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24 April 2014

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Women mean business

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women chefs mean business - main-image.jpgFinding a female chef in charge of a London kitchen used to be a tall order, but a string of high-profile new openings proves that those days are gone. Square Meal meets five of the capital’s top talents.

Flick through the pages of any hospitality industry magazine and count ’em up: page after page of men in chef’s whites totting up their Michelin stars and brandishing their latest kitchen gizmo. On the rare occasion it’s a woman wearing the whites, the article’s far more likely to be a tale of doom and gloom about life in a man’s world. So isn’t it time for some new stories?

Angela Hartnett thinks so. ‘Everybody’s sick of hearing the same old story,’ says the Michelin-starred, chef-owner of Murano in Mayfair, and Guardian columnist. ‘Who wants to hear about bully-boy tactics? Who wants to hear that kitchens are sexist?’ For Hartnett, there are some far more interesting stories to be found out there.

Narrative arcs don’t get much less conventional than that of Judy Joo, star of offbeat TV show Iron Chef UK, the one-time Wall Street trader who now counts Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Bunnies as her workmates at the Playboy Club London. Or of self-taught chef Silvena Rowe who has opened her first restaurant, Quince, in her 40s – with motherhood, successful book deals and a TV career already under her belt. Joo and Rowe are just two of the top female talents who are working in London kitchens right now.

Of course, there has already been a vanguard of women chefs courting success in the capital – the redoubtable Hartnett for one and Hélène Darroze, with her Michelin stars in both Paris and London, for another – but 2011 has seen a bumper crop of exciting new restaurants with female chefs at the helm and there are still more to come.

It’s no coincidence that there are suddenly more women around, according to The River Café’s Ruth Rogers, whose 50% female brigade boasts three Oxbridge graduates among its number. ‘Being a chef has become a more respected job; it used to be what you would do if you couldn’t do anything else. People didn’t want to be a chef if they were going to have to get up at 4am to stoke fires or to be maligned in a horrible airless kitchen. But there are so many great restaurants and great kitchens now.’

The industry’s attracting career-changers, Ivy League graduates, ex-bankers, doctors and lawyers like never before, but what really makes the new generation of women coming through different is that they want to be chefs – not cooks. These women are grafting in tough sections of tough kitchens; they’re getting the best training; they’re working with the finest chefs; and they’re looking for the top awards. So let's meet the class of 2011…

judy joo_playboy club - judy_joo.jpgJudy Joo, Playboy Club London

Formidable Judy Joo, an engineering graduate and former trader, got her break at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay by buttonholing the man himself after dinner there. The French-trained, Korean-American Londoner has since been a judge on TV show, Iron Chef UK, and now works as executive chef for the Playboy Club.

What’s tougher, the kitchen or the trading floor?

The two are pretty similar because everything has to happen now. There’s lots of testosterone, loads of egos and a severe hierarchy. In a bank, however, you tend to get more of a say. In a kitchen, you just have to say: ‘Yes chef!’

You must have nerves of steel to seek out such environments?

I think my stress levels are definitely skewed from working in finance. Every second counts there because huge money is at stake. In restaurants, if someone gets their meal a few minutes late, you’re not going to bankrupt the economy.

Don’t you ever feel drab surrounded by Playboy bunnies every day?

The bunny girls are 10 years younger than me, if not more, and they’re gorgeous. I’m sure there are women who would feel like a fat, ugly, old cow but I really don’t have that complex. I have just as much fun looking at the girls as any guy does.

Would you like to have more female chefs in your kitchen?

I’d love to hire more women but I’ve had only two women come in for an interview. Tonnes of men want to work here though – they even turn up early and just hang out in the staff canteen. I don’t think anywhere else has that problem.


chantelle nicholson_gilbert scott - chantelle-nicholson.jpgRachel O’Sullivan, Spuntino

Australian chef Rachel O’Sullivan heads up the kitchen at Spuntino in Soho – Russell ‘Polpo’ Norman’s Italian-American diner, described by food critic Marina O’Loughlin as ‘a diner that feels like an event’. O’Sullivan already has experience in hotter-than-hot eateries, having spent six years at female-run Melbourne institution, Cicciolina.

How does it feel to be head chef at London’s coolest restaurant?

I don’t know if I think of it like that! You don’t see that side of it, working in the kitchen. It’s a great place to work though. Russell and Richard [Beatty, Norman’s business partner] are genuinely passionate about food and restaurants, and you kind of get swept along in it.

You’re at Spuntino and Florence Knight is head chef at Polpetto. What makes Russell Norman’s restaurants so attractive to female chefs?

It’s just luck actually. I sometimes think I’d like to get another girl in the kitchen but it depends on who shows up. It doesn’t bother me being the only one.

How do you find the London restaurant scene in general?

To be honest, when I came here from Melbourne four years ago, I was expecting London to be 10 times better so I just went ‘Huh?’ I think it’s far more exciting now.

Spuntino doesn’t take reservations. Any tips for getting in?

We get hit hard at 7-8pm but you can stand in line at any time, have a cocktail and enjoy the buzz. I like the spontaneous approach.

rachel-o-sullivan_spuntino - rachel-o-sullivan.jpgChantelle Nicholson, The Gilbert Scott

Talk about multi-tasking. In her old job at The Berkeley for mentor Marcus Wareing, 31-year-old law graduate and former banker, Chantelle Nicholson, was operations manager, pastry chef and cookbook co-author rolled into one. She’s now general manager of Wareing’s ambitious new restaurant, The Gilbert Scott. Nicholson was discovered in her native New Zealand through the Gordon Ramsay Scholarship Competition.

What do you prefer – chef’s whites or a power suit?

When you’re in whites, you’re in a kitchen and you’re in that box. In my suit, there’s a lot more I can do. My new role encompasses the whole venue.

Marcus Wareing is reputed to be a tough boss. Do you bring out his softer side?

Marcus likes having females in the kitchen because of their intelligent approach. Young men can be a bit gung-ho. Women will think more before they speak which can be an advantage.

Do you think it’s easier for women in kitchens now than it was 10 years ago?

Definitely. The kitchens of old were so testosterone-led. You hear the Marco [Pierre White] stories, the Gordon [Ramsay] stories – the tension, screaming and shouting. Successful kitchens just don’t operate like that anymore.

Has your background in banking been an asset in the kitchen?

Maybe I’m more worldly because I didn’t start out in a kitchen. But the biggest asset to any chef is organisation and time management. Cooking is the easy bit.

silvena rowe_quince - silvena-rowe.jpgSilvena Rowe, Quince

Peroxide-quiffed Bulgarian chef, author, TV personality and mother, Silvena Rowe studied library science before giving it up to cook. Self-taught, her diverse career has included being food-consultant for David Cronenberg’s London-based film Eastern Promises and cooking for this year’s Celebrity Big Brother housemates. Quince is her first venture as chef-patron.

How is running your own kitchen?

For me, it’s the most amazing honour that every single food critic who matters has come to see me. And we get everyone from the sweetest housewives who’ve seen me on TV to hedge fund managers, who tend to be very foodie and well-travelled.

Do you think things are getting easier for female chefs?

Society expects people like Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton – the big guns – to open a big place, but it isn’t the same for women.

Do kitchens bring out your inner feminist?

Very much so. You get people like Raymond Blanc, who I love dearly, saying a woman belongs in a home kitchen. No way! Man or woman, it’s about taste, passion and palate.

What’s coming up next at Quince?

The latest thing is Mayfair Mezze at Quince, the most spectacular mezze and mixed-grill lunch. Certain critics have made comparisons with Dalston’s Mangal Ocakbasi restaurant, which gets my blood pressure up because I will be working only with the most amazing, high-quality meat. I’ve worked so closely with the farmer, the only thing I didn’t do was marry him.

rosie yeats_aurelia - rosie-yeats.jpgRosie Yeats-Greenslade, Aurelia

Catapulted into the spotlight as head chef of Arjun Waney’s soon-to-open Aurelia, is Rosie Yeats-Greenslade. From New Zealand, via four years at the right hand of executive chef Nic Watt at Roka, she’s still just 28 but has been in kitchens since the tender age of 15.

How tough is it for women in kitchens today?

As long as you’re willing to work hard, I don’t think being a man or a woman makes any difference. The one thing I would say is that I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and, as a woman, that might become a problem if I have a family. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it – for me it’s a long way off.

What can we expect of Aurelia?

We’re going to be cooking on a charcoal grill, with a charcoal rotisserie for large cuts of meat like salt marsh lamb leg studded with anchovy and garlic. The food’s designed for sharing and the menu will include: Ibérico pork chop with fennel seed; queen scallops with chorizo crumbs; and sheep’s curd cheesecake.

Quite different from Roka then?

Yes, though the idea behind both Mediterranean and Japanese cuisine is similar. They both demand beautiful fresh produce, simply prepared. The Japanese part of my career was very beneficial and meeting Nic Watt at Roka was probably life-changing for me. I’d like to think I might play that role for someone in the future.

How do you find working in London?

It’s the best place I can think of to work. I love the availability of the produce, and the fact that the city is so vibrant and multicultural, especially coming from New Zealand. London is the most exciting place in the world for food at the moment.

Words by Hilary Armstrong; pictures by Stephen Perry

This feature was published in the autumn 2011 edition of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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