Women’s work

Alex Herbert of Bird Cow Fish has taken on a mentoring role with Tasting Success.

Alex Herbert of Bird Cow Fish has taken on a mentoring role with Tasting Success.

Where’s the next generation of great female chefs? Sharon Aris reports on the difficulties of keeping women in the kitchen

Women now make up a quarter of all kitchen apprentices. With the chef shortage showing no sign of ending soon, restaurant businesses need to keep them all. But they’re not. In NSW for instance, of the 53 Sydney restaurants awarded chef’s hats in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2009, only four had kitchens led by women.

So what’s happened to the great female chefs?

Debbie Gunn of TAFE NSW, and herself an industry veteran, runs a new program addressing this very issue at Sydney Institute. Acknowledging the problem of retaining girls in the industry is “still to do with the culture. It is male dominated, it’s still aggressive,” she says. Tasting Success aims to equip female apprentice chefs with advice, experience and support to enable them to not only complete their apprenticeships, but remain in the hospitality industry. Established in 2007, it has a competitive entry and comprises 35 hours of mentoring with a top chef and can include shadowing the mentor in their workplace, menu and recipe development and attending publicity events or photo shoots. A big part is raising girls’ expectations of how high they can aim: Gunn points out while in NSW there are 18,000 chefs, only 3,900 are female (21.6 per cent), but when it comes to the 12,500 cooks, 5,900 (47.2 per cent) are female, so the program has a particular emphasis on developing leadership qualities through units like media training.

For Kirsten Jenkins, 26, a former triathlete-turned kitchen apprentice, Tasting Success opened her mind to new possibilities. Now working on TV’s MasterChef, she says before the program she was intent on simply doing food styling. “Going into a commercial kitchen with my mentor Alex Herbert really showed me a side of the industry I’d been scared of. Now I think work in a commercial kitchen is fantastic. Tasting Success gave me the feeling there were many opportunities. It was very rewarding.”

It also led Alex Herbert, Jenkin’s mentor and the much-awarded co-owner of Bird Cow Fish in Sydney’s Surry Hills, to reflect on her own accidental career path. “I never thought I was going to be a cook,” she says, adding when she pulled out her Year 12 leaving book recently she was stunned to discover every second reference to herself “was all about food—a dinner party, or a lunch”. But rather than follow her passion instead she ‘did the right thing’ and went to university. It was only when a broken heart led to some time out that she went and got a job cooking, which then led to apprenticing with Gay Bilson. Indeed, Herbert has spent kitchen time with several eminent female chefs, including Maggie Beer and Christine Manfield—something she again says “wasn’t intentional, it just panned out that way.”

But, she adds, this organic approach to career building—she has had two children, and with that, two breaks from the kitchen and a stint in retail—means she hasn’t burnt out either. It also meant that when she decided to resurrect Bird Cow Fish she went in with her eyes open. “I knew I’d have to do six days and nights for a year. I knew that’s what it would take. But after that first year I could say no to a point. Owning a business is all about being in control.

“I’m mortgaged to the hilt so I’ve bought myself a very expensive job,” she jokes. “But it’s on my own terms.”  But she also enjoys the process of owning a business. “I manage the accounts, the marketing, the HR, everything. I really enjoy that side of it. I just struggle with the timing—cook, mother, general manager.”

She says, too, while the industry is demanding, things are changing. “It doesn’t have to be 15-hour days, 70-hour weeks. We’ve set real limits as to what is a reasonable work week.”

Mentoring with Tasting Success is one way she hopes to get this message out. She’s also recently been invited to speak about a career in hospitality at one of the more exclusive girls schools. “No-one ever suggested I should make a career from this. The great thing about the hospitality industry is that it’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a great place for women to work as it provides huge flexibility in hours. You can work one or two nights or one day on a weekend, with so much work part-time or casual. There are huge opportunities for women.”

John Hart, CEO of Restaurant and Catering Australia agrees. “The restaurant and catering industry is one of the most female-dominated industries of any.” He adds that with a predominance of young females working part-time in the workforce, it’s also more affected by maternity leave than most others. “Both the National Employment Standards and paid maternity leave will result in longer periods of maternity leave. This may ensure greater retention of female employees in the longer term but will surely result in longer periods of absence. This may be a mixed blessing in an industry where staff must be replaced during leave periods, as it is necessary to maintain levels of service to customers.”

Already at that coalface is Waddington’s at Kergunyah, a refurbished barn-turned-restaurant in two acres of nursery and kitchen garden in North East Victoria. Last year their chef Natalie Watkins, 23, then a second-year apprentice, won the Thierry Marx Award Career Development Award for apprentice chefs. At the event she was lauded as having “the capacity to become one of Australia’s leading chefs, and confidence and skills beyond her years of experience.” She was also pregnant with her second child, something that in the past would have stalled—if not ended—her career.

Watkins however has had the good fortune to be employed by Jan Waddington. “She is very creative, very focused. She’s won a lot of other awards,” says her employer approvingly, adding it’s simply a fact of life if you employ young women that some of them may want to have a family. The trick, she says, is making the kitchen work throughout that period. “We also have to survive when she’s not here. Ninety per cent of the time I can manage myself, but with the big functions I need more help, so I’ve been training other people in things like plating food. We’d always envisaged Natalie taking on that role. It’s very important to have other people you can call on.”

It helps they only open Thursday to Sunday so the position was always part-time. It’s also important that Natalie is confident her future goals remain oriented towards Waddington’s. “Definitely I would like to move forward at Waddington’s—it has the career and the lifestyle. Everything I want is there,” she says.

While it’s still a work-in-progress, slowly they are all working to get Natalie back into the kitchen. The baby has come to work on several occasions and Natalie is trialling the odd day back. In August she will decamp to Bordeaux, France, with the two kids and husband in tow to take up the prize of working for a month under the guidance and direction of Thierry Marx. “You have to have the passion to keep doing it,” says Natalie, “It’s a lot of hard work. Rod and Jan have been very accommodating, if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I am.”

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