Women Bringing The Heat in The Kitchen

Words: Jess Spiro

The saying ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’ is a hotly contested one. While extremely sexist, outdated and just incorrect, the idea that women are exceptional cooks is not a far-fetched one. There is no shortage of excellent restaurants in Cape Town, and a lot of these establishments are girl-powered. We sat down at the latest female-owned restaurant to open in Cape Town, ASH, with some of the most talented chefs in the country. Who, by the way, just happen to be women.

What is your earliest food memory that you think inspired you towards a career in the food industry?

Kirby Auret, chef and owner of The Flying Boar (opening spring 2016): When I was about 8 years old my parents ran a guesthouse called Bramble Lodge in George. My mom was the chef and allowed me to help assemble the fruit plates in the morning for breakfast. I remember trying to fan out slithers of paw paw (old school I know!) and thinking – I just want to make it perfect! She then taught me her ways over the years. ,I wouldn’t be the chef I am today if it wasn’t for her.

Marijke Duminy, chef and owner of Four & Twenty Cafe: My parents took us on a family trip to Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong when I was 5 and a half years old. The street food blew my mind: sticky wok-fried cockroaches and grasshoppers, things that looked savoury but tasted sweet and my favourite, almost mystical ice kachangs. We had no frame of reference for any of the flavours, all we could do was TASTE! It was the most satisfyingly bewildering and intoxicating experience of my life and I still remember it as if it was yesterday.

Tracy-Leigh Genricks, chef and owner of Four & Twenty Cafe: Cake sales at school. They were the highlight of my week! When it was my turn to bring something, my mom and I used to bake the ‘cookie-day cupcakes’ with glace icing and 100s and 1000s. Although this seems very simple, we only ever baked those for the cake sale and I always knew that they were the best cakes on sale! I kept this to myself but I was always very proud.

Carmen Muller, executive chef at Rupert & Rothschild: Visiting my gran in the school holidays and her always cooking an amazing lunch from scratch. She has travelled the world and has definitely introduced me to some weird and wonderful flavours that I had never experienced before.

Colette Robert, chef and owner of The General Store: I don’t think it inspired my career, but one of my earliest food memories is of my brother making us avo on toast to share. At about 6 years old I was very unsure of this mushy green stuff which he wanted me to eat with him.  I’ll never forget my surprise at the lemony, buttery, goodness on warm toast.  As the saying goes, you can never judge a book by its cover and that’s true for so many things when it comes to food.

Emma Hofmans, head chef at Hallelujah: Probably discussing what was for dinner with my mom. As I got older, I got more involved in preparing dinner and I loved experimenting and trying new things. My mom is an excellent cook – I can thank her a lot for going down this path.

Ash Heeger, chef and owner of ASH : I think there were a number of high end meals that I enjoyed when I was younger because my parents were always quite into eating good food. I also think for me, it was a series of small moments that inspired me towards this career – the perfect crème brûlée, a delicious ice cream, a great roast, things like that.

The San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Awards celebrates a top female chef every year (2016’s winner was Dominique Crenn), what is your impression of this? Do you think the food world need more awards like this or do you think it further singles out women in industry?

Kirby: It’s a bit of a catch 22. I do think it is a good thing though!

Marijke: I think making a separate category for female chefs to win awards implies either that the other awards on the table are mainly (if not only) reserved for male chefs, or alternatively that women are not good enough to compete in the male-chef-league anyway and so should get their own category for pure indulgence and symbolic inclusion’s sake. Either way, I find it pretty distasteful.

Tracy: It definitely singles women out. It annoys me when awards are created specifically for women. Why can’t women compete at the same level as men?

Carmen: I think that it singles us out even more, and why should your gender set you apart from others? It should be talent and your ability to cook, working under pressure, leadership qualities, being a good business woman. I don’t think any of that can and or should be attributed because of your gender.

Colette:  I think it’s a great thing. The more we can raise awareness that women can compete on these levels the more likely we are to see more women pushing for them. It’s important that the industry recognises and celebrates these women to show that it’s possible, even if it’s still largely male dominated.

