To celebrate International Women’s Day, take a peek inside The Female Chef, read extracts from the collection of stories and recipes championing 30 inspiring women redefining the British food scene. Written by Clare Finney and photographed by Liz Seabrook – two inspiring women –the text asks why the professional kitchen’s historic gender imbalance still prevails today, and speaks to the women turning tables.
‘While considering who I should include in this book, and what I might ask them, I did my best to bypass the more “male” metrics of success – fame, money and Michelin stars – and instead interviewed the changemakers: the women transforming kitchen culture, campaigning for more diverse representation, infiltrating previously male-dominated areas or introducing new techniques and cuisines.’ – Clare Finney, in the Introduction.
Asma Khan, ‘I do it for every woman who cooked and received nothing; I am the face of these great home cooks.’
There are no women on the walls of the palace Asma Khan grew up in in Calcutta, India. There are portraits of men – princes, politicians, officers – but ‘no women have been given that honour,’ she tells me. ‘These dishes that I serve in my restaurant, the recipes everyone talks about – the women who handed them down died believing they were “unskilled”.’
It’s why, when Khan appears on TV; when she’s interviewed in magazines and newspapers; and when she cooks her fragrant, jewelled biryanis and soulful tamarind dal, she does so not just for her all-female kitchen team but ‘for every woman who cooked and received nothing; for every woman who felt their dishes didn’t warrant recognition. I am the face of these great home cooks.’
Her brigade of chefs is famously made up of women who, like her, immigrated to Britain from Southeast Asia. ‘That’s not because I really wanted an all-female team. I just needed people who understood this style of cooking.’ In India, restaurant kitchens are the preserve of men ‘who have been to culinary school, but who cannot tell their grandmother’s story.’
In its dishes, drawn from Khan’s rich heritage, her Covent Garden restaurant Darjeeling Express celebrates generations of female experience. Her ethos lies in ‘the delicate layering of spices, the balance of flavours, that we can measure just by running our hand through the steam and breathing in the aroma’ – and the patience to make the same dish for the same loved ones again and again. ‘You can re-buy ingredients, but the time spent making a dish can never come back. You pour yourself into it.’ Her food brings many Indian guests to tears; tears of recognition for ‘the twists and the touches that come with this style of cooking. They taste the memories of their childhood.’
Khan’s own culinary journey is well known, thanks to Netflix’s Chef’s Table series on which, in 2019, Khan was the first British chef to be featured. The second daughter of a royal Indian family – which itself comes with a stigma – she grew up immersed in food thanks to her mother’s catering business. Yet while she would happily sample the fruits of her mother’s labour, and that of her servants, ‘I wasn’t even vaguely interested in cooking. I had no need to be. I never visualised a scenario in which I’d need to cook.’
Fast forward a decade, a Law degree, an arranged marriage and a move to Britain in 1991, and that scenario had vividly materialised. Cold, homesick and alone most evenings while her new husband taught at a university, Khan craved her mother’s food – so she went back to India to learn what it took.
She learnt quickly: ‘I now realise that by hanging around the kitchens as a child, I’d seen the stages. I knew the balancing of chilli, salt and sugar; the careful preparation of onions for gravy.’ Simply watching her mother, aunts and servants in the kitchen had given her an initiation no formal training could rival. ‘I weigh with my hands. I measure with my eyes. I don’t know what a teaspoon of anything looks like,’ she smiles. In a world in which everything from centilitres of stock to social media followers and Michelin stars is meticulously monitored, Khan carves an alternative route.
This starts with the cooking, which is done, as she says, by hand, eye and instinct. ‘My women have learnt to cook by watching. They don’t have professional training.’ Whereas in restaurants, food is normally batch-cooked and prepared in advance as far as possible, ‘fridges weren’t common in Indian homes. My women don’t cook with them. So what you order in my restaurant is made fresh, and you have to wait.’
Pam Brunton, ‘121 years after the Michelin Guide was first printed, which was before women had the right to vote, the world is a different place.’
