MEET THE NEW COUNTER CULTURE
SWEATING OVER HOT STOVES IN PERFECTION-ORIENTATED KITCHENS USED TO BE THE ONLY WAY TO MAKE IT IN FOOD. UNTIL A NEW GENERATION OF FEMALE CHEFS, SOMMELIERS AND RESTAURATEURS DECIDED TO TRY ANOTHER WAY…
Working in high-pressured, male-dominated kitchens was once the only way to have a career in food. Until these women decided to do things a little differently – and changed the industry as a result
Anaïs van Manen was exhausted. It was 2O18 and she had spent the past four years slaving away in some of the world’s most prestigious kitchens. She should have been on her way to becoming a head chef. After all, she had just opened one of London’s most hotly anticipated restaurants: Nuala – a huge glossy space in Shoreditch with chefs from The Fat Duck and Chiltern Firehouse. Instead, she was finished. ‘I was just worn out,’ she says, her voice still heavy at the memory. ‘Sometimes you end up doing 7O hours a week. You forget to eat because you want to get things done, and the vibe can be quite negative depending on who’s leading the kitchen. But the thing is, as a chef, you work with passion, so you stick to that 7O hours because you want to do a good job. I just needed to find balance.’ So just like that, she quit. At first, it seemed odd to those around her. After all, she had mountaineered her way to the top of the cheffing world’s famously hierarchical structure. But she and those around her quickly saw there were other ways to work. ‘As soon as you get out of service kitchens, there are so many opportunities. I never realised,’ she says with a smile. Now she is in hot demand again, but this time she controls the hours, the intensity and the menus. She is currently the development chef at the universally acclaimed Taiwanese mini-chain BAO; travels the world with fetishised natural-wine pop-up Bastarda; and is consultant at both street-food social enterprise Kitchenette Karts and Snackbar, a sustainable Dalston cafe that grows ingredients in polytunnels. ‘Food is about sharing and when you do all these collaborations you share experiences,’ she says. ‘We live in a generation where it’s way easier to communicate. You can reach out to someone and say, “Hey, let’s do something together.” There’s an openmindedness about it. Which means there’s so much opportunity.’ There have been no 1OO-hour working weeks trying to impress hot-headed chefs in alpha-male kitchens, no competitive fighting for an outdated, Frenchified ideal of the perfect dish while your personal health suffers and your relationships flounder. Van Manen’s approach to food is a world away from the restaurant industry of old, that world of kitchen nightmares. The world where, in 2OO3, acclaimed chef Bernard Loiseau took his own life after (erroneously) believing he was about to lose his three-Michelin-star status; where Michael Quinn, head chef of The Ritz in London, ended up homeless after the pressures of perfection sent him into a spiral of alcoholism in 199O; where Phil Howard, who opened the revered two Michelin-starred restaurant The Square in 1991 at the age of 24, became addicted to crack cocaine as a means of coping with 18-hour shifts. That old macho world was particularly hostile to, and therefore absent of, women. Sure there were a few doing it their own way in female-led kitchens, such as Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers at The River Café, Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in California or Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe House in Ireland. But they were exceptional, almost hallowed figures with a certain amount of money behind them. Those who had to battle their way up through the likes of
”SOMETIMES YOU END UP DOING 70 hours a week. YOU FORGET TO EAT BECAUSE YOU WANT TO get things done”
a Gordon Ramsay kitchen often did so as the only woman behind the pass and in hellish conditions – Angela Hartnett has described her time working 17-hour, six-day shifts at Ramsay’s Aubergine in the 199Os as ‘psychological warfare’. There had to be another way for women to enter the industry. And over the past decade, they have found it: through collaborations and pop-ups, creating environments free from pressure-cooker aggression – and it’s one in which they are flourishing and revolutionising the way we dine. It’s the sort of flexible, soft power environment that Alice Hodge and Ellen Parr fostered organically. Keen food lovers who met as students, the duo created extravagant banquets after a night out, with ingredients and flowers salvaged from skips outside Marks & Spencer. These 2am student dinner parties were the seed for their globally respected pop-up business, The Art of Dining, which has seen them create more than 2OO events, from month-long Abigail’s Party-themed immersive pop-ups to events for the V&A, Nike and Microsoft.
