Gender Parity In Commercial Kitchens: Fact Or Fiction?

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, where women from diverse industries are being celebrated, and put on a pedestal, let’s peep inside commercial kitchens, especially those run by female chefs to see if there is, indeed, equality in this industry.

Published On Mar 08, 2024 | Updated On Mar 08, 2024


Chef Ana Roš was conferred with the title of the World's Best Female Chef in 2017 by the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Her restaurant, Hiša Franko, is the only three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Slovenia. It has also earned the coveted Michelin Green Star that is given to restaurants for following sustainable practices. On her recent trip to India, when Chef Ana Ros came for a special pop-up and masterclass at Taj Mahal New Delhi, we had an insightful discussion about her personal as well as professional journey. “I want to use the Worlds’s Best Female Chef Award as a platform to be a role model for young girls to showcase that you, too, can make it,” she shared. 

Chef Ana Roš / © Suzan Gabrijan

Chef Johanne Siy, helms the kitchen at Lolla, Singapore and was awarded Asia’s Best Female Chef 2023 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Chef of the Year (Female) at World Gourmet Awards 2021. Last year, when chef Johanne came for a pop-up to The Leela Palace New Delhi, she had shared, “I was grateful to be recognised. The award has opened up a world of opportunities for me. Of course, I wish that we lived in a more equitable world, but the reality is we don’t YET, and it is up to us to change that.” 

As prestigious as these awards are, these chefs have proven that women-led restaurants can come out on top in the extremely competitive, male-dominated industry. Yet, the heartfelt statements of both these outstanding chefs prompted us to explore more. We spoke to some of the top female chefs in India, and in the world, to understand the dynamics of gender in a commercial kitchen; to keep things even, we also spoke to two of the most respected male chefs of India who have also earned international acclaim, to get their point of view. This complex subject may not get a definite conclusion at the end of this article, but as chef Ana says, it is a conversation worth having as it touches upon some very important topics that certainly need to be discussed. 

As young professionals graduating from hospitality and culinary schools, all chefs are equipped with the same knowledge. Yet, as they start working and rising up the ranks, the ratio of men:women in kitchens starts becoming skewed. So, at what point does this change happen? Chef Garima Arora, chef-owner of Restaurant Gaa, a two-Michelin starred modern-Indian restaurant in Bangkok, became the first Indian female chef to earn a Michelin star. According to her, “F&B has always been a diverse and open industry for aspiring professionals, regardless of gender. There has never been a conspiracy to keep women out. However, the gender balance has remained unequal in the chef profession, and that’s because it’s a physically demanding job.” But having said that, she asserts that most women who are part of this industry have done exceptionally well. 

Chef Manisha Bhasin

Chef Manisha Bhasin, corporate executive chef, ITC Hotels, was the recipient of the National Award for best chef by the Government of India. She also received an award from Marriott International for being one of the top ten chefs in the world, which was a result of a stringent process to pick the top 10 from 4500+ hotels worldwide at that point of time. Bhasin feels that equal opportunities would be available to both, male and female chefs, as long as the intent, hard work and dedication is there. “The opportunities exist as long as one does not play the gender card,” she says. 

Chef Ana agrees. “I do not think it helps the cause of emancipation of women in the kitchen if we emphasise too much on the differences in gender.  The truth is, a woman needs to prove she is as good and skilled in the kitchen as men are because at the end of the evening, we are all equal in front of the client,” she says. 

Chef Radhika Khandelwal, a zero-waste hero and chef-owner of Radish Hospitality, is an influential figure in the culinary world who is actively shaping conversations around culinary and sustainability. Throwing light on this subject, she explains that in their industry, opportunities for both male and female chefs generally begin on equal footing upon graduation from culinary school, where access to education and resources is typically equitable. But, as chefs progress through entry-level positions, career advancement opportunities become contingent on skills, experience, and individual ambition rather than gender-specific factors. “However, the historically male-dominated nature of the industry has meant that female chefs usually encounter challenges in breaking into leadership roles or gaining recognition.” she states. 

