Cooking and being in the kitchen is one area that women have been doing for millennia. Culturally too, women are expected to cook. They have been the ones providing the family with nourishment by putting warm meals on the table. So, it seems logical to assume that women would naturally also find their place in restaurant kitchens, instead, they are singled out as 'female chefs', who are in a minority in the male-dominated landscape. Interestingly, the first person to ever receive six Michelin stars was Eugénie Brazier—a woman! Yet Alain Ducasse (a man) was given far more media coverage over the same achievement.
Estimates place women as holding only about 10% of executive chef positions in the world of food. How do you explain such a discrepancy in the numbers? We spoke to Freny Fernandes, founder and chef—Monèr, India’s first contemporary dessert bar and bistro—to find out her experience as a woman in the food business.
Fernandes studied at The Culinary Institute of America, and then entered Chef Daniel Boulud’s tutelage at his three Michelin-starred Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan. A stint at Noma in Copenhagen followed soon after. And to her delight, she also ended up making desserts for Priyanka Chopra’s bridal shower at Tiffany’s Blue Box Café. We picked the chef's brains to find out why gender inequality in restaurant kitchens continues.
1. Girl students are a majority in culinary institutes, yet very few manage to create their own niche in hotels and restaurants. Why are our professional kitchens still male-dominated?
Sexism in the restaurant industry in India is rampant. This leads to female chefs opting out of the kitchen and going for the front-of-house duties which are considered more ideal for them. A lot of female chefs are just restricted to prep work in savoury kitchens or production for pastry kitchens because that’s considered “less stressful” compared to being on the line and handling service. Some choose to go work abroad where the pay scale is much higher and the kitchens are fairly equal and free from sexism.
2. Let’s talk about sexism. Do women chefs suffer from sexist prejudices in the kitchens?
Yes, we most definitely do. I have seen it first hand when I was a part of a kitchen team in a reputed five-star hotel in Mumbai. Comments such as ‘Oh it’s okay, let one of the male chefs do it. You won’t be able to do it because you’re not strong enough’ were very common. Male sous chefs would constantly talk down to the girls in the kitchen.
One of them even looked at me and said to this other chef, “We don’t want any more girls in the kitchen. They do a lot of drama”. Professional kitchens in India also see a lot of men from the hinterlands of India who join as apprentices and work their way up. For them, the concept of men and women being equals is a lot harder to digest. Even for me, in spite of studying from the best culinary school and working at the best Michelin star restaurants around the world, I had to train my team to call me chef and not ma’am while they might call someone under me a ‘chef.’ But I have also seen some badass chefs kicking ass on the line at some of the best restaurants around the world! So things are changing as gender roles evolve, and you get more professional female chefs making a name for themselves.
3. Apart from perfecting cooking techniques or working on creative new menus, being a chef also requires physical strength. Do you think this is restrictive for female chefs?
Yes, you do need physical strength but women can lift heavy things too. Moreover, there should be no shame in asking for help when needed. But there is more to being a chef than just physical strength. In fact, physical strength is one of the last attributes to excel in this profession. Initially, even I was frail but with practice, I could lift a 20 kg bag of sugar or flour. Mindsets should change as female chefs bring their own perspectives, creativity, and different interpretations of flavours and textures to the table. They also bring about a sense of calm and empathy in busy, chaotic kitchens. At the end of the day, it’s not about beating the males in the kitchen, but about using our strengths to make a great team. It all boils down to leadership, respect, and skill set—all of which have nothing to do with gender.
4. What do you think about titles such as ‘Asia’s Best Female Chef’ award? Do you think these labels need to go?
I have been rooting for this change for the longest time. But I can understand where it’s coming from—women are still a minority in this industry and we need all the recognition that can come from such a title.
5. Do you believe that media plays a large role in normalising and preserving this gender imbalance?
True. In media articles, my male counterparts have been addressed as ‘fierce’ and ‘passionate’ chefs, while I’ve been given tags like ‘sweet girl’, ‘pastry queen’, and ‘cute chef’.
6. What are some ways to achieve gender equality in restaurants?
We have to talk about it, continue to make women visible, and strive to champion people. In my experience, women are less likely to step forward and promote themselves. We need to encourage that a bit more and support each other.
Gender sensitization could be part of the induction programme for new recruits at large restaurant groups and hotels. A strong message should go out from the management. This will really help to create a good work environment.
7. So what does the future look like for women going into food?
It's certainly changing and the future is looking bright. I have seen a huge increase in the number of women in the industry from when I started six years ago. More and more women are stepping into the professional kitchen, especially pastry chefs. We are slowly making our place in the industry. At Moner, we are an all-girls team. Most of them come in with a lot of passion, willingness to learn, and respect for my work and art. At least I don’t have to train them to call me chef!
8. What is your advice to women trying to start out in the food sector?
As they say, “There’s no crying in baseball”. This industry is not for the weak-hearted. The hours are long, and the work is physically and emotionally draining. And for the first few years, there are no rewards. You will hardly ever get a pat on your back. That’s when you have to keep pushing. Everyone has their own reasons; you have to remind yourself of yours and keep going. In the end, it’s all worth it!