Can’t stand the heat: Why so many female chefs want out of the kitchen

boiling point tv dramas are one thing but life as a female chef is far worse
Boiling Point: The real lives of female chefsHearst Owned

In BBC series Boiling Point, set in the pressure cooker of a hot London restaurant kitchen, head chef Carly (Vinette Robinson) and her wider team at new restaurant Point North are desperate to impress a group of potential investors. The kitchen is hot, and the tension is so thick it could be cut with one of the many glistening knives that are scattered across stainless steel surfaces.

The follow-up to the widely acclaimed film of the same name, Boiling Point (also starring Stephen Graham) follows the extreme, sometimes heart-attack inducing levels of stress of those working in fine dining. It is one of a handful of restaurant-based dramas that are pulling back the curtain on life working in a kitchen. The Bear, now in its second season, took us into the battle to revive a struggling Chicago sandwich joint and raised our pulses as high as owner Carmy’s (Jeremy Allen White) as he attempted to polish his team into the efficiency of his former Michelin-level colleagues. Yes, chef! Meanwhile, last year’s The Menu saw avant-garde Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) take perfectionism to murderous levels in pursuit of the perfectly performed culinary experience.

While kitchen dramas seem to be sating our appetites for thrills - a perfect combination of irresistible-to-watch egotistical characters, the jeopardy of military timing and mouth-watering food - they’re also leading us to question just what lengths and levels of abuse chefs are willing to go to for the illusion of perfection. And though the focus of these dramas has largely been the trope of the brilliant arsehole, the macho head chef whose behaviour is disregarded in favour of his unique talent, how do these ingredients combine when the additional struggle of sexism is folded into the batter?

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“Working in a kitchen is always 100% full on, and not in a good way,” explains Judy Joo, the founder of the Seoul Bird restaurant in London. Having swapped her lucrative career as an investment banker in New York to work in the culinary industry in 2004, she has since worked with Gordan Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal in their Michelin star restaurants. “Wall Street was a good training ground before going into cooking,” Joo tells Cosmopolitan UK. “Being on the trading floor gave me a high tolerance of stress”.

And yet, despite a decade of a workplace she thought had hardened her to colourful characters, Joo was unprepared for the abuse she faced working in fine dining. “It was out of the frying pan and into the fire. To begin with, I didn’t think it was a big deal if someone got their steak five minutes late, compared to trading huge sums of money. But people do get caught up in the intensity. I’ve seen violence – actual violence – working in kitchens. Things were hurled across the kitchen – hot frying pans, steak, oven doors slammed into people,” she says.

Joo was working in pastry at the time, clocking hours from 8am until 1.30am. “We stayed until the last petit four was served. The hours are brutal in finance, but at least you’re being paid handsomely to put up with all that crap.”

Joo found being level-headed and hard-working in the kitchen helped her cope when things became difficult – which was often. However, she saw many other people crumble and collapse under the intense pressure. “I saw people cower and break down in the kitchen all the time,” she says. “Crying was normal. People would just leave all the time.

"The irony isn’t lost on me that at home, it’s the women who are expected to run the kitchen but, in the industry, it’s the men who are most renowned."

Yuka Aoyama, head chef at Geode Knightsbridge, London, cited ill treatment in one particular kitchen which almost drove her out of the industry when she first started. “When you are in the kitchen, you are a solider,” she says. “Kitchens are so male dominated, and I felt I was treated differently for being a woman. My immediate boss was quite harsh to me. I was bullied a lot. He tried to kick me out of the company. I often wanted to leave but I just thought if I quit, he gets away with it.”

With stories like these, it comes as little surprise that the average turnover rate across the restaurant industry is around 75%. Elsewhere, addiction is rife; chefs are nearly twice as likely to be addicted to alcohol or drugs compared to the rest of the population, and 9% more vulnerable to suicide.

At 19, Rosie Chipping already has an impressive career, now working as a Senior Commis Chef at Michelin star restaurant Simpson in Edgbaston. The long hours in the kitchen, particularly in the early days of her career, were so intense that Chipping regularly found herself working without a break for her entire shift. She recalls one occasion where she bled through her chef whites because she couldn’t spare a few moments to change her tampon.

Chipping explains that sexism and sexualised comments she’s received in some of the places she’s worked in can make work difficult. “Literally every day, you will walk into blatantly sexist attitudes,” she says. It's this sink-or-swim culture that professional kitchens foster to weed out the weak, Chipping says. “I think if certain people experienced what I had experienced, they would have left the industry straightaway,” she said. “And I wouldn’t blame them. You either succumb to it or overcome it.”

