Kitchens are very strange places to work.
The workload is relentless, the pressure intense, your work colleagues and customers can be unforgiving, the rewards are reaped only after years of ‘paying your dues’ and a thank you from the chef is often way down the list of two-word send-offs. Yet, in many ways, kitchens are remarkably enlightened environments. You are never judged on your background, your race, religion, sexuality or your gender. All that matters is whether you can you hold down a service. Will you turn up, cover if someone’s sick, stay an extra hour because the pot-wash is in a muddle? These are criteria that mark your card. This has been the case in every kitchen I’ve ever been involved with - it really is a case of if you can do the job, you’re on the team.
So I’m not surprised to hear of divided reaction to the Female Chef of the Year award. There’s no doubt this year’s recipient is a worthy one: it’s the first time we’ve had a winner from the UK and Claire Smyth, who for years headed up the Gordon Ramsey flagship Hospital Road restaurant before opening her own place, Core, last year, is an extraordinary talent. The issue isn’t about the winner of the competition, it’s a question of whether we need the competition in the first place. One school of thought is that gender is irrelevant in the matter of cooking proficiency and therefore any competitions should be open to men and women. Others, however, believe that in an industry traditionally dominated by men, anything that draws attention to the opportunities for all within a commercial kitchen should be applauded.
In the not too distant past, many men have seen the kitchen as the place for women, we just didn’t want to pay them for it. We have five women in the kitchen at The Assembly House in a brigade of 11 and unusually, more than half of 24 waiting staff are men, including the legendary Jamie Gooda, who delivers all our weddings. Forget tradition on this occasion, it’s always been about who does the job best as far as I’m concerned.
More alarmingly, in the same week The Caterer, the industry’s must-read weekly, published the top 100 most influential people in the hospitality industry. Unluckily for some, 13 women made the list, with the top ranking at number 35 (alongside her husband): now that’s alarming.
The hotel and restaurant trade has always welcomed talented people with open arms, whoever they are and whatever they want to be. This trade is open for business pretty much 24/7: it’s an industry that can accommodate everyone, whatever their circumstances and which caters for everyone, whatever their circumstances.