Gilles Pudlowski’s book Great Women Chefs of Europe has, since it was published at the end of last year by Flammarion, prompted two distinct reactions. The first and most obvious is the desire to visit all of the restaurants listed which range in alphabetical order from Elena Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain to Luisa Valazza in Soriso in northern Italy, something I hope to achieve one day.
The other, more serious, has been to give some thought to why there are not more great female professional chefs – I have added the word professional to avoid giving any insult to anyone’s highly influential mothers or grandmothers. It is widely accepted that most of the world’s top chefs are men and that furthermore no national restaurant industry does enough to encourage vital young recruits by going out of its way to entice more women not just to join their ranks but also to stay in them.
But as I researched this topic it became obvious that as many women seem to reach the top of the culinary profession as any other and that the reasons invariably given as to why there are not more female chefs may happily be no longer valid. Although what did emerge was one particular reason, a function of timing as much as anything else, which may explain why there are not even more top female chefs today.
It also struck me, having read this book, that although I have the privilege of being married to a highly successful, professional woman in a related field, and that over the past generation more women have emerged to occupy successful and influential positions, it would be just as difficult for another author to compile a book about 25 female CEOs of FTSE 100 companies. And the amount of coverage which has surrounded the recent appointment of Indra Nooyi as CEO of Pepsi Cola in the US would suggest that the number of top female chefs across Europe (and with Alice Waters and Nancy Silverton in the US, Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer in Australia wonderful exemplars across the world) may actually be higher than the number of women at the top of any other equally demanding profession.
Several reasons are usually cited why it is difficult for women to become top chefs. The first and most long standing is that the work, particularly in French kitchens with the lifting of large, heavy pans of stocks and sauces, is too physically gruelling, something for which women simply don’t have the stamina. This may have been the case in the past but is certainly not today, happily, and my only direct experience of working with a female Head Chef left me with the distinct impression that she was far tougher than all the men under her.
The second, and more pernicious, is the bullying that is invariably endemic in mainly male teams. Happily, this finally seems to be on the wane as young chefs are now protected by legislation in the workplace and, as a result of the need to encourage the best talent, restaurateurs and chefs refuse to tolerate such malpractice. But again from experience I have witnessed female Head Chefs being as demanding and authoritarian as any man; to maintain their reputations top chefs will want their dishes cooked only one particular way.
And then, of course, there is the fact that female chefs become mothers which from an employer’s perspective may make them a less attractive proposition as an employee from the outset. But while this applies to all professions it has, I believe, a particular resonance for aspiring female chefs.
Whereas their counterparts in the theatre, sport or music tend to concentrate on their talents from an early age, most female chefs only take to the stoves when they leave school and then spend the subsequent decade undergoing a thorough and often peripatetic apprenticeship. As a result, when they have finally earned their spurs, gained enough confidence to want to see their name above the door and are in a strong enough position to attract the right financial partners, they are at the precise time in their lives when the choice is, ultimately, culinary fame or love and, most certainly, a very well-fed husband and children.
All the chefs highlighted in this book have overcome these challenges in their different ways and in the process have brought three distinctive contributions not just to their particular restaurants but also to how we eat in general. The first is an obvious sense of freshness and lightness of touch in their approach to writing a menu and creating their dishes, an approach that will invariably leave us feeling good at the end of any meal in one of their restaurants. The second is a far stronger feeling for the rhythm of the seasons and what is best and most exciting to eat right at this moment, an open approach which is easy to borrow and use at home. Finally, there is the particularly intuitive and sensitive approach which these talented women bring to their brigades whether it is watching Rose Gray lecturing her staff by her vegetable garden at the River Café on the ingredients in that day’s menu, following the ever-concerned Sally Clarke as she slips from behind the kitchen in her restaurant to behind the counter in her adjacent shop or watching Sam Clarke (at London’s Moro, not mentioned in this book sadly) lead her team from behind her open kitchen. There is simply no need, or place, for screaming, shouting or swearing in any of these kitchens.
This book did, however lead me to two hitherto unknown restaurants in Paris which more than exemplified the qualities and attractions of these female chefs. The first was the tiny Casa Olympe in the 9th, home to Olympe Versini, one of the first women to gain a Michelin star back in the 1970’s. This cramped dining room is also run by a woman, who could best be described as a ‘martinet’ but, by contrast, Olympe’s menu brims with generosity and flavour, most notably the small blackboard of daily specials which included fricasseeés of this autumn’s first cepes and girolles served straight from the kitchen in the frying pans in which they had been cooked. The second was the radically different Flora on the Avenue George V where Flora Mikula brings the sunshine of the south of France to this chic shopping street in a series of intimate dining rooms.
But as I peered into the cramped kitchen at Casa Olympe I could not help noticing that it was a young male chef at the stoves preparing the next table’s order. It would be a gross over-simplification to deduce from the title of this book that the success of these chefs has been entirely due to women, however talented, and those I spoke to happily acknowledged the role numerous men have played in their success. It may well be that it will be a result of such co-operation that the next generation of top female chefs will appear. It was while working for Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers that a young Jamie Oliver was first spotted by, as it happens, a female television producer. It could well be possible that it will be from his Fifteen training academies, with outposts now in London, Amsterdam, Cornwall and Melbourne, Australia that the next wave of top female chefs will appear to rival if not out-class those described in this engaging book.
Great Women Chefs of Europe, Flammarion £24.95, US$45, 40 euros