Ahead of Bold Talks Women 2013, Penelope Walsh meets Dubai’s female chefs to discover the challenges facing them in this male-dominated environment.
Food is a great passion for many women, and cooking is an activity associated with women on a domestic level. Yet there are very few women who turn this passion into a career by becoming chefs: many of the world’s restaurants and hotel kitchens are dominated by men. Are men really better chefs? Are women unwelcome in professional kitchens, or can they just not stand the heat? To tie in with the new Bold Talks event on Saturday May 4, which focuses on women, we meet four females making their mark in Dubai’s kitchens to see how they rise to the challenge.
Naruemol Poolkuan, head chef at Benjarong
Naruemol disagrees that restaurant kitchens are male dominated: in Thailand, she explains, it’s not unusual to find female chefs. ‘In our culture, women are involved in cooking from a young age at home,’ she reveals. But culturally, and in contrast to much of the world, women in Thailand are respected for their integral role as breadwinners.
With more than 30 years of experience, in Thailand, China and Dubai, Nauremol has never encountered major issues because of her gender. ‘When I arrived in Dubai, the team looked at me as though they were surprised to be faced with a lady sous chef. But after working with them for a month, they began to understand how I work and accepted me. For my work I have to know everything in the kitchen, then I can show them what I know, and we can begin to trust each other.’
Uniquely, the all-Thai kitchen at Benjarong is female dominated, with recent new male team members bringing the ratio to three men and four women. ‘Women often pay more attention to detail than men, which is important in royal Thai cooking,’ says Nauremol. Generally, however, she says her chefs’ gender isn’t really that important, explaining that getting the best out of the team depends more on how she engages them: her management style is influenced by their individual needs, rather than gender. ‘Men and women are the same. If you love to cook and you have talent, then you cook.’
Benjarong, Dusit Thani Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 343 3333).
Lorraine Sinclair, executive chef at Fairmont Dubai
Lorraine has been working in kitchens since she was 15, including stints in Istanbul, Hong Kong, Corsica, Sardinia and South Korea. She regularly encounters people who are surprised to meet a female chef, and even more so the executive chef of a hotel.
‘There are actually a lot of female chefs, but they never work their way up,’ she explains. ‘They often get to a certain level, then decide to get married, have children and give up their career. In Sardinia, I was the first female executive chef in a five-star hotel, and it was the same experience in Corsica, Bahrain, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Thailand, and China.
‘You have to work harder as a female to gain respect, especially in countries with a very male-oriented culture. As a woman, people automatically assume you won’t be strong enough to be a chef, either emotionally or physically: they have this perception that a woman is a cook and a man is a chef.’
Lorraine feels women are not encouraged to start careers as chefs, and at the very least are directed towards the pastry section, perceived as a ‘more feminine’ side of the industry. ‘If a girl says she wants to be a chef, they’ll say, “Well, there you go love, you go and get yourself a spatula and a piping bag. You can be a pastry chef.”’ She also suspects that a female chef hoping to open her own restaurant would have a tougher time proving herself to the bank manager, and also cites instances where she has been told directly that she is not suited to a senior position because she is a women.
Lorraine agrees that being a chef is tough. She says it’s a hot-headed environment, much like the stock market – a similarly male dominated industry – but she doesn’t agree that women are not up to it. ‘People expect me to be small and timid: well, I’m six foot tall. If Gordon Ramsay started shouting at me, I’d shout right back. The difference is I would actually have a real Scottish accent.’
Fairmont Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 332 5555).
Marie Wucher, head pastry chef at STAY by Yannick Alléno
According to Marie, there aren’t many female chefs because it’s a ‘hard job’. ‘You have to be in good physical condition, and in restaurants with high standards, the chefs are also very demanding, so you have
to have a strong mentality,’ she explains. ‘You have to handle chefs yelling at you, and still give your best. It’s very strict, like the army.’ Marie suggests that men are better suited to this working environment. ‘Many women are precise and quiet, but they can handle the stress better than men.’
A chef for almost ten years, Marie has noticed an increase in females entering the industry, especially in her native France, and particularly in pastry, which she says is now dominated by women in the US and Japan. Pastry appeals to women, Maria says, ‘because you need more sensitivity. It is more precise and about the details’.
The industry is becoming more image-conscious, she says, and the screaming head chef is a dying bred. ‘Now the mentality is changing – chefs are not as aggressive. The pastry chefs in France are top stars, almost like fashion models, and now people are interested in their looks and fashion sense, rather than their strong character and aggressiveness.’
Marie believes the working environment in kitchens is becoming easier, but she also attributes this to a wider change in working practices. ‘The world is changing, and people won’t accept hard working conditions like before. People are more concerned about being happy in the work place.’
STAY by Yannick Alléno, One&Only The Palm (04 440 1010).
Dizola Tamankueno, chef de partie at Barasti
‘Kitchens are definitely male dominated, because it’s physically demanding,’ says British chef Dizola. ‘You have to stand up for 12 hours every day, strain your back lifting heavy objects –it’s noisy and hot.’
She explains that working in Barasti’s kitchen is particularly strenuous as it involves a continuous 12 hours of service.
Dizola is the sole female in a team of 29, and during her ten-year career she has always been the only woman in the kitchen. ‘The other chefs at Barasti are from Sri Lanka, India and Nepal, and their culture is not to approach women. Initially they were shy about speaking to me, but after six months we all understand each other and I’m one of the gang. The men joke with me, but they are also kinder to me, not wanting me pick up heavy objects, and I’ve had that in every kitchen I’ve worked in. I can’t say I’ve been discriminated against or treated differently because of my gender, at least not negatively.’
Gender aside, Dizola believes becoming a chef is a highly accessible career path. ‘It’s one of the few careers where you don’t necessarily need any formal training. You can start at the bottom, as a steward or pot washer, working your way up and taking the time at home to study. If you’re willing to learn and work hard, you can progress.’
Like many industries, she notes, females in top positions are still the minority. ‘Being an executive chef involves a great deal of stress. If a female chef wants to have children, and get to the top, she has to make more sacrifices than a male chef who wants a family. Ultimately, in the future, I’d like to have time for my family, and a good quality of life. That is what separates the top chefs, the big fish from the small, whether they are male or female.’
Barasti, Le Méridien Mina Seyahi (04 399 3333).
Tuck in at ladies’ night
Three spots where women can eat, as well as drink, for free.
The free canapés and bar snacks, such as sushi and tapas, change regularly.
Tue and Wed 8pm-10.30pm. Grosvenor House Dubai, Dubai Marina (04 317 6000).
Spend Dhs50 and you can order a main course for free.
Tue 6.30pm-9pm. Al Manzil Hotel, Downtown Dubai (04 428 5888).
No. 5 Lounge & Bar
Tuck in to free sushi, including maki and nigiri rolls.
Wed 8pm-10pm. The Ritz-Carlton DIFC (04 372 2323).