Emma: In some aspects I think it’s great they are doing a top female chef every year. Dominique Crenn is an amazing chef and she deserves every accolade she gets, but why must they alienate women? There is no ‘top male chef’. I guess we are still in a society where men and women are not treated equally in certain respects, most frequently in the workplace. Then again, if women only make up less than 10% of all of the chefs in the world, I suppose it is good to recognise those chefs who are still pushing their way to the top. I just hope Dominique Crenn places in the top 50 next year.

Ash: I think it does single women out. As empowering as it is to have a female icon celebrated, I think that the award should just be a ‘chef of the year’ award. Because in the kitchen, women aren’t treated any differently to men and I don’t think that it should be any different outside of the restaurant. There should be an award for ‘chef of the year’ and if it happens to be a woman because she’s the best, then so be it.

Did you ever come across sexism while working your way up?

Kirby: Yes definitely, but you just need to stick through it and give the boys as much of a hard time as they give you.

Marijke: Oh yes! Certainly, but not often. I have had a few intense experiences, but have not found that it is an accepted norm everywhere, anymore.

Tracy: I don’t think because I am female, but because I am a SMALL female… I was often treated differently but can’t ever remember feeling discriminated against because I was female.

Carmen: A bit, but probably not nearly enough to have put me off trying to be successful. This industry really makes you realise just how strong you are, but I do think a lot of girls unfortunately don’t always stick around to find out.

Colette: No I never experienced it directly but I did see unnecessary bullying of young chefs who were just starting out.

Emma: It happened. To no extremes, but every now and again a comment was made about being female and maybe not being able to keep up.

Ash: Yes, definitely. I was sexually harassed on my first day at one of the first establishments I worked at. I walked out, I wasn’t going to take it. I was lucky enough to be able to walk out, because it really does happen all the time.

A lot of you went to culinary schools where the majority of students are girls, what do you think happens to these girls in industry? Why is the restaurant world still so male-dominated?

Kirby: I think when young girls think about being  a chef, they think it is all glamorous and slow paced. Just how you cook at home is how it is in an industrial kitchen. Once you find yourself in the industry, it is a lot more hardcore. Hot pans – burn marks, heavy pots – sore back, steam everywhere – smudged makeup. It does take a tough female to stick it out, and suffer through this, but in the long run it is well worth it!

Marijke: As with many high-stress and demanding professions, I think women tend to assess the bigger picture and sustainability of very long days spent in a restaurant kitchen, while also wanting a family and a healthy, balanced life. Men are at a distinct advantage when it comes to making this crazy lifestyle manageable. There is definitely something more to it that must have a lot to do with the male-dominated energy or vibe of many kitchens, but it is tough to put my finger on exactly which element precisely makes women less inclined to stick it out long term.

Tracy: If I were to hazard a guess, there is most definitely a major sense of hierarchy in a lot of high-pressure kitchens. If you are a chef working in these kitchens (male or female), unless you have your own restaurant or are in the most senior position in the kitchen you are working in, salaries in general are definitely not very good. If you want to move up in the ranks and get a top position where you would get paid a decent salary, you would have to prove yourself to be the best on your section and stand out from the rest. Top positions in good restaurants are scarce and so chefs can become extremely competitive, especially when competing for high ranking positions that will be recognised with awards like ‘Eat Out’ or the ‘San Pellegrino World’s 50 best’. When a kitchen becomes overly competitive as a result, it tends to be at its worst in terms of machismo and aggressive energy. The kitchen, since the beginning of time, has been male-dominated and slowly women have filtered into some of the best kitchens in the world. The general perception of rough, tough and often vulgar, banter between chefs in a fast-pace kitchen continues to show its head and many woman find this working environment unpalatable. In my experience of teaching at Silwood Cookery School, a career cooking in restaurants is only a small percentage of a wide range of job opportunities in the food industry. Food writing, food blogging, food photography and product development for food distributors and supermarkets are just a few branches one can explore – many of these jobs are generally seen as female-dominated. There are many incredibly rewarding and creatively challenging career avenues for both men and women that are nowhere near a restaurant kitchen.

