"Why are there no great female chefs?" Over the years I've worked as a food journalist, I've heard this question trotted out many a time. Until recently, there has been the merest sprinkling of well-known female gastro-stars in the public eye, and the notion of male superiority in the restaurant kitchen has too often been treated as a given.
This looks set to change, however, as a clutch of highly-rated, internationally renowned female chefs start to gain notice around the world. With the French chef Anne-Sophie Pic winning three Michelin stars for her family's restaurant in Valence last year, the number of female chefs achieving the top grading the guide can award has now reached an unprecedented total of four. What's more, rising stars like Hélène Darroze and Angela Hartnett are also starting to enter the premier league of chef entrepreneurs, staking a place for themselves internationally among marquee names like Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon. Could it be that at long last the restaurant scene is starting to acknowledge that a woman's place might just be in the kitchen?
The recent development of several female chefs as major players is perhaps the most noticeable signal of women's newfound prominence in the restaurant industry. Darroze, for example, is currently building something of an international profile, both as the real-life inspiration for the character of chef Colette in Pixar's Ratatouille and for her intriguing, somewhat racy book of recipes interspersed with fictional love letters.
Practicing her distinctive brand of haute cuisine tempered with earthy influences from her native south-western France, Darroze has started building an impressive international portfolio of restaurants. In addition to her two Paris restaurants (including the eponymous Hélène Darroze with two Michelin stars), she recently opened a new establishment, also called Hélène Darroze, at London's Connaught Hotel, whose positive reviews suggest that she is every bit as inspired in her cooking as she is dull in choosing names for her restaurants.
Darroze's new premises at the Connaught have just been vacated by another rising star, Angela Hartnett. A long-standing protégée of the celebrity swearer and master chef Gordon Ramsay, Hartnett became well known to a wider public when she appeared on the UK version of the TV show Hell's Kitchen and proved to have almost as gruff a working manner as her mentor. She launched two new restaurants in September - York and Albany and Murano - which offer her characteristic take on classic regional Italian cookery, adding to her already highly rated Stateside restaurant, Florida's Cielo. Add these rising stars to already well-established names like Australia's Stephanie Alexander and Italy's Luisa Valazza, and the new brigade of excellent and well-known female chefs increasingly looks like a force to be reckoned with.
So why has it taken so long for women chefs to achieve this level of recognition? After all, it's been years since people stopped asking why there are no great women writers, and we've finally managed to junk the notion that great art and the feminine gender are mutually incompatible, too. Could it be simply that people are more prepared to give women due credit nowadays? After all, if you look closely at the last 100 years, female chefs have actually been rather more prominent than you'd imagine from the modest exposure they've generally received. In France, some of the earliest chefs to gain Michelin stars were women, with the celebrated Eugenie Brazier of Lyon being one of only chefs in history (female or otherwise) to gain three stars for two establishments, back in 1932. Meanwhile, in America, Alice Waters, who founded the much-praised Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in 1971, was one of the earliest and most vocal advocates of local sourcing and organic food, and has had an influence on the current state of American dining that few can match. With such big hitters in the recent past (though Waters is, of course, still going strong), the belief that female chefs have been largely irrelevant starts to seem more like wilful myopia than anything else.
All the same, it's fair to say that restaurant kitchens have often proved forbidding places for women workers, who have frequently had to struggle harder than their male counterparts in order to thrive. It's certainly been difficult for women to buck their long association with simple, domestic cooking rather than with professional cooking for paying customers. Even today, the most straightforward route for ambitious women seeking culinary success may still be in writing recipe books designed for home cooks or by gaining fame as TV chefs. The raw, often macho working culture of professional kitchens means that females have often been viewed with suspicion, seen as too soft, peace-loving and self-effacing to survive the pressure of kitchen work and lacking the drive to deliver unerring excellence nightly.
These prejudices are hard to shift. While female chefs have often found successful niches in more conventionally feminine roles, such as pastry chefs, many have complained of being sidelined for promotion because they are not taken seriously as contenders. It is also true that typical restaurant hours, with late evening shifts as the norm, have often been seen as a bar to women with children. When faced with choosing either a life where they can cook professionally or one where they can see their kids, it's unsurprising that women have often plumped for the latter.
Squaring family life with professional cheffing hasn't necessarily got any easier (for chefs of either sex), but it seems that the rise of prominent female chefs and the increased presence of women in the workplace may make the way easier for the next generation of female kitchen hopefuls. In fact, Angela Hartnett is on the record stating that she believes her gender has actually helped her, rather than being a hindrance. The restaurant business is so notoriously demanding, she has said, that when a woman manages to rise to the top in such a male-dominated profession people now automatically assume that she must be amazingly gifted. This vote of confidence in her ability to survive in what is essentially a boy's club has provided her with a level of kudos she suspects she might otherwise have struggled even harder to attain.
As for drive and guts, the new female chefs seem to have both aplenty. While the bullish rivalry and feuding between some top male chefs is a sight to behold (Gordon Ramsay in particular has had at least four well known ones), their female counterparts hardly seem any less shy of trashing the competition if they feel like it. Claire Smyth, 29, the head chef at London's Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, got herself into hot water not long ago for saying that she didn't feel in the least bit competitive with Angela Hartnett because "in all honesty, Angela is a one star chef and I'm a three star one".
But despite indulging in the occasional bit of sabre-rattling themselves, it seems that a general lack of braggadocio and a belief in calm working conditions seem to be one of the keys to the success of several women chefs. As they rise to ever higher positions, women are often in a position to modify somewhat the aggressive working culture that excluded them when they were rookies. While many of us might think of busy restaurant kitchens as deafeningly loud, frenetic versions of the outer rings of hell, Darroze, for example, insists on maintaining a calm, quite atmosphere wherever she works, where staff are neither bullied nor hectored.
As she said in a recent radio interview, "I explain all the time to my collaborators that you talk with your eyes. Everyone calls me Hélène. The respect they give me is through the quality of their work. It's rare to hear shouting in my kitchen." Could it be that, rather than being held back in the cut-throat restaurant world by their "soft skills", the more conciliatory approach of chefs like Darroze might actually work better, coaxing improvements out of their brigades rather than piling extra stress on them? Whatever the truth, a restaurant kitchen where the boss is a woman, where no one is screamed at and where the customers still go home delighted sounds like an exciting, impressively radical proposition.