Italy’s female chefs cry out for a Nigella or a Nadiya to give them profile they deserve
Italy boasts more Michelin-star women chefs than any other country, but there are still no female celebrities in a male-led cookery world
Just before lunchtime, Valentina Santanicchio is moving purposefully around the kitchen of her restaurant, Capitano Del Popolo, in Orvieto, a hilltop town in the central Italian region of Umbria. In the middle of conjuring up a new menu for winter, she slams a wooden ladle on to a slab of meat in frustration. “I’m waiting for a food delivery, ingredients that I need right now – but it’s over an hour late,” she tells the Observer.
As the lunch orders roll in, the delivery man eventually turns up, pushing a trolley stacked high with supplies. Some of Santanicchio’s anger comes from a previous encounter with the same man. “He would come into the kitchen and greet my male colleague by saying, ‘Good morning, chef’! As if he was the boss. I told him I am the boss. He never made the same mistake again.”
Despite being one of the acknowledged gastronomic centres of the world which has produced celebrity chefs such as Giorgio Locatelli, Italy does not yet have a Nadiya Hussain or a Nigella Lawson to inspire and promote the cause of female cooking, which remains, in the public domain, an uphill struggle. Adapted versions of British shows such as MasterChef , The Great British Bake Off and Hell’s Kitchen have arrived in Italy, and there have been two female winners of MasterChef Italia since 2011, and two of Bake Off since 2014.
But, said Santanicchio, “these are just games. Even though there are usually an equal number of male and female participants, it doesn’t reflect the real world. Ninety per cent of people in the cooking world in Italy are men, whether as chefs or suppliers. Women have to work hard, and appear strong enough to do the job, to be credible.”
Italian women are revered as cooks at home and they also play a huge role in promoting Italian food “just like mamma used to make”. Around the world, idealised images of women cooking for their brood feature in adverts selling everything from olive oil to pasta. But that’s as far as their TV appearances go – there is no such thing as a female celebrity chef in Italy, at least not one akin to their UK counterparts. And while plenty of women work in the kitchens of trattorias, for the most part they are invisible across the higher echelons of professional cooking.
There are noteworthy successes. At 45, Italy boasts the highest number of female chefs with Michelin stars in the world, and about 4,000 women belong to the Federation of Italian Chefs (FIC). But the profile remains low.
“Women working in kitchens are busy getting on with their job,” said Alessandra Baruzzi, a coordinator for Lady Chef, a unit of FIC. “Many have families and so don’t have time to move around and develop themselves – whereas men do. Unfortunately, that’s how it is.”
Cristina Bowerman, originally from the southern region of Puglia, gained a Michelin star for Glass Hostaria, one of her two restaurants in Rome, in 2009. The former lawyer used to live in the US, where she switched careers in her mid-30s, gaining a degree in culinary art before moving home in the he late 1990s.
Alongside two busy restaurants urants and a street food stand at Rome’s ome’s Testaccio market, Bowerman, n, a mother-of-one, now manages sa a staff of 130. Such is her entrepreneurial eflair, the 51-yearold - is also the subject of a case study that forms part of the curriculum at Milan’s prestigious Bocconi University. But t she hasn’t always been taken seriously as a business woman. “People who I dealt with in the past, who I wanted to buy from or learn from, didn’t give me the time of day,” she said. “Now they are all after me because I have big purchasing power.” Bowerman explained that the problems for female chefs in Italy arise when they enter the professional realm.
“If you go to a trattoria or an average restaurant in Italy, you will find women in the kitchen doing 200 covers like nobody’s business. But that’s labour. People in Italy have an issue with the two worlds overlapping – how can you be a professional, a wife and a mother?”
Santanicchio said that she was in an abusive relationship during the years in which she ran her first restaurant, constantly being told by her former boyfriend that she was incapable of doing the job. “Day by day, he destroyed me. I had to fight him but also others who told me that, as a woman, I was not strong enough for this type of work,” she said.
However, How she managed to defy her detractors, de recently advancing ing he herself in a TV cooking show. Am Among her initial mentors was Iside De Cesare, who runs the Michelin-starred L La Parolina restaurant in T Trevinano, a nearby hamlet in Umbria. De Cesare studied to be an engineer, but later decided to go to cooking school, crossing paths with prominent chefs including Heinz Beck, a German who heads the three-Michelinstarred La Pergola restaurant in Rome, where she trained for two years.
On top of working long hours, she has the pressure of maintaining the standards that come with having a Michelin
‘People in Italy have an issue with worlds overlapping … How can you be a chef, a wife and a mother?’ Cristina Bowerman, chef
accolade, something that involves constantly learning and upgrading her skills, as well as looking after her two children.
She said the main drawback for female chefs has been the cultural attitude towards women simply going out to work, but she is hopeful that things are gradually changing. “I collaborate with cooking schools and have noticed a high presence of women,” she said.
“When I first started out, it felt as if I was the only woman. Slowly but surely things are changing, and now I feel part of the generation that helped to open up the path.”
Italy has produced a number of male celebrity chefs such as Giorgio Locatelli, left. But for women, says Michelinstarred chef Cristina Bowerman, ‘people have an issue with worlds overlapping – how can you be a professional, wife and mother?’
Italy It does not yet have its ow own Nadiya Hussain.