridge speak of the restaurant workplace being “threatening”. In any other office in 2014, this sort of dynamic would be called out for what it is: unacceptable workplace behaviour.
I’ve worked in many kitchens and restaurants over the years (while at university as well as in-between jobs) as a waitress, dish pig and food preparer. I mostly had great experiences and met wonderful people. There was the odd chef, though, who was erratic and rude and whose behaviour was excused because, well, that’s what chefs do.
I’m still not sure how a smattering of douchebag gives that extra zing of flavour to a meal. The kitchen is not, as Kerridge said, a “warzone”. And I’m pretty sure there are other high-pressure jobs with comparable stress levels to cheffing, that would not excuse yelling, aggressive behaviour or emotional abuse.
It’s time for professional kitchens to turn the heat down. Blaming a lack of women on archaic assumptions about their capabilities is as weak as perpetuating the excuses that allow certain chefs to behave so badly. Even Gordon Ramsay has cottoned on to this fact and toned down his drill sergeant act of late. And to that, I say a loud and resounding: “Yes, chef!”
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