When they launched in 2O12, the idea of pop-up dining was in its infancy. The duo (Hodge is a set designer and Parr is a chef) took the opportunity to rewrite the rules of hospitality, moving away from stuffy dining rooms to ad hoc dinners that were about the atmosphere as much as the food. ‘We can make the business work however we want it to,’ says Hodge. ‘There have been times when I’ve strapped my baby into the pushchair and left him in the kitchen with Ellen; waitresses look after him until the childminder comes. It’s very flexible, very fluid.’ They insist that their work fits around their lives, rather than letting it consume them. ’We can say that a particular [brand] event is great for us, so let’s make it happen. Or, it’s not the right time, we won’t go for that one.’ And such flexibility creates opportunities. Leaving service kitchens gave van Manen the freedom to team up with former Nuala colleague Honey Spencer. Spencer has been at the forefront of the natural wine revolution since 2O11 when, as a part-time 21-year-old bartender with no official wine training but a strong desire to learn, she filled in for an absent sommelier at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. She is now a wine consultant and travels the world with Bastarda, the pop-up concept she created with van Manen, which has collaborated with Copenhagen’s avant-garde Empirical Spirits (where female distillers create deliciously strange alcohol from ingredients such as habanero vinegar and plum kernels), Brighton’s no-waste restaurant Silo and Amsterdam collective Feisty Feast, which puts on supper clubs for inspiring women. Van Manen and Spencer are part of a scene that couldn’t be more different from the brash, elitist excess of previous decades, when professional kitchens were largely the domain of aggressive men. It was the era of Marco Pierre White, the so-called enfant terrible of the UK restaurant scene. Marco’s shtick was perfection and aggression: he once allegedly used a sharp knife to cut open the jacket and trousers of a chef who complained of the kitchen’s heat, famously made Gordon Ramsay cry (and imparted a similar macho, kitchen-as-warzone mentality) and in 1998 opened huge glossy restaurant Titanic directly above rival Oliver Peyton’s starry Atlantic Bar, just to antagonise the latter (it worked).
”THESE WOMEN ARE PART OF A SCENE THAT couldn’t be more DIFFERENT FROM THE BRASH, ELITIST EXCESS OF PREVIOUS DECADES”
It was the era of pain and belittling staff – Tom Aikens allegedly branded a junior chef with a hot palette knife at the starred Pied à Terre in 1999 – and of tragic accidents, such as the head chef of Ramsay’s Chelsea restaurant, David Dempsey, falling to his death after taking cocaine in 2OO3. And while much has changed since then, kitchens remain high-pressure environments run on a combination of volatile tempers and desire for perfectionism. There are still extreme hours for little pay, still misogyny, still bullying. Last summer, a chef at Gloucestershire’s luxury Calcot Hotel & Spa claimed to have had boiling butter poured down his trousers – the culmination of months of bullying by colleagues.