On 8 June 2020 Vittles, a food newsletter started during the pandemic, set out a dream for the future of British restaurants; a dream in which restaurants might be judged, not for the name on the door or the numbers on their menus, but for their contribution towards the environment and society. Its headline was ‘Ditch the “Industry”; Save the Restaurant’, its author was Pamela Brunton – a chef who, in her beloved restaurant Inver, offers a vision of what that might be.
Located on the shore of Loch Fyne in Scotland, Inver’s primary ingredients – those that drive the restaurant’s narrative and identity – come from the local area, from small-scale farmers, fishermen and growers who regularly dine and socialise at the restaurant. By ditching the ‘industry’ – a word Brunton used as a byword for ‘the excesses of capitalism, which are expressed commonly (but not exclusively) in the hospitality industry as the high-end of fine dining’ – Brunton has succeeded in creating a restaurant that is truly local. ‘The reciprocity in these close relationships build and bind community,’ Brunton wrote in Vittles. ‘Trust and wellbeing circulate with the small gifts of coffee and glasses of wine, the favours returned, the names on the menus reflecting who grew what, where, according to what season it is. These things are what our business gives us, our staff and community, in the ledger entry where profit should be.’
Ultimately it boils down to value systems, Brunton explains on the phone from Inver, two months before reopening after the third lockdown. ‘We are all brought up within value systems, and it can be very difficult to step back from them. But at some point we are going to have to do that,’ because as they stand, ‘the values by which modern fine-dining restaurants have historically been run serve only to exacerbate the world’s problems, rather than improve them.’
What discussions around gender and the kitchen need to focus on, says Brunton, is not women’s entry into the professional sphere – ‘women have been cooking professionally for millennia’ – but the masculine, hierarchical lines along which modern restaurants, particularly fine-dining restaurants, were established 200-odd years ago. ‘Typically when men take on a profession that has been traditionally reserved for women, it needs to be publicly lauded. It needs to be valuable.’ The restaurant ‘industry’ – and the media and awards bodies that support it – does not represent the broad spectrum of creed, colour, gender and sexual orientation of the people it employs in this day and age. ‘The criteria by which restaurants are judged need to include different ways of viewing the world; need to reflect the fact that, 121 years after the Michelin Guide was first printed, which was before women had the right to vote, the world is a different place.’
NokxMajozi, ‘It is so different compared with when I first arrived in this country in 2004. Women can see each other; are helping each other.’
When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a pie maker,’ NokxMajozi laughs. ‘They look at me like, “What?” And I start to explain to them.’ It’s an explanation that tells how, in the grand dining rooms of the Rosewood London hotel, there is a tall, marble antechamber devoted to pies; how copper pie moulds wink from wooden shelves, and a cavalry of Kitchen Aids span the surface; and how she came from a small village in rural South Africa to be presiding over it all – weaving flour and butter into intricate lattices of pastry enveloping tender roast beef or dauphinoise potatoes, caramelised onion and Comté cheese.
From the moment she arrived at the Rosewood’s brasserie, Holborn Dining Room, in 2014, she felt she’d come home. ‘It felt like such a relief; like a place where I could be myself, and there was respect between people. It felt like a family kitchen,’ she recalls. At its head was Calum Franklin, a man for whom the true measure of success was not just shining himself, but polishing others so they could shine too. ‘To have someone who had been in tough kitchens, and didn’t want that; who wants to change kitchen culture – that is inspiring. But then as well, to have someone who wants you to progress, to do more and better…’ Majozi pauses, momentarily lost for words. ‘Calum gave me the stage and said, you can do it. Just dance.’
And dance she has. In 2018, when The Pie Room opened at Holborn Dining Room, Franklin put Majozi in charge of running it alongside her work as sous chef. In 2020 and again in 2021 she was named one of CODE’s 100 most influential women in hospitality. ‘Before I entered, I thought – I want to be among those women. I wanted to be there not only for me, but for others – because if I am there, women like me will believe they can do it.’ Majozi wants to pass on the confidence and skills instilled in her by Franklin: ‘He showed me, and he showed me to show others. Because it is not just work, it is recognition that builds you. When I tell my girls they’re doing good, I can see their confidence building.’
