If we were to play a game of word association, what would spring to mind when I said "chef"? Driven? Egotistical? Aggressive? All of the above? Either way, I'd venture to guess that masculine or macho will make an appearance on that list long before female or feminine. The word "cook", on the other hand, is likely to throw up different results. While traditionally women have been the ones charged with preparing food within the home, the professional kitchen has long been a male-dominated space.
A successful chef must possess several attributes - a well-honed palate, an artistic mind, a certain dexterity with a knife - but, first and foremost, they need to be devoted to their job. The hours are long, the pay (until you reach the upper echelons) doesn't reflect this and the pressure is relentless. In a high-end restaurant, perfection is a must - every dish, every day.
When Clare Smyth was appointed the head chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in 2007, she became the first woman in the UK to run a three-Michelin-star kitchen. I spent a week working with Smyth a couple of years ago (assisting her on a television show) and she has the kind of supreme talent, poised calm and steely determination that sets her apart from everyone else in the room. Smyth admits that "historically, kitchens have not attracted as many women as men due to the long working hours and manual labour involved" but adds that she thinks things are changing. When I ask her what it takes to succeed as a female chef, she doesn't miss a beat, saying that it's exactly the same as for the men: "Dedication, passion and hard work."
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The atmosphere in a Michelin-star kitchen is, in my experience, competitive and fraught with tension. For a commis (junior) chef, thick skin and an ability to knuckle down, take everything in and remain unfazed by barbed comments, shouts of frustration and the occasional swiftly delivered insult are invaluable. Being able to survive on very little sleep and still function at something close to optimum also helps.
Make what you will of it, but brute strength is an asset. Chefs haul sacks of potatoes up stairs, lift large pans filled with boiling water and lug around bones intended for stock, all day long. Thanks to simple biology, this puts most women at a disadvantage. Bat your eyelids and expect help from male colleagues and you're likely to be severely disappointed. Proving yourself is essential here.
Most successful chefs thrive on pressure, are at their best when they are out to prove themselves, and love the buzz and adrenalin rush of service - traits that are specific to individuals certainly, but are not determined by gender. There's no doubt that this line of work demands sacrifices. The hours are antisocial and friends who aren't part of the industry often struggle to understand the desire to pursue a career that is so physically and mentally draining. In order to get to the top of the pile, Smyth says that: "There are sacrifices that need to be made, but these are the same sacrifices a man would need to make" .
Despite this, you can't help but feel that at some point, gender must come into the equation. Cheffing consumes your life. Women who work in the industry, but dream of having children are surely very aware that they have a far shorter window of opportunity for doing so than their male counterparts.
For me this is the crux of the matter and goes a long way towards explaining the absence of women from this particular sphere. It's difficult for women to have it all (by which I mean a thriving personal and professional life) at the best of times, and working in a professional kitchen exacerbates the issue further.
That's not so say that combining the two is an impossibility, though. The French chef Hélène Darroze runs two successful restaurants, one in Paris and the other at The Connaught hotel in London (recently awarded its second Michelin star).
Darroze is a single mother with two adopted children and she commutes between countries on a weekly basis, with her young family in tow and copes with a schedule that must be beyond complicated. In the UK edition of this year's guide, more female chefs than ever before were awarded Michelin stars. This move was widely celebrated in the UK, with the media heralding an end to the dominance of males in the professional kitchen.
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Angela Hartnett, herself a feted female chef and holder of an all-important star, was quick to contextualise this: "It's great that a record number of women have been awarded Michelin stars this year, but if you look at the list and compare it to the men, we're not breaking down barriers. There are a lot more women coming in and the industry is changing, for the better. It's just that more needs to be done." She goes on to say that: "I don't think we should be given preferential treatment in order to try to even things out. You should be judged on how you cook - that alone".
This is a salient point and is particularly relevant when you consider a recent move by the organisers of the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards. For the past 10 years, this annual event has seen an academy of voters (made up of leaders in the industry) from 27 regions across the world, celebrating what they believe to be the very best restaurants. Within culinary circles and beyond, the awards have clout - to win a place in the top 50, let alone the top 10, is a noteworthy achievement.
Earlier on in the year, Restaurant magazine (which organises the event) announced that in 2011 there would be a new award for the World's Best Female Chef. The intention, they explained, was to "shine the spotlight on exceptional female chefs whose cooking delights and excites the toughest critics across the globe". The award itself is sponsored by Veuve Clicquot and was apparently inspired by Madame Clicquot, who, in 1805, successfully took over her husband's business after he died.
There is no doubt that the women who made the shortlist (Anne-Sophie Pic from Maison Pic in France, Nadia Santini of Italy's Del Pescatore and Elena Arzak from Arzak in Spain) are supremely talented chefs.
But you have to consider whether singling out the women in this manner is an entirely positive move. Such an act smacks of the notion that these female chefs are not being celebrated for their achievements (based on the food their restaurants produce), but for doing so well in what is still deemed a man's world.
When I mentioned this to a number of male chefs, they shot me down, insisting that any move to draw attention to the accomplishments of their female contemporaries should be welcomed. Interestingly though, Smyth shares my viewpoint. "I don't understand the need to differentiate between men and women for the award. It is odd and old fashioned, particularly as there is not a separate award for the best male chef in the world." She adds: "Some of the best chefs in the world are women - there is no need to separate them from men for a competition. Everyone wants an even playing field and to be recognised for their skill rather than their gender."
The winner of the award was announced on Monday. Those who are dubious about its intentions can at least take solace in the fact that Anne-Sophie Pic is a very fine, self-taught chef who is already known and respected all over the world - not for her gender, but for her exquisite style of cooking.