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Thankfully, a growing group of women within the industry are pushing back and working hard to support other women. Initiatives like Ladies of Restaurants and CounterTalk are actively fighting for and providing space for women to succeed.

It was her experience working in the food industry between 2007 to 2012 that led Natalia Ribbe to kickstart Ladies of Restaurants – a female collective looking to support women in hospitality. “I love this industry, and have found so much joy in it,” she tells Cosmopolitan UK. “But there have been times where it’s been full of toxic masculinity, and the threshold of bullshit you had to deal with as a woman becomes quite high.

“It often left me feeling quite small.”

It’s of little surprise that this environment has been fostered; only about 20% of kitchens in the UK have female head chefs – despite the fact that 60% of people in the food industry are women. While around 48% of students at cooking school are female, they leave the industry a lot quicker – and the ones that stay tend to have lower ranking roles.

When Ribbe moved to the UK from the States, she decided to leave the kitchen behind her and look at more operational roles. Even then, the misogyny she encountered was pervasive. “I had an interview with one big company,” Ribbe recalls, “The interviewer dismissed me and said I could be cocktail waitress. I felt immediately devalued.”

But while some chefs may be able to nurture the workplaces they wish they’d see elsewhere, starting a restaurant requires enormous capital investment. Even then, there’s a high failure rate among new venues: around 60% of new restaurants fail within the first year of opening – this number rises to 80% closing down before their fifth year. Ongoing factors such as Brexit’s impact on import costs, the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have seen even the most successful of restaurants take a financial battering. Added pressure means chefs in training are likely to feel no option but to put up with uncomfortable environments in order to earn their stripes in the kitchen.

"There’s more pressure than ever in the food world now,” Rav Gill, the founder of CounterTalk says. Gill started the community in 2018 to help those working in hospitality to find healthy, happy working environments. “And there are barriers to women. Physically, it’s tough. If you’re pregnant or want to have children or a more even schedule, it’s hard.

“But there are also women who adore this environment, who are incredible at their job and want to dedicate their lives to cooking. Sadly a lot of that spotlight automatically goes to men.”

Now running their own kitchens, both Joo and Aoyama cultivate a healthier atmosphere for their trainee chefs looking to learn the ropes themselves. Joo also believes the industry has become much kinder, nearly two decades after she joined it. “You can’t speak to people in that way anymore. You’d get called out.”

Chipping, Koo and Aoyama agree that a better balance between men and women in the kitchens makes the environment better all round. Ribbe cites the prominence men are given in the food industry which may serve as a turn-off for young women looking to break through. She points towards the Thomas Straker controversy, where the chef posted a photo of the team of his West London restaurant on Instagram back in July, which showed all eight chefs were white men. “When you post a photo like that, it doesn't promote an inclusive environment that makes me want to go and work there,” she says.

So what’s the solution? For Joo, women need to be promoted faster in the culinary world in order to even out the gender inequality. “I have a number of female managers, and they’re great,” she explains. “There’s a higher consistency of the quality of food we put out, the attention to detail is so much better. Women are great in the kitchen."

Gill is keen to stress that change is happening. “There are things being done slowly,” she says. “There are now some restaurants that offer shift patterns that are compassionate towards different lifestyles, where female chefs work early and then finish in time to pick up their kids. It’s a matter of finding the right kitchen who are willing to make things work around your lifestyle.”

cook filling orders at all night diner with several plates of food ready to be picked up by servers
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As hard as it is in the kitchen, Chipping, Koo and Aoyama find working in the food industry supremely rewarding, particularly now they’re in environments where they can thrive. Chipping feels so close to her chef colleagues that she considers them her second family. “You spend more time with these people than you do at home,” she says. “You become very close. And like with your actual family, during service when things are tough, you do blow up at each other. But then on Sunday, when the shift is shorter, we all go down to the pub and all is forgiven. I’ve got such a close friendship group with other people in the industry.”

While television is serving up lashings of drama in kitchens with men as the focus, in reality, women are making great strides in the industry. Clare Smyth has been widely celebrated for being the first British female chef to earn three Michelin stars for her restaurant, Core. Elsewhere, Nieves Barragan Mohacho, chef owner of Michelin-starred Sabor, has shown that flexible working environments can work at the upper echelons of the culinary world, with her staff working three and a half day shift patterns. A less explosive working environment might not make for gripping entertainment, but it’s the very least those working in hospitality deserve.

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