Of course, Majozi mentors her male juniors, too – but it is the representation and elevation of women she finds so exciting about the present moment in hospitality. ‘It is so different compared with when I first arrived in this country in 2004. Women can see each other; are helping each other. On the day The Pie Room and the restaurant reopened after the lockdowns, the shift patterns meant it happened to be all girls in the kitchen. I spoke to Asma Khan [who runs a female brigade] later and said, “Is this what you feel every day? This joy of women working together?”’
Today, Majozi regards Khan ‘like an auntie. If I need help, she is here for me.’ Yet for the majority of Majozi’s professional life she has been on her own. She was the only Black woman in her class at catering college in South Africa, and before that had felt just as anomalous among her family, who could not understand her desire to pursue catering in the first place. ‘Even my dad, who, unusually, loved cooking, told me it was not a career. In South Africa every woman cooks; for me to say I was going to study it was unbelievable.’ Yet when Majozi’s profession saw her become the first person in her village to leave the country, and then go on to hold a senior position in one of the best restaurants in London, ‘they were proud of me’.
Julie Lin,‘There is a culture of machismo and fear that still exists in the industry – that is normalised. I want to talk about it.’
The week prior to our interview, Julie Lin tells me, she hailed a cab and was a picked up by a chatty 22-year-old who still lived with his family. As he drove her across Glasgow, the young cabbie told her how, during the course of lockdown, he had learnt to cook with his mum. ‘He said his mother had this amazing wealth of knowledge, and that it did his head in that his dad did nothing in the kitchen. He realised that, going forward, he needed to be the change.’
‘It was like I’d got into a cab with an angel,’ Lin continues, laughing delightedly; for this vignette of a Glaswegian cab driver in many ways sums up her feelings around cooking and gender. Though she owes her own culinary skills to her mother – a Malaysian woman who emigrated by herself to Scotland to work as a nurse in the 1970s, and cooked to feel connected to her homeland – her ambition going forward is to ‘get to the point where gender doesn’t matter. I am very happy to celebrate the skills women have handed down over the centuries; the maternal cooking that runs through so many societies; but I think if we are going to get rid of the more negative ideas around cooking and restaurants and gender, we need to ultimately disentangle the two.’
For a woman who has made her name cooking the homely Malaysian food of her mum and grandmother, and who has only ever worked under female chefs, this might seem surprising. Yet she is committed to ensuring anyone who wants to cook like she does, in the style of restaurant she runs, can – a testament to her belief that no one group should have a monopoly over what restaurants and cooking should be.
Everyone who comes to work at her restaurant, Julie’s Kopitiam, is taught the same way she was: through watching, following, tasting and feeling, rather than reading and writing down rules and recipes. It is a ‘feminine’ approach, she acknowledges – but as her mum always told her, ‘it makes you more confident in the kitchen. You know you can do these things with these ingredients, and what you can substitute if you don’t have them.’ Besides, in a small, ‘cupboard-sized’ kitchen like that of Kopitiam – which occupies the ground floor of a townhouse – it’s essential that everyone can do everything.
‘In Asian restaurants you don’t really have the same hierarchal model you do in restaurants in Europe,’ Lin continues. ‘Everyone can do the pass, the front of house and the back of house, the chopping and the washing up.’ It’s a model that makes for a healthier working environment – friendly, collaborative, with a sense of shared responsibility – but it is also inherently more inclusive, says Lin, enabling her to offer employment and experience to people new to the industry.
There’s no denying that Britain’s restaurant scene has a diversity problem. Though there are plenty of people from ethnic minority groups working as pot washers and kitchen porters, there are depressingly few in senior positions. By taking people on who might not have had the opportunity, time or money for formal chef ’s training, Lin hopes to ‘encourage diversity, and create a new generation of chefs that can work in a different way’.
For more information or to get your copy of The Female Chef, click here.