Carmen: A few years ago it was the norm for girls to study at chef school, only to marry a few years later and end up baking cookies from home. Luckily it’s changed a bit, but not nearly enough. I think it is still safe to assume as soon as you want kids and a career, it’s generally easier to give up the one for the other.

Colette: I think a big factor is that the restaurant industry is a hard job. It’s hard work, and long hours, and can easily be traded in for things like family – a choice which I think females are more likely to make than males.

Emma: The cheffing world isn’t easy. It takes a special kind of girl to keep going. It takes balls (excuse the pun) and you have to be prepared to stand up for yourself. Besides the emotional aspect, some girls may not like the physical aspect, your hands and nails are always in terrible condition, you don’t always have the opportunity to exercise and eat right, you don’t get to put make up on every day, your nice clothes get worn once every never… its just not a girly job, and it doesn’t lend itself to girly tendencies.

Ash: It’s a very hard industry, I don’t think that there’s any difference between men and women and how they handle being in the kitchen. I don’t think women are any less equipped to handle it, I just think that it’s easier for men in the long run, because, unfortunately, the industry doesn’t lend itself well to having a family. It’s not a 9-5 job where you can have someone look after your kids during the day and be home with them at night, it’s 18 hours a day. You either need a partner who’s willing to be there when you can’t be , or you have to choose and I think a lot of women chose to leave the industry. That being said, I’ve worked with girls who are 10 times harder and tougher than boys I’ve worked with. I also don’t think that girls work less hard than men, they work smarter. A lot of women end up in more intellectual roles, such as food writing and product development. That’s a real female-driven industry, whereas you might find more boys in the trenches in the kitchens.

What advice could you offer to young women starting out in the industry?

Kirby: Don’t take everything personally. It’s not going to get you anywhere.

Marijke: Show up. Keep your head down. Keep your chin up. As the saying goes, “Nothing worth doing is ever easy”.

Tracy: My advice would be for both young men and women – embrace every kitchen experience and learn what you can from all the kitchens you work in. A good attitude, great care and attention to detail, as well as remaining humble, is a good way to get ahead.

Carmen: Keep your head down, work hard for what you want and be patient. Things don’t always happen in life when you want them to, that’s part of your journey to becoming who you want to be one day.

Colette: Have the confidence to trust yourself more in the kitchen and surround yourself with chefs from whom you can learn, every day.

Emma: There’s a difference between being tough and being a bitch. Make sure you can differentiate between the two, otherwise you’re going to have a hard time. You won’t gain the respect of men by being rude to them.

Ash: I would probably tell them exactly what my mentor said to me. Show up early, leave late, work hard, taste everything, trust no one. Just put your head down and get through it. It’s hard, it’s always going to be hard, but it’s going to be worth it.

Quickfire Questions

Biggest misconception about being a girl in the kitchen?
Kirby:Just because I am female, doesn’t mean that I am a pastry chef!
Marijke: We can’t, or don’t want to do, physically demanding jobs and are more afraid of getting burns, cuts, using ‘scary’ slicing equipment etc! LAME! I have seen guys pass out from wounds, when the gals clingwrap it tight and keep going!
Tracy: Male chefs are ‘better’ chefs than females. I know excellent male chefs and I know excellent female chefs. Your skills in the kitchen, patience, knowledge, precision and work ethic is what makes you a good, or a better, chef than the next person.
Carmen: We aren’t tough enough!
Colette: I think it was that women couldn’t hack it or didn’t have the staying power, but I think that’s all changed now.
Emma: That a 10kg bag of bones is too heavy.
Ash: That we don’t have sheer physical strength.

Female chef Icon?
Kirby: Dominique Crenn is definitely doing something right.
Marijke: Elena Arzak.
Tracy: Julia Child. Love her.
Carmen: Gabrielle Hamilton.
Colette: Skye Gyngell.
Emma: Christina Tosi.
Ash: April Bloomfield.


From Left to Right: Emma Hofmans, Ash Heeger, Kirby Auret, Colette Robert, Marijke Duminy, Tracy-Leigh Genricks, Carmen Muller.

To hear more from these talented women, click on the images below.

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