Chef Radhika Khandelwal

One of the main challenges for women working in professional kitchens is the lack of physical strength. Large scale cooking invariably involves lifting heavy utensils or huge bags of ingredients. Even in a patisserie, while the end result may look rather dainty, the behind the scenes is not only precise work but is also very laborious. 

According to chef Johanne, the culinary world is changing and the industry is now more equitable than it used to be. She feels that technological progress has, to a certain, extent helped bridge the gap caused by the physicality of the job. Perception of the industry has improved too, and as a result we see a lot more women being attracted to the field. “Having travelled for work and done collaborations overseas, I have seen first-hand how some countries are ahead of the curve when it comes to representation, while some are still lagging behind. This has a lot to do with stereotypes on gender roles and societal expectations of women across cultures,” she explains. 

Chef Johanne Siy / © John Heng

Talking about Singapore, she states that it’s a 50:50 split of men and women in culinary schools (sometimes even 55:45 in favour of women). “But what we notice is a sharp decline over the years especially at the turning point when women are supposed to step into leadership positions. To a large extent this happens because this period also coincides with the time in their personal lives that women are expected to start a family. The impact of parental pressure and societal expectations at this point cannot be underestimated,” she says. 

These societal pressures and the role of women as defined by traditionally organised societies can be a deterrent for female chefs where long hours, late night shifts and working on holidays is the norm. “The job of a professional chef is very time-consuming. Unlike other professions, we don’t have the option of ‘working from home’,” adds chef Garima. 

“And this is where the family ecosystem plays a crucial role. The family must understand that the job of a chef is not a regular 9-to-5 job and they have to become a big support system. That’s the societal change that needs to happen to see more women in this industry,” she says. 

According to chef Vineet Bhatia, internationally renowned Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur, and mentor chef of Dhilli, the modern-Indian restaurant at The Oberoi New Delhi, says, “Gender challenges in the industry do manifest for sure in several ways especially in terms of the physicality. On an average, men are generally stronger than women. However, this fact does not diminish a woman's ability to perform exceptionally well in the kitchen.” 

Chef Vineet Bhatia

He also feels, that the awkward and lengthy hours of work can sometimes pose a greater challenge for women than for men, especially at a place like India. “If the female team members are working late into the night, the organisation must ensure that their travel and safety are taken care of not only during the travel hours but also while they are at work,” he says. 

Chef Manisha, however, reassures that over the last decade, or so, with advanced technologies incorporated in the kitchens these challenges have been minimised, thus making it a level playing field in which only talent thrives. However, chef Radhika feels that the intense and high-pressure environment of commercial kitchens, characterised by long hours and physical demands, can sometimes be unwelcoming or even hostile to women. “Additionally, there may be harassment or discrimination, ranging from inappropriate comments to instances of sexism or exclusion,” she laments. 

Concurring with all the other chefs, she adds that work-life balance can be particularly challenging for women in culinary roles, especially those with caregiving responsibilities, due to the demanding nature of the profession. 

Chef Vanshika Bhatia

Maintaining a fine work-life balance, chef Vanshika Bhatia, chef-owner, Petite Pie Shop and chef-partner, Omo – Soul Food Community, spoke to us just hours before her wedding festivities were starting. While she feels that female chefs also need to step up to the demands of the job, whether something is physically challenging or showing up for the long work hours, she also hopes that women get adequate training across all the sections of a commercial kitchen. “When I was a trainee, I was never trained in the butchery section; instead, I was always sent to the cold section or the appetiser section, and so on. Eventually I had to take the initiative and learn about butchery myself wherever I could,” she says. 

Generally speaking, if physical strength varies between men and women, both the genders also have inherent soft skills that differ. So, can traits like meticulousness or even being more empathetic and intuitive stand women in good stead? “I prefer working with female chefs as I find them to be more dedicated; they work harder since they feel like they have to prove themselves so they end up being better employees than male chefs,” states chef Vanshika. She adds that even at this stage in her career, after receiving many accolades and running successful restaurants, she still faces ego issues from junior male chefs! 

