Success in the Culinary Arts is Gender Blind, Say the World's Best Female Chefs
A lot has changed in the food industry the last decade. What was once a man’s world now boasts more female chefs, including some of the world's best.
While more could still be done to promote better gender representation, what the industry has achieved so far deserves to be celebrated. And that’s exactly what Italian natural mineral water brand S.Pellegrino did to cap its 120th anniversary festivities in Taipei, Taiwan last month.
In collaboration with Gastronauts Asia (which is behind the Women in Gastronomy culinary symposium), S.Pellegrino invited the world’s best female chefs to share their thoughts on finding gender balance and their motivations to choose a career in the kitchen. The panel discussion was part of the Inspirational Women of the Era Summit, held at the Regent Taipei, which also included a lavish gala dinner and awarding ceremony.
IN THE BEGINNING
If there’s one thing we learned about these chefs, it's that they didn’t choose this field with hopes of shattering the idea that cooking professionally is a man’s job. Forés fondly recalled how as a child she loved to eat. Living in New York in the 1970s, she found herself exposed to a lot of novel Italian dining concepts such as fresh pasta joints, opened by immigrants who called the city their new home. “Working at Valentino, I enjoyed fashion. But at night, I would find myself cooking pasta for my friends," she shares, adding how she loved the fact that she was "feeding people".
Chow, on the other hand, was inspired by the TV show Yan Can Cook, while growing up in Canada in the 1980s. It helped too that she enjoyed a variety of delicious food from an early age, thanks to her mum, a housewife who cooked for five families and would prepare 10 to 15 dishes every day. Her connection with food, she says, is on an emotional level. "There’s something about the textures and doing things by hand that really spoke to me,” she muses.
(Related: Hong Kong Chef May Chow Is Asia's Best Female Chef 2017)
It was a different story for Roš though, who started cooking because she “fell in love with a beautiful man”. Instead of taking the diplomacy route after applying for jobs at the European Commission, which was what her parents wanted her to do, she and her life partner Valter Kramar took over restaurant Hiša Franko from his parents. She adds: “I never had a formal culinary background…I just went into the kitchen and jumped in at the deep end.”
Even with the challenges, these chefs are now on top of their game. Roš helms one of the world’s best restaurants, which attracts throngs of gourmands from all over the world despite its location in a mountain valley. Forés runs a successful catering business and an empire of Italian restaurants in the Philippines, while Chow balances her time between her two restaurants—acclaimed Little Bao and modern Chinese Bistro Happy Paradise, which she opened in 2017.
(Related: How To Attract The Right Kitchen Karma, According To The World's Best Chefs)
“With great power comes great responsibility,” quips Chow, quoting the famous line from the movie, Spider-man. As one of the influential chefs running their own kitchens, Chow understands that she’s in the position to improve diversity in the kitchen. “But it’s not like I became Asia’s Best Female Chef and I’m suddenly flooded by female applications,” she adds. She's more interested in maintaining a fair game.
“I have a Nepalese lady working for me who’s really hardworking, but she never asks for a raise,” shares Chow, adding that she gives her the same pay raise as her male colleague who does the same job but keeps asking for more.
Forés is fortunate in the sense that her catering team comprises 60 per cent female and 40 per cent male, and at her restaurants, the ratio is 50-50. “In the Philippines, gender balance is not much of an issue,” Forés affirms. She also believes that women today are physically much stronger, which is why they request to do more than just "girly stuff" in the pastry section or cold kitchen. It's a trend which Forés hopes will continue not just in her business but in all restaurants across the world.
Roš feels that opening up the discussion on gender balance can also be a form of discrimination, stating an example where she was patronised by journalists for placing at No. 38 on the World’s Best Restaurants 2019 list because she’s female. “When I’m a chef, I am genderless, so consider me a chef please,” she asserts.
When I look at applications, I don’t look at gender
She took this to heart when she was building her team—which is an even mix of males and females. “When I look at applications, I don’t look at gender,” she states, as her decision is based on their skills and whether they can manage the unique work environment and integrate into the team. Instead of gender, Roš declared that age is something we should talk about more, citing her American sous chef who's 42, yet is one of the most brilliant chefs in her kitchen.
At the end of the day, these chefs are proud to have achieved so much doing what they enjoy. They hope to inspire more females to follow this path, but they also believe that success in this business doesn’t depend on whether you’re female or male. As Forés affirms it: “It’s not about gender but being good at what you do.”
(Related: How Chefs Ana Roš, Eric Ripert And Tetsuya Wakuda Keep Their Cool)