Celebrity chef and restaurateur Sarah Todd in a candid chat talks about navigating the male-dominated culinary industry and reveals how brickbats from online trolls made her stronger.
Beauty and Brain
In the sixth season of MasterChef Australia, when Sarah Todd was battling it out in highly competitive cookoffs with three strict judges hovering around her, social media was abuzz with banter contemplating whether Todd had been 'planted' to up the 'glamour quotient' of the Australian cooking game show in 2014. "They found it difficult to believe that I was a real contestant," recalls the celebrity chef. "They think a pretty girl can't cook, and I was just like, 'Oh my god! I have been working my butt off to be able to cook like this," says Todd, trained in French cookery from Le Cordon Bleu and MasterChef Australia runner-up at 27. Even those who have dined at one of her many restaurants have no qualms about pigeonholing the former model on the extremes of the 'beauty-brain' spectrum. "I've had someone say to me, 'Because of the way that you look, I didn’t think you could cook so well," recollects Todd amidst incredulous laughter. "These are only the comments I have heard of so I can imagine what else is being said," says Todd.
"I regularly encounter comments on my looks in different ways. Male or female, it happens all the time." Luckily for her, globetrotting the world during her decade-long modelling career, before entering the culinary world, had toughened her up already. "It shaped me as a person and gave me a thick skin to work my way up from the bottom." However, being subject to comments like this can get draining at times. "These things can influence the way people, in general, take you so it can get a bit frustrating," adds Todd on a sombre note. Always one to look at the brighter side of things, Todd quickly bucks up and says, "I don't mind what gets said about me. The thing is, if people weren't saying these things to me I don't think I would be fighting as hard as I am. It's made me even more driven and harder working." Eventually, the 32-year-old restaurateur says, "I am not looking for praise. I simply let my work speak for itself."
As if the insensitive comments were not enough, Todd says it's been a "daunting" five years navigating the "highly male-dominated culinary industry" and have her voice heard. "In the beginning, I felt so out of my depth and intimidated," says Todd, "I study hard and work hard, so I think I am pretty intelligent with the decisions that I make but how do you get that across? It's especially difficult when you're in a room full of men, and some of them are senior to you." Moving out of the professional kitchen and setting up her own restaurant business brought along its own set of entrepreneurial challenges. "I was freaking out. I couldn't even pick up the phone to call someone I needed work done from. The calls were preceded by an hour of hyperventilating and nervousness."
Confidence is Key
For Todd, it all boils down to confidently pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. "You have to portray confidence. If you're feeling insecure then whether it's a man or woman in front of you, they will walk all over you," she says of the learnings from her evolution to the celebrity chef, multiple TV show host and cookbook author you see today. "I just had a meeting with seven people yesterday, most of whom were men and I was leading the conversations. If you had asked me to do that five years ago, I would have probably cried in the corner."
As it turns out, working in a professional kitchen is not as glossy as cooking shows make it seem. "Hierarchy is very strong in the restaurant business, and it was especially so five to ten years ago," says Todd. Giving an insider's view, Todd adds, "In London, it was so hierarchical that you would be punished, yelled at and abused, and all the while there will be someone standing right behind you waiting to take your plate. It sounds crazy to even think about it now."
The restaurant business can't boast of excellent working conditions either. "It's quite rough in a professional kitchen. You work very long hours, you're on your feet all day, and there is a lot of repetition. When I first started working in a Michelin-star restaurant in London, I was pulling 14-hour shifts, six days a week."
More Women Please
Talking of the dismal female representation in the culinary world, Todd can't help but highlight the paradox of women being default cooks in home kitchens but men dominating the professional kitchen. "It's not just in India but Australia as well. It's a global issue that needs to be addressed." Recollecting her first professional experience in a kitchen, Todd says, "When I was working at the restaurant in London, there was just one other girl and me. It was hard."
Even now, five years later, Todd finds it difficult to hire women in her kitchens, and when she does, the attrition is constant. "It's hard to keep them in a kitchen with 15 staff members where there will usually be just one woman. When I am at the restaurant it's great, and I can guide them, but I travel a lot, so they feel outnumbered." It's the same story with entrepreneurial roles in the culinary industry. "I have multiple business partners in all the different ventures that I am part of, and I am the only woman!"
Cuisine vs Pastry
Todd can't put her finger on why the numbers are so bleak and believes it could be a combination of several factors. "Back then it was because the conditions were rough and ultimately women have children, and they do need to take time to do that," says the single mother, "That is always going to be a factor." However, beyond that, Todd believes women are outnumbered in professional kitchens because many are choosing pastry over cuisine. "I am not sure what it is about pastry that is attracting women. Or are they not exploring cuisine at all because they consider pastry a rule of thumb or natural progression for women in the culinary space."
It's not like the glamour of pastry didn't lure Todd. "When I was younger, I cooked a lot of desserts, and I think you become enticed by the way things turn out. But after I studied at Le Cordon Bleu and started doing cuisine, I became very fond of it." Having tried her hand at both, Todd draws parallels and says, "Pastry needs you to stick to the recipe whereas cuisine is a very creative area, you can do a lot with it." The creativity it allows is why Todd thinks women are better suited for the cuisine side of things. "Women are good at experimenting with flavours and coming up with new dishes. They are also great multitaskers, and you need that in a kitchen. So it's a shame that there aren't many women in the professional kitchen as yet."
While Todd believes that conditions in the global culinary industry have undoubtedly improved from a decade ago, she says "there is still a long way to go". For concrete change to happen, "both sides need to support it. It can't just be limited to women deciding they want to do something. Men in the industry too need to look at building healthier workplaces for women where they can feel comfortable and confident to work."