Chef Radhika concurs that women often feel the need to work harder to prove themselves in male-dominated kitchens and to gain recognition for their skills and talents. “This pressure to excel can be a motivating factor for some female chefs, driving them to strive for excellence in their craft. However, it is important to recognise that these pressures stem from systemic inequalities rather than inherent advantages, and addressing gender disparities in the culinary industry remains a crucial goal for promoting equality and inclusivity,” she asserts. 

According to Chef Garima, female chefs have good intuition and an eye for detail. “These are certainly our strengths and they go a long way in this industry,” she says. Chef Manisha feels that some of the finest chefs are also women and that is only because of their talent and passion, and not due to the gender. “It will be unfair to say that their achievements are due to their gender and I believe that they are there because of sheer grit, talent and determination,” she states. Chef Johanne agrees and adds, “The more I work with people, the more I realise that the differences are more personality-based rather than gender-based. Tenacity, ambition, the discipline to work hard – the requisites for success – these transcend gender.” 

Even as we see more women working in kitchens, and earning adequate recognition for their achievements, there’s still more work to be done for this industry to become more inclusive and equitable. Chef Manish Mehrotra, culinary director Indian Accent, Delhi, New York and Mumbai, and recipient of numerous awards, states that as a restaurateur, as a hotelier, or as an organisation, we have to make sure that our kitchen becomes more and more employee friendly. “I would not say male or female, but employee friendly,” he clarifies. While he acknowledges that there has to be a lot of social cleansing to improve the mindsets of people and remove stereotypes, he is very optimistic about the future. “I see a bright and better future. The required change is happening, and it will become even better with times to come,” he claims. 

Chef Manish Mehrotra

Besides emphasising on training and grooming for everyone, irrespective of gender, he also touches upon a very pertinent topic of having suitable and effective laws to protect employees against harassment. “In India, we have the POSH Act that provides protection against sexual harassment of women at the workplace. While women must use it appropriately, maybe we also need an act to protect all genders against harassment,” he says as he leaves us with more food for thought. 

But the actual work to change mindsets about ‘women’s roles’ has to start much before they start working in any industry. According to Chef Manisha, gender biases start from childhood, and as a society we need to be sensitive about this and bring up our children in a fair and equitable environment. “Many organisations have great policies on diversity and equity which is making it conducive for lady employees to function to the optimum. Also, as we see more and more women getting into different diverse roles, these leaders of future will pave the path for the next generation,” she explains. 

Structured steps can also be undertaken within the work place to make it more inclusive and accepting of all genders. Chef Radhika’s solution to dissolve gender biases in the culinary industry is prioritising safety and fostering mentorship in a supportive work environment. “Firstly, implementing and enforcing robust policies against discrimination, harassment, and bias is crucial to ensure the safety and well-being of all kitchen staff. Additionally, creating mentorship programs where experienced chefs, regardless of gender, actively support and guide aspiring chefs can help break down barriers and empower women to reach their full potential,” she avers. She adds that providing opportunities for skill development, leadership training, and professional growth within a nurturing and inclusive culture will not only benefit individual chefs but also contribute to a more diverse and dynamic culinary community. 

Chef Johanna shares that when she got the Best Female Chef award, there were people who made comments that deeply hurt her. “Some said, ‘there’s not really a lot of choices available’. In one statement, they both belittled the award (and the institution behind it that’s pushing for worthwhile changes in the industry) and made someone who’s worked so hard to get where she is feel smaller,” she laments. She adds that people don’t realise that to have made it as a woman and earned the respect of your colleagues in this field that used to be so inhospitable to women is an even more remarkable achievement! She concludes by saying: “I wish for a future where women’s achievements are not belittled this way and no young female chef going through the ranks are forced to drop out of the race because of societal pressure and expectations.”

Photo: Featured Chefs