It’s widely suggested that the 2OO8 financial crisis and subsequent recession kick-started a much-needed reset in the food scene, as hundreds of restaurants closed (more than 3OO in the first six months of 2OO9 alone), including those of celebrity male chefs: Antony Worrall Thompson closed four restaurants after being refused an overdraft extension; Aikens shut two of his high-end restaurants; Jean Christophe-Novelli another two; Ramsay yet another two. Space was opened up to a quieter, more considerate way of dining. ‘Restaurants have become way better over the past couple of years in terms of caring for their chefs,’ says van Manen. Restaurants have begun limiting working hours; there are support schemes such as Hospitality Action and Hospitality Speaks for overwhelmed chefs and the mental health charity Pilot Light. ‘That whole collaborative side – it’s the realisation that there’s no harm in asking for help. It’s the concept of, why try to do something yourself when you know that there are other people who can do it better?’ says Sunaina Sethi. It was in 2OO8 that Sethi and her two siblings (Jyotin and Karam) opened Trishna, the Michelin-starred Indian restaurant beloved by the Beckhams, Miley Cyrus and Ed Sheeran. They now run 15 of London’s most highly respected restaurants, with six Michelin stars between them. Besides their own five South Asian concepts (the starred Gymkhana, Brigadiers and two Hoppers restaurants), the Sethis also help young chefs set up their own places that then dominate lists of London’s hottest, from two-Michelin-starred Kitchen Table to one-starred Sabor. Chefs approach them with a restaurant concept, a bit like Dragons’ Den but for dining. If the Sethis like what they hear, they then enter into a partnership, providing back-office resources such as HR or finance to allow chefs more creative culinary headspace, or more in-depth consultation on menus, staff, design and location. It’s a partnership designed to work for both parties equally, with an ethos – collaboration to achieve greater results – that has spread throughout the restaurant scene. At BAO, van Manen describes her job as not just dish development but to ‘keep all the chefs excited, get them involved’. This is a new kind of celebrity chef, one who doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. ‘It’s not just about a restaurant for me. It needs to be more than that. I have no intention of just promoting myself. You are only as good as the people who work with you,’ she says. And on the other side of the kitchen pass, diners have also had a role to play in the food
”SPACE HAS OPENED UP FOR a quieter, more considerate WAY OF DINING THAT CARES AS MUCH ABOUT staff welfare AS PAYING CUSTOMERS”
“IT’S THE REALISATION THAT there’s no harm IN ASKING FOR HELP. YOU ARE ONLY AS GOOD AS THE PEOPLE WHO work with you”
industry’s revolution. We care more than ever about how and what we eat. Dramatic shifts in the UK’s dining scene over the past 2O years – the proliferation of accessibly priced world-class restaurants as well as the street-food boom – has made eating out attainable for more people. And we want others to know that we’re doing it. Through Instagram we signal who we are – or want others to think we are – and that filtered slab of gluten-free vegan lasagne or grass-fed British beef forms part of our social identity.
Bagging a table at the hottest restaurant in town has long been a status symbol, but what makes a restaurant hot has changed. Celebrities once gathered at flashy outposts such as Sexy Fish or Notting Hill’s E&O, but kudos now comes from a table at Darjeeling Express by Asma Khan, who was the first British woman chef to be featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and whose kitchen is staffed by women; or Skye Gyngell’s Spring, with its foraged ingredients and no-waste menus; or indeed The River Café, where a focus on staff welfare and seasonality has kept it one of the most popular restaurants in London since 1987, outliving most of the bombastic male-run restaurants it grew up with. For the women forging their own paths in the industry, the provenance of ingredients is central to their businesses, as well as to their success. ‘Wine is the canary in the coal mine of global warming,’ says Spencer, whose personal mission is to get us drinking more natural wine, made with organic grapes without any pesticides, chemicals or preservatives. Scientists predict that a 2°C temperature increase – one that will occur within 5O years – will mean the end of traditional champagne, with Spencer adding, ‘In 1OO years there might not even be wine.’ But the more sober culinary mood doesn’t mean sacrificing choice. We’re benefitting from the best of globalisation in our restaurants, and we’re more discerning. ‘People’s palates have refined,’ says Sethi. ‘You can’t get away with serving bad food.’ She points out there’s also a ‘huge cry out for authenticity, making sure things are not dumbed down or anglicised’. We want to be educated by our meals, hence the proliferation in regional Chinese and Indian restaurants, which recognise our desire to move beyond chow mein and tikka masala. Blundering cultural appropriation is rejected; instead, the new food mood pays considerate cultural homage. Today, what we think of as the ‘best’ food is not found at white tableclothed shrines to ego where a brigade of men sweat and swear and suffer behind the scenes. It’s found in Taiwanese bun shops and urban farm cafes, in street-food trucks and pop-up restaurants in car parks. For so long women didn’t see themselves as part of the industry, so they fought the system. What they’ve created is a much more holistic, cooperative experience in an environment that welcomes and nourishes anyone willing to have a go. As a result, the industry has become more open-minded and adventurous, more inclusive and, frankly, more delicious than ever before. As van Manen puts it, ‘Food is about communities, about neighbours, about siblings. To honour that ethos and to make it work, you need to think beyond a 45-seater restaurant. There needs to be more meaning.’