No room for ‘princesses’ in the restaurant

If women reign in home kitchens, why are so few of them ruling restaurant kitchens?
Michele Muller at The Beach House restaurant at the Park Hyatt Hotel on Saadiyat Island. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
Michele Muller at The Beach House restaurant at the Park Hyatt Hotel on Saadiyat Island. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

Michéle Müller has spent the last 16 years proving people wrong.

As a woman in an industry overflowing with men – and where too many people still believe women cannot be good chefs – Müller shines. She has been neither deterred nor surprised by the challenges she’s faced.

“I’ve seen a lot of men who can only do half the job that I do,” she says. “You have to stand up to other people. You need to believe in yourself.”

Müller is the chef de cuisine for the Beach House at the Park Hyatt in Abu Dhabi. The confidence she emits is palpable. With her blond hair neatly tucked into a bun, she is equal parts feminine and tough and she acknowledges both sides.

“You can’t be a princess,” says Müller. “I’m a lady at home, but I’m definitely not a lady in the kitchen. They say that about ballerinas as well. Ballerinas are not princesses.”

Müller is meticulous and deliberate when she cooks. Like a dancer, she is graceful, strong, exacting. Her composure in the kitchen elicits calm in the people around her. She says women bring elements to a kitchen that men do not. “You need to have a woman in the kitchen because she brings a balance into the kitchen,” says Müller. “The language is much nicer. The cleanliness of the kitchen, the organisation, you need to have a female’s touch. It makes a big difference.”

In the top chef positions, women are grossly under-­represented. Yet, if you recall your favourite home-cooked meals from childhood, there’s a good chance your mother – or grandmother – is the one who made them. Even in 2013, it’s rare to find a family in which the man does the majority of the cooking at home. It raises the question: if women reign in home kitchens, why are so few of them ruling restaurant kitchens?

Rima Sabban, a sociologist from Zayed University in Dubai, says women need to push themselves harder to succeed. “It’s a male-dominated system,” Sabban says. “The more women enter the field and the more they raise the flag and raise these issues, the more we see the world moving into more equal standards.”

The shortage of top women chefs is not unique to the UAE. In the esteemed American magazine Food & Wine, there is only one woman on this year’s list of 10 best new chefs. In the UK, a 2012 survey done by the Office for National Statistics shows just 20 per cent of all chefs in the UK are women.

It isn’t clear whether women are not offered the same opportunities as men in the restaurant industry or if the arduous hours and demands of being a head chef don’t mesh with many women’s plans to raise a family. It may very well be both.

Just three years after graduating from culinary school – where only four of the 24 students were women – Nelly Grossi, 21, has already been challenged because she’s a woman.

“To find my first job was impossible,” Grossi says. “One guy says to me: ‘You’re a lady. You cannot.’ Later, I thought to myself, wait, why not?”

Grossi is a chef at Spaccanapoli in the Crowne Plaza, Abu Dhabi, and the only one of her female classmates working in the industry. When asked about her plans for marriage and children, she bursts into childlike laughter: “No. I’m only 21.”

For women who are ready to marry and have children, the demands of a chef’s life may not be so appealing anymore. Chefs typically spend 12 to 14 hours a day on their feet, six days a week. They work nights and weekends. They do not take holidays. They do not go home at 5pm.

“I think it’s very hard,” says Grossi. “If you become a mum, where do you leave your kids?” She believes head chefs hesitate to hire women because the possibility of marriage and children is a likely, though unspoken, risk. To gain an edge when applying for positions, Grossi lists herself as “single” on her CV.

But even veteran female chefs face challenges from the culinary old boys’ club. The Scottish chef Lorraine Sinclair has faced that kind of discrimination for 27 years.

“There’s a lot of sexism in a kitchen,” says Sinclair. “There’s a lot of ‘You can’t do that’ because you’re female.”

When she recalls the times she’s been told “no”, she is matter-of-fact. There is no plea for sympathy.

“They’d say: ‘You don’t have the experience. You don’t have the knowledge. You don’t have the power.’ The more people told me I couldn’t, the more determined I was that I could,” she says.

That determination has paid off. Sinclair is now the executive chef at the Fairmont Dubai. She oversees seven restaurants and 91 chefs. She gives sound – and simple – advice to the 10 women who work in her kitchens.

“In a kitchen, you’re not a man, you’re not a woman. You’re a chef,” says Sinclair. If a female chef comes to her in tears, she tells them: “Toughen up, princess. Get over it and get back down there and fight. If you want to be treated as a chef, go down there and fight like a chef.”

It’s a competitive and difficult field, but women have proven they can handle top chef opportunities just as men do. Khulood Atiq – the region’s first female Emirati chef – has carved out a head spot at the table in the UAE’s culinary scene.

Khulood was once a specialty chef dishing up Emirati cuisine at the Mina A’ Salam Hotel in Dubai. Today, she is the national chef at the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA) and has released a cookbook called Sarareed.

In her cookbook, Khulood writes: “My goal was to introduce Emirati dishes into menus across hotel restaurants. My dream was not easily fulfilled; it took me four years to get a real opportunity, during which I endured a lot. In the admission exam, the chef made me undergo several practical tests, many of which were challenging tasks … but I was capable of fulfilling the job to its fullest.”

Khulood is also married with two children, proving that it is possible to thrive in both worlds.

But even when women succeed in the culinary world, they still lack the public profile of their male counterparts. At Spaccanapoli, as Grossi crosses the dining room at the end of her shift, several customers look up from their plates. They stare. Upon seeing her in a chef’s jacket, one diner whispers to his dining partner: “A woman?”

Grossi looks back and smiles. It’s not the first time she has heard it. It won’t be the last.

 the salary gap

In 2011, the American Culinary Federation did a salary study and found a significant gender gap. The study shows the annual salaries of male executive chefs were nearly Dh66,000 more than female executive chefs. The sociologist Rima Sabban says the pay gap is a problem in many cultures and at every level, including domestic workers. “When [domestic] workers work as cooks, [employers] tend to pay the male cooks much, much higher than the female cooks,” says Sabban. “A male cook gets almost double the pay as a female cook.”

Lorraine Sinclair says chefs need to bridge that gap themselves. She advises chefs – male and female – to get a benchmark of what similar chefs in the region earn.

“If I find out the person next door is getting a couple thousand more than me, then it’s my own fault,” says Sinclair. “You’re the person at the end of the day that puts that signature on the contract.”

Published: October 22, 2013 